When the dust cleared on last Wednesday’s bloody shooting in the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, many pundits saw it as another example of so-called “lone wolf” terrorism of the sort seen in Canada, Ft. Hood, New York City, and Sydney. The threat of Muslims radicalized by what they see on social media is a growing one, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials.
But now, it seems the attack – which claimed 12 lives, including that of a Muslim police officer – was indeed inspired by and funded by everyone’s favorite terror group, Al Qaeda. The group’s Yemen branch claimed responsibility for the attack on Friday, issuing praise for the Kouachi brothers who carried out the shootings. Said and Cherif Kouachi were killed by French police earlier the same day.
Also on Friday, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning to Americans heading abroad, saying there was an increased risk of reprisals from Islamic extremists looking to capitalize on the events of the week.
The Al Qaeda claim fits with what eyewitness reporters say the Kouachi brothers were shouting in their massacre. Cherif Kouachi also talked to a French TV station before his death, telling them that he was sent by Al Qaeda and had secured financing from Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who killed by a drone strike in 2011. If U.S. officials can confirm the involvement of Al Qaeda in Yemen, it will mark the group’s first successful attack on the West.
If Al Qaeda was responsible for the attack on Charlie Hebdo, it brings to light a troubling competition between the group and the Islamic State. ISIS has been the focus of much of the world for the last year, blazing a bloody trail through Iraq and Syria in their quest for Middle Eastern dominance. Officials say the brazen Paris attack could put the spotlight back on the overshadowed Al Qaeda, perhaps amping up a competition for funds, membership, and ideological superiority.
Because the groups are in search of the kind of aimless losers personified by the Kouachi brothers, many terrorism experts feel that the West’s best defense lies in reaching out to “moderate Muslims.” In other words, seek out those who reject the extremist philosophy and help them spread a different message than the one espoused by ISIS and Al Qaeda.
But here’s the problem with that. According to a Pew Research poll, only 57 percent of Muslims in the Middle East hold an unfavorable view of Al Qaeda and similar groups. There is stronger sentiment against terrorism in places like Lebanon and Jordan, but Muslims in Pakistan and Malaysia are much more evenly divided. And when it comes to attacks like the one last week, the moderate Muslims are slow to condemn the killings categorically.
This is a war we must fight with every tool at our disposal. Information, propaganda, social media, law enforcement investigations, and, of course, the military. We have the money, we have the resources. What we don’t have is the will. What we don’t have is a president committed to the fight. It’s just one more reason we must change things in 2016.