Let’s be clear. The main goal of the three gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo yesterday was not revenge for printing cartoons critical of Islam. This misses the larger strategy al Qaeda was likely pursuing. The main goal was something far deeper.
Terrorism succeeds based on how a target responds to an attack. In this case, the three attackers from al Qaeda Yemen were likely seeking two larger goals. The first was deterrence – the desire to silence public criticism of Islam. Al Qaeda has an incentive to deter journalists and publishers from printing anything critical or inflammatory about their group. Criticism of Islam undercuts their message and their base of support and makes it less likely that they will eventually establish a Muslim caliphate.
The second goal was recruitment. The attacks were almost certainly designed to try to increase al Qaeda’s support among moderate Muslims both in Europe and abroad. This was supposed to occur by provoking a harsh response from European governments toward their Muslim populations. European governments that responded punitively toward Muslims living in Europe would provide hard evidence that the West was untrustworthy and liberal democracy corrupt. The result would be a shift by some moderate Muslims toward the more radical extreme.
This suggests 3 things that the West should definitely not do as it responds to yesterday’s attack:
- Don’t stop publishing. If Western media self-censors, deterrence succeeds and terrorists win.
- Don’t implicate all Muslims in the crimes of a few radical ones. Moderate Muslims throughout the world will be watching carefully to see how the French government responds and any overly harsh response could help to radicalize them.
- Don’t make martyrs out of the attackers or treat them any differently from common murderers. Part of the game the group is playing is an outbidding game where the goal is to prove that al Qaeda is more committed to Islam than other Muslim groups. (“Our group cares more about Islam because we are willing to fight and die for it.”) Treating the gunmen like common murderers helps to undercut this message.
There are lots of things we don’t know about yesterday’s attack that will trickle out in the next few days and weeks. But one thing we do know is how al Qaeda would like the West to respond. Treating this as an isolated act of revenge that deserves a harsh response plays into the hands of the gunmen and the organization that supported them. Let’s make sure that our response is exactly the opposite of what they seek so that their larger strategy fails.