On January 7th, 2015, Cherif and Said Kouachi killed the contributors to French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo for their caricatures of Muhammad. They had ties to Al-Qaeda in Yemen, through which it is believed their attacks were planned. This is undoubtedly a great tragedy, and the global outpouring of support for Charlie Hebdo has been tremendous. However, I believe that it is important to add some important context on the situation prior to the attack and its possible consequences.
Throughout Europe, but particularly in France, there has been a fear that nationals who travel to the Middle East and engage in jihad would return to their home country and commit terror. This fear has developed in particular due to the attraction the civil war in Syria—which has been raging for more than three years—has had to foreign would-be jihadists, and due to the recent rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Although the attackers in this case appear to have ties to Al-Qaeda in Yemen, as opposed to ISIS or a Syrian group, the parallels are still there. The attackers in this instance were notably fluent in French and were French nationals. It is immensely expensive to perform extensive surveillance on people with terror connections. Thus, there are always people who fall between the cracks. Add to this the factor that travel between European Union countries by nationals is extremely easy, meaning that a terrorist could use a country with less rigorous counterterrorism efforts as an entry point into Europe. As a result, counterterrorism is extremely difficult in Europe.
In the wake of this brutal act, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared a War on Terror. This statement is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s declaration of a War on Terror following the September 11th attacks. This is certainly a laudable initiative. Yet, the French government must be careful in how far they go with new legislation. Already, there are reports of an uptick in violence against Muslims in France, and any actions perceived as Islamophobic by the Muslim community will only play into the hands of extremists. In this attack, the fear of fighters abroad returning home was partially confirmed, and the reaction by the French government will be telling in demonstrating how they deal with the threat. Hopefully, this event will serve as a wake-up call for European governments as they seek a solution—if there is one—to preventing terrorism.