US & Canada

Paris attacks underline persistent threat

Paris rally Image copyright EPA
Image caption Millions marched in Paris in a display of unity against violence

Three days of terror attacks in Paris, claiming 17 lives, emphasise the need for international cooperation to tackle violent fundamentalism.

After most terrorist attacks, authorities, the families of victims and broader communities are left to ponder the meaning of such wanton violence, and reconstruct the motives and tactics of those responsible.

Thanks to a remarkable conversation between a French reporter and one of the brothers responsible for the attack on Charlie Hebdo, we have some insight if not yet all the answers.

"We are not killers," Cherif Kouachi told France's BFM TV hours before a confrontation with French security forces at a printing plant outside Paris.

"We defend the prophet. If someone offends the prophet then there is no problem, we can kill him."

He claimed an affiliation with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

"I went there and it was Anwar al-Awlaki who financed me," Cherif Kouachi said.

Incongruously, Amedy Coulibaly, who was killed the same day after killing and holding hostages at a Kosher grocery store, told the same French network BFM TV he "coordinated" his actions with the Kouachis, but was part of "Daish" or IS, an offshoot but rival of Al-Qaeda.

Supporters of both groups praised their actions, but it remains unclear if either group directed the attacks given the years between their radicalisation and action.

Awlaki himself was killed in 2011 in a drone strike in Yemen.

Local focus

So what does Paris tell us about the evolving Islamist terrorist threat and what to do about it?

Notwithstanding the emergence of Islamic State, a hybrid that is part terrorist organisation and part insurgency, the threat to the West centres on self-activating individuals or small groups inspired by, but not necessarily controlled by, radical networks.

They identify with the global struggle, but their focus is local.

This localisation may result in more incidents - the past two years have seen attacks at the Boston Marathon, Parliament Hill in Ottawa and a cafe in Sydney, for example - but none involving the ambition of 9/11 or even Madrid in 2004 or London in 2005.

The Paris perpetrators are less soldiers than malware circulating in local networks that can go off at any time.

Rooting them out before they can do damage is easier said than done.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls rightly declared this challenge as "war."

But this is an era of persistent threat, more like the Cold War in complexity and duration.

This is a generational struggle where the political, economic and social elements will be just as decisive as the military, intelligence and law enforcement.

International cooperation

War involves a broad commitment of resources and will.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Will the Paris rally provoke a response in the Islamic world?

At the international level, countries need to continue to enhance cooperation including the exchange of information on known extremists.

The Kouachi brothers were on the no-fly list but there were evident gaps in surveillance.

There also needs to be a stronger consensus regarding the tools that governments need to better monitor known and unknown extremists, even while acknowledging that perfect security is impossible.

In light of Paris, European countries need to renew the debate launched by Edward Snowden two years ago regarding the line between privacy and security.

At the local level, there needs to be improved community prevention, interceding with young men (and some women) before they succumb to the appeal of the likes of the Islamic State.

This is the first and best line of defence, but does not occur in a vacuum.

The intolerance manifest in the Charlie Hebdo attack has already been a catalyst for a broader debate within France and across Europe.

Words not enough

An estimated two million people marched in Paris yesterday, joined by a broad cross-section of political and religious leaders.

They voiced support for freedom of expression but also tolerance, understanding and non-violence.

The question is whether this dramatic display will be joined within the Islamic world.

Many national leaders rightly condemned the violence in Paris.

Image copyright other
Image caption Mr Badawi's sentence was increased after he appealed against an earlier verdict

British imams released a statement calling the Paris murders "offensive to the Prophet Muhammad."

These words are powerful, but not enough.

There is the urgent need for a broader debate within Islam regarding tolerance and pluralism, and religious interpretations that are used to justify violence.

But this is a dialogue governments seem to fear.

The same day French authorities moved decisively against the Charlie Hebdo perpetrators, Saudi Arabia flogged a blogger, Raif Badawi, the first instalment of a sentence that includes 1,000 lashes, 10 years in prison and a fine of more than $266,000.

His crime - encouraging a debate regarding the Kingdom's conservative interpretations of Islam.

The best response to speech perceived as offensive is more speech and respect for different points of view.

To succeed against violent political extremism, that lesson must be applied in Europe, but also in the Middle East, where repression provides oxygen for the Islamic state, al Qaeda and the powerful yet illegitimate rationale behind their murderous theology.

PJ Crowley is a former US Secretary of State and now a fellow at The George Washington University's Institute for Public Diplomacy & Global Communication.

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