Are the Terrorists Winning a Year After ‘Charlie Hebdo’?

A year after the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ slaughter, France is a different place. But the jihadis’ plan may have backfired.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

PARIS — “I do jihad! I’m gonna fuck you! I’m gonna place bombs! I’m gonna fuck you and I’m gonna cut your throat, and I’m gonna cut the throats of your fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters!” said the man on the Paris Metro, rambling on and on in a louder and louder voice because people were ignoring him.

It was a few minutes before dawn on New Year’s Day and the No. 6 line was fairly empty. The revelers of the night before were gone. Most of the people aboard were black or brown and heading for work on what was, for other people, a holiday.

The guy who was shouting, who mentioned in his rant that he was from North Africa, stank of alcohol, and, while people did move a few seats away from him, they didn’t get off before their stops. They didn’t call the police. They made their calculations about the risk from one drunk lunatic, jihadi or not, and on this cold dawn of a new year, they went on with their lives.

In France, now, almost one year after the carnage at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the slaughter at a kosher supermarket, and barely seven weeks since the massacres on the night of Friday, Nov. 13 that took 130 lives, people are still uneasy, still somber. As one cosmopolitan Arab visitor who used to live here opined over a glass of rosé at the Café de Flore, “It’s like the city has had a stroke. It had its problems, it was getting along, but, now, nothing’s quite right.”

Indeed, this has been a year of living very dangerously in France—perhaps more dangerously than most people realize, even now, because near-misses are soon forgotten, and when terrorists screw up they are written off as fools, which many of them are.

Few people today remember the idiot who, in April, went to attack a church in Villejuif, a suburb of Paris, shot himself in the leg, called an ambulance, and had his whole arsenal discovered. Then, in June, there was the thug who had a fight with his employer at a chemical plant near Lyons, killed him, cut off his head and put it on a fence with Islamist flags around it, before failing to blow up some storage tanks. (The murderer recently hanged himself in prison.) In August, some buff young American soldiers on vacation and a middle-aged Brit wrestled a would-be mass murderer to the floor on a high-speed train between Brussels and Paris.

The threats have been constant. And yet people do get on with their lives. And they do calculate their risks. And that is one reason that, by the tens of thousands, they are reading Gilles Kepel’s new book, written with Antoine Jardin: Terreur dans l’hexagone: Genèse du djihad Français, “Terror in France: Genesis of the French Jihad.”

No other work published to date reveals with such clarity and in such granular detail the evolution of Islamist terror in this country, and the implications that that evolution has for the rest of the world, including and especially the United States. And few books could be more timely. It was in galleys when the Nov. 13 attacks took place, and, updated in a matter of days, it was published in mid-December.

In a lengthy interview on Sunday, Kepel told The Daily Beast that what he calls 3rd Generation or 3G jihad, which the so-called Islamic State appears to have mastered, has managed to blend an extremist ideology with the emotions of the street, not only among some of those people of Muslim and Arab descent just coming of age in a society that has been loath to embrace them, but among disaffected converts to Islam who might have been drawn to other radical ideologies in the past.

Kepel warns that the organizers and proselytizers of Daesh, as the French call ISIS, will find ways to adapt their preaching and plans to the peculiarities of American society, too.

San Bernardino,” said Kepel, pointing to the massacre in California on Dec. 2 to illustrate his point. “It was a blend of Columbine, the availability of and obsession with weapons, with the Daesh ideology.” And the long-term aim? “To try to blow up America.”

To begin to understand how to address such a threat, one has to understand it in detail, which is what Kepel set out to do in this, his latest book in a decades-long career chronicling Islamist extremism.

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The original, working title of the new book was “Ten Years that Shook the World,” and that would have been more accurate, perhaps, because the French jihad Kepel details has become, especially over this last year, the vanguard of a much bigger effort by both al Qaeda and Daesh to take their wars to the European and American heartlands.

The decade in question began in 2005 with two key events. The one most widely remembered was the stunning eruption of violence in the banlieues of cities all over France. “Paris is burning,” declared hyperventilating anchors on American cable news networks. It wasn’t, but mobs in the forgotten housing projects on the distant outskirts of Paris and other cities set about torching cars and battling with police with a vengeance in a spontaneous reaction to the deaths of two young men electrocuted when hiding from the cops near a big transformer.

In the end, although the riots spread far and wide and lasted for several days, the death toll, three people, was very low. (By comparison, in Los Angeles in 1992, 55 people were killed.) But in France the alienation and anger among the children of immigrants remained palpable.

That same year, 2005, the most important ideologue of new-generaton jihad, Abu Musab al-Suri, published online his 1,604-page tome, The Call for an International Islamic Resistance.

Suri was originally from Syria, but knew Europe well. He had lived for a while in Britain, in the community of Arab and Muslim exiles there sometimes called Londonistan. His core idea was that Muslims in the West, though increasingly numerous, felt themselves isolated and under pressure, and this could be exploited to create a breakdown of society, develop insurgency, and launch a civil war where the forces of Islam eventually would be victorious.

Acts of terror, dubbed “resistance,” would heighten the already existing “Islamophobia,” and “exacerbate the contradictions,” as communist revolutionaries used to say, until hatred and suspicion ran high and integration became impossible.

At the same time, in the decade between the riots of October-November 2005 and the slaughter in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, the influence of Salafi Islam, one of the most conservative strains, grew dramatically in parts of France with large Muslim populations. Its proselytizers drew a line between the Western values of mainstream French culture and those of people who believe they are emulating the medieval ways of the Prophet Muhammad.

France had faced the terror of jihad before. In the 1990s jihadist groups made their first push to take power in North Africa from French- and American-backed governments. These “first generation” terrorists eventually attacked targets in France, including a commuter train at Saint-Michel, near Notre Dame de Paris, in 1995. But the police hunted down the leaders of the French cell, and in Algeria and Egypt by 1997 the groups’ savage tactics had alienated the people they had expected to support them.

The second generation of jihad, which grew out of the first, was al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden also hoped to overthrow the governments of Muslim countries around the world while intimidating their Western supporters with spectacular attacks like those against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. But, while bin Laden created chaos, his organization was never able to capitalize on it.

Although al Qaeda plotted to carry out attacks in France, including plans to hit the U.S. embassy here in 2001, the French intelligence services, working closely with the Americans, managed to stop it time and again.

But perhaps the French cops and spooks grew complacent, or, more likely, overwhelmed. The numbers of people with files marked “S” for security risks kept growing, and the cops couldn’t track everybody.

In March 2012, at the height of the French presidential election campaign, a 23-year-old petty criminal named Mohamed Merah went on a rampage in the southern cities of Toulouse and Montauban, first killing off-duty French soldiers he believed were from Muslim backgrounds, then shooting up a Jewish school, where three children were among his victims, before, finally, after a long siege at his apartment, he was killed.

Described as a “lone wolf” terrorist at the time, Merah was anything but. Kepel traces meticulously the links among groups of extremists, many of them criminals radicalized in prison, which lead from Merah to the battlefields of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and back to Paris with the attacks in 2015.

The model of a 3G jihadist, says Kepel, is not Chérif Kouachi or his brother Saïd, who murdered 11 people inside the Charlie Hebdo offices and a policeman (a Muslim) outside. They claimed they were exacting revenge for the publication of cartoons satirizing Mohammed and Muslims, and they were acting on a long-delayed mission from the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.

The model we can learn from, says Kepel, is Ahmed Coulibaly, another terrorist who texted to a contact in Syria that the Kouachis were “zigotos,” weirdos. Coulibaly claimed to have funded the attack on Charlie Hebdo when the Kouachis apparently couldn’t get their act or their guns together, and he carried out his own attack on a kosher supermarket two days later, murdering four Jews before dying in a hail of bullets from the police.

Coulibaly, whose family originally was from Mali, was born in France in 1982, and from the time he was a teenager spent much of his life in jail for various relatively minor crimes. But then he turned himself into the model ex-prisoner, winning in 2009 an invitation to the Élysée Palace to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy. Skilled at dissimulation, he married a woman who’d lost her job because she insisted on wearing a veil, but then the two of them posed for a selfie with her wearing a bikini. It was the kind of photograph that the authorities could look at and think, “This guy is no jihadist.” In fact, Coulibaly was a deeply committed one, and well versed in the ways of social media.

In the days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Coulibaly left behind two testaments, one intentional, one not, and both very revealing.

In his video farewell to the world, probably filmed on Jan. 8, after he had murdered a black policewoman, and as he was preparing for his attack on the kosher supermarket, he pledged allegiance to the so-called caliph of the so-called Islamic State.

Coulibaly then laid out the arguments that were at the core of Suri’s call of “Islamic resistance”: The terror attacks are all about self-defense in a world where Muslims are constantly under attack. And he calls on other young Muslims in France and elsewhere to follow his example to defend Allah, and their sisters, and “whole populations” under assault by the infidels.

The second, unintentional testament came when a French radio network called the kosher market during the siege and Coulibaly picked up the phone. He then put it down, but failed to hang up, and his chilling dialogue with the hostages he’s getting ready to kill was recorded. The law he followed, he said, was an eye for an eye, and they should understand that, he told them.

Always, in 3G jihad, the killers claim that all they want is justice—as they see it, God’s justice.

On Monday, the French daily Le Monde published the cover of the forthcoming special issue of Charlie Hebdo. “One Year Later, the Murderer is Still on the Run,” it proclaims next to a cartoon figure of God, a bearded old man in a long robe with a Masonic eye above his head, a Kalashnikov slung over his back, and blood spattered on his beard and clothing.

A year ago, Charlie Hebdo was on the verge of bankruptcy and bought by only a few thousand people each week. The print run for this new issue reportedly will be about 1 million copies, with tens of thousands sent to Germany and other countries where there’s high demand.

If the intention of the weirdo Kouachi brothers was to do away with Charlie Hebdo, they failed miserably. It has never in its history been so solvent.

But the greatest fail was the jihadists’ attempt, a year ago, to tear French society apart. In the event, the mass demonstrations on Jan. 11 last year—with upwards of 4 million people taking to the street in France to declare “Je suis Charlie”—represented a massive, powerful refutation of everything the terror strategists intended.

Yet after the attacks of November there were no such demonstrations. Indeed, mass gatherings were banned by the government for fear they would be attacked the way the cafés and the concert hall and the sports stadium had been attacked on the night of the 13th.

Many things had changed between January and November. The massive flow of refugees from Syria into Europe had unnerved the continent, and showed the deep divisions in the collection of nation-states that calls itself the European Union. The Syrian war continues with no end in sight, and ISIS appears neither defeated nor contained. Its videos and exploitation of social media are sophisticated and target a wide range of potential recruits. The territory it controls in Syria and Iraq has become a haven for would-be jihadists from Europe training to “bring the war home” like those who carried out the November attacks.

Yet the danger is at least as much internal as external, and in many respects lies with Europe’s leaders. Traditional politicians in France, most of whom have been around for decades, have failed almost completely to understand the generation of young citizens who were born and grew up here as the children of immigrant families and who want very much to be part of the country, and part of its future. Suri wanted to enlist them in his great plan for “Islamic resistance,” but that’s not what most of them wanted.

In the presidential elections of 2012, millions of these young people were able to vote for the first time, and they did so massively against the fear-mongering tough-guy incumbent, Sarkozy, who had called them “scum,” and for the Socialist François Hollande, who beat Sarkozy by a slim margin. But those votes did not translate into jobs or a stake in the future.

Such are the failures of the sclerotic political class in France, in fact, that in the last few years many people have come to feel their only choice is to move toward the extremes. For many, that has meant the ultra-right-wing National Front of the shrewd and charismatic Marine Le Pen. For others, it has meant a further drift toward Islamism and even Salafism. And after the hugely positive emotions of the “Je suis Charlie” demonstrations on Jan. 11 had subsided, stories surfaced of the high school kids who refused to observe a minute of silence, and of those who said, “Je suis Charlie Coulibaly.”

But what did such anecdotes mean? Did the actions of a few posturing kids translate into a movement that favors the jihadists?

If so, then it is particularly ironic that the Nov. 13 attack may actually have worked against the designs of ISIS and its minions. Research by Kepel and his colleagues suggests the slaughter that night provoked a strong negative reaction among young French people from Muslim backgrounds. The ISIS killers went after targets where they knew there would be a lot of them enjoying life in the city of lights at cafés, at a rock concert, at a soccer match.

Even among jihadists in French prisons, Kepel told The Daily Beast, the attacks were condemned and likened to the acts of the reviled Kharijite sect in the 7th and 8th centuries, which made it a practice to kill other Muslims.

“For the first time, we had all the Arabs with us,” said Kepel. “For the first time, they considered they were French, because they were targeted because of the way they lived.”

Whether that will last in the current political climate is doubtful, as even Hollande, a Socialist, is promoting an idea that originated with Le Pen: taking French nationality away from people allegedly involved with terrorist organizations who have second passports. The proposed law may be limited but the implication is that all those dual nationals, mostly North Africans, are something less than French.

When the No. 6 got to Trocadéro, I got out. The drunk jihadist was still shouting as the train pulled away. I mounted the stairs to the esplanade to look out over the Eiffel Tower as the sun came up. Men from sub-Saharan Africa were already peddling souvenirs. Men from North Africa already had warmed the grills of the snack bars. Women tourists wearing veils posed with their families for selfies. There were clouds all around the tower, but the sun was still fighting to get through. And people got on with their lives in the troubled nation that is France today.