international analysis and commentary

Counterterrorism after Charlie Hebdo: change course or stay calm?


While the uproar caused by the shootings at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo hasn’t even begun to recede, tough questions are being asked about the road ahead. Do the Charlie Hebdo shootings suggest that we are faced with a terrorist threat of a magnitude that requires us to ramp up our counterterrorism efforts? Many believe this is the case, but ever harder measures are not the answer.

Admittedly, there is no denying that the Charlie Hebdo shootings are remarkable in at least two respects. First, the perpetrators were plugged into a wider network of jihadists, the most important link being the time both Kouachi brothers are believed to have spent in terrorist training camps in Yemen. The full picture has yet to emerge, but it is likely that the brothers were in touch with Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) – which is likely the most internationally oriented of the various regional Al-Qaeda branches. AQAP has put considerable effort into committing attacks abroad and published an English-language online magazine to recruit Western followers. Against this background, it is certainly possible that the Kouachi brothers took their orders, or at least their inspiration, from people they met while undergoing terrorist training in Yemen. Another link concerns Cherif Kouachi’s mentor, Djamel Beghal, a well-known jihadist recruiter with ties to the infamous Finsbury Park mosque in London, which until 2004 was a hotbed for jihadist radicalism and terrorism.

What makes these connections remarkable is that most European jihadists in recent years acted on their own accord and had no direct ties to jihadist groups elsewhere. As a result of crackdowns after 9/11 and the Madrid bombings, the jihadist movement in Europe fragmented and was forced to rely on isolated operatives. The perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Europe after 2006 were inspired by Al-Qaeda, but very few of them had ever visited a training camp, nor did they receive instructions or other forms of guidance. The Kouachi brothers, on the other hand, did have access to such networks, which partially explains the second noteworthy aspect of their attack: the sophistication.

While by no means on par with 9/11 or even the London bombings of 2005, the Charlie Hebdo shootings were carried out in a much more professional way than the vast majority of the other jihadist attacks in the Western world in the last decade. The perpetrators seemed composed as they entered the getaway car after the attack, and while their action did not require superior marksmanship, they clearly knew how to handle fairly high-caliber firearms. The Kouachi brothers’ professionalism can be overstated, as they initially got the wrong address, left a passport in the getaway car and had no escape plan to speak of, but they nevertheless seemed to know what they were doing.

In this regard, too, the Charlie Hebdo shootings constitute a deviation from a clear pattern. As the isolated individuals or cells that made up the jihadist movement in Europe after 2006 could not tap into a wider network to acquire the expertise and the resources needed for large-scale or complex actions, their attacks were rather crude and amateurish. For instance, the suicide bomber who tried to commit an attack against a mall in Stockholm in 2010 killed only himself, a Chechen jihadist got wounded when a letter bomb exploded in his face, and several other jihadists used home-made explosives that were so poorly constructed that they failed to detonate. The Charlie Hebdo shootings, however, do not fall into that category, which explains the vehement reaction from the public as well as from politicians and governments.

Unsurprisingly, the attacks in Paris have led to calls for more and harder counterterrorism measures. For instance, Andrew Parker, the head of the UK’s MI5, claimed that his organization needs more powers and resources to track all potential terrorists, and Ivo Opstelten, the Dutch Minister of Security and Justice, said the fight against jihadist terrorism should be “stepped up”. UKIP leader Nigel Farage, again not surprisingly, even went so far as to say that the UK is “abdicating security”. But while such calls for more measures may assuage an electorate that is still reeling from the shock, they are misguided, as they fail to recognize the uncertainty that is inherent to counterterrorism.

Planning a terrorist attack is not a linear process. Like many people who are not terrorists, jihadists often change their minds about their goals, alternate periods of apathy with flurries of activity, fail to follow through on previous steps and sometimes abandon their plans altogether. This means that uncertainty is inherent to intelligence work, because if the jihadists themselves do not know where they are headed, how can we? Suggesting that this uncertainty can be eliminated by widening the powers of police and intelligence agencies is opportunistic at best and deceitful at worst.

Furthermore, it is far too early to tell whether the Charlie Hebdo shootings point to a weakness that can be fixed by more intelligence officers, wider police powers and more international cooperation. Given the perpetrators’ ties with other jihadists and probably with suppliers of heavy weapons, it is possible that the planning of the Charlie Hebdo shootings left traces that secret services could have seized on. If that is the case, French intelligence, and perhaps intelligence agencies in other European countries as well, may have some explaining to do, but it is important to realize that not all intelligence failures are systemic in nature. It is possible that someone simply misjudged the activities of the Kouachi brothers, in which case the problem lies with individual people, and not with a policy that must be overturned.

Amidst the anger and indignation caused by the attacks, it is easy to forget that there is hardly a policy area that has expanded as dramatically in the last 15 years as counterterrorism. Police powers have been widened, the possibilities to exchange intelligence and information have been enhanced and the budgets of intelligence agencies have skyrocketed. In other words, we have a playbook against jihadist terrorism. We should be willing to make adjustments to it, of course, but only after a clear reason to do so has been established. Taking action for the sake of it has never helped anyone.