We’ve had very well planned assaults happening for a very long time now. People just haven’t been paying attention.
Consider all the way back to 9/11. You had 19 men who were all deep agents of Al Qaeda. That means that many served as troops with the Islamic Mujahideen of Afghanistan against the Soviets and were elite warfighters of that force. They were all extremely vetted, meaning that they either served directly with the core of Al Qaeda’s founders or were family. Furthermore, these were not just poor and ignorant farmers. They were all highly literate, highly educated men of connected backgrounds. For example,, one of the ringleaders of the operation, was an architect trained in Cairo and Hamburg. Others also held professional degrees. Logistics were an important factor, as well. For the operation to be a success, the 19 had to all be brought into the United States and housed for several months. They had to be trained, each in their various roles for the operations. They were organized into cells. There was no way they would be left in one 19 man house for fear of detection. So they had to be split up. That would also mean that there needed to be an overwatch for them to make sure that they didn’t back out or blow the operation. This meant communication lines had to be created and a bureaucracy of agents supporting the would be suicide bombers. All this, the planning, the coordination, the admin, logistics, and the leadership, required a vast network of handlers and overseers for the operation. It went far beyond 19 men, themselves qualifying easily as special forces, operating for months, implementing a plan years in the making.
This had the masterful effect of pulling the Americans into a prolonged war in the Middle East, unsettling the US, but more importantly, throwing the entire region into turmoil and disarray. By bringing in Western intervention, through the manipulation of American sentimentality and reactionary mentality, they destabilized longstanding semi-secular governments of the Middle East, making way for the caliphate that was always their real primary goal.
Skip to a while later and you see Madrid. In 2004 Spain was in active support of the American presence in Iraq. On the morning of 11 March 2004 – three days before the general elections in Spain, a series of nearly simultaneous, coordinated bombings against the Cercanías commuter train system of Madrid took place. The explosions killed 191 people and wounded 1,800. This also involved a massive and sophisticated planning method where Madrid’s security system had to have been compromised completely for months. The result was the nation’s complete turnaround in the elections, pulling favor away from the Iraq War and isolating the United States from European support.
Al Qaeda is not, in the least, unsophisticated in their attacks. Every major operation they make is implemented by the best and most vetted troops able to be recruited from among various jihadi forces. Their attacks are planned and coordinated with the intent to manipulate Western sentiments to their favor toward destabilizing the Middle East. They further increase their leverage by using this propaganda to build a death cult of fanatics willing to sacrifice themselves in the realization of a grand dream of the new Caliphate, as the “heroes” of 9/11 did.
The Raid on Charlie Hebdo
One eye witness account, that of Corinne Rey, a designer known as Coco,said that she was forced to let the attackers into the Charlie Hebdo building. She said:
I had gone to pick up my daughter from daycare. Arriving at the door of the newspaper building, two hooded and armed men brutally threatened us.
They wanted to enter, go up. I typed the code. They shot Wolinski, Cabu … it lasted five minutes … I had taken refuge under a desk …
They spoke French perfectly … claiming to be Al-Qaida.
Other reports have stated that the men knew the individuals whom they were targeting precisely. In one account I’ve seen, attackers called for the editors and cartoonists by name, recognized them and shot them on the spot while ignoring many others. The fact that they did this doesn’t mean it was an inside job by any means, but means that they most likely had very large intelligence profiles on these men. These files were no doubt collected and groomed prior to the operation and delivered to the two. This also indicates a larger network of administrators and intelligence gatherers, perhaps even utilizing known connections with intelligence services of many Islamic nations, a practice seen in the past. I say it wasn’t inside because of a few mistakes made, namely the two first went into the wrong building, two buildings down from Charlie Hebdo. They demanded from a local delivery person direction to the right building, where they encountered Corinne Rey, who they needed to open the door.
In a video of the incident taken by an onlooker in the wrong place at the right time, shared by the Guardian, two gunmen are seen exiting a car presumably near the Charlie Hebdo building. This can be speculated because a news van is seen near where the shooters brutally gunned down a police officer, himself a fellow Muslim.
From what we can see plainly, the two shooters are well armed, both carrying what appear to be AK-47’s, as well as well armored with additional gear. He is wearing what appears to be either some form of load bearing vest, which the military uses to carry additional ammunition, or a bullet proof vest of desert coloring. The truth is, probably both. At the very least, he has lots of ammunition easily available.
More concerning than his equipment, which could be bought and given to any suicidal maniac, is his tactical carry and use of the weapon. The shooter nearest the camera concerns me. As a former US Marine Corps marksmanship instructor I see many things that speak of advanced military style tactical discipline. Both shooters seem to wield the Russian made AK-47 adeptly. These weapons are readily available by many avenues, and abundant in the Middle Eastern conflict, but the ability to fire it well is in less supply. The weapon is capable of automatic fire and fires a larger round than the US made M-16. This means that the weapon has extremely deadly potential, but also requires greater skill to use well in delivering accurate fire. The two assassins demonstrate a knowledge of the weapon’s use, obvious by the casualty count, but also displayed in their carry. Note how the nearer shooter holds his weapon with elbows inward pressed against his body. He also has his body firmly behind the weapon to absorb recoil and raises the weapon to eye level as he is sighted-in while searching around corners for his victim. This shows some degree of military style training and discipline in weapons use.
In reading a profile of the two suspects put together by CNN, this is exactly the type of attack they would have been prepared for.
Both brothers [Cherif Kouachi and Said Kouachi] were in the U.S. database of known or suspected international terrorists, known as TIDE, and also had been on the no-fly list for years, a U.S. law enforcement official said. BFMTV reported that like his brother [Cherif], Said Kouachi was born in Paris and was known to police.
The younger of the two brothers [Said] has spent time in jail for links to terrorism. He was arrested in January 2005, at age 22, when he and another man were about to set off for Syria en route to Iraq. He was sentenced to three years in prison in 2008 for being part of a jihadist recruitment ring in Paris that sent fighters to join the conflict in Iraq. Kouachi didn’t actually go to prison after the trial because half his three-year sentence was suspended and he had already spent enough time in pretrial detention, Bloomberg reported. He was released from custody before the trial. In 2010, Kouachi was charged in connection with a foiled plot to aid the escape of Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, an Algerian Islamist imprisoned for bombing a Paris commuter rail station in 1995. But public prosecutors later dropped the charges, according to Le Monde.
Of the older brother, Cherif, little is known. He kept a much lower profile than his younger brother.
A U.S. official says the United States was given information from the French intelligence agency that Said Kouachi traveled to Yemen as late as 2011 on behalf of the al Qaeda affiliate there. Once in Yemen, the older brother received a variety of weapons training from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — the affiliate in Yemen — the official said, including on how to fire weapons.
Mohammed Benali, who runs the mosque in Gennevilliers, the suburb where Cherif Kouachi’s apartment is, said the two brothers used to come to Friday prayers there “not assiduously but regularly.” He told Le Figaro that he knew Said Kouachi better, but that he hadn’t seen either of the brothers at the mosque in at least two years.
The question remains, though now seems obvious, about the location of the two during the last two years. Various reports differ on speculating between one or both of the brothers recently visited Yemen. A French source close to the French security services told CNN that investigators have evidence to suggest one of the brothers — it is unclear which — traveled to Syria sometime in the past year. USA Today reported that they both returned from Syria in the summer. I say obvious, because wherever these two men were, they were very close to terrorist networks which provided them with ample ability to transform from none-to-special ordinary Parisians to fantasized jihadists.
Other images also showcase the extent of their capabilities.
In shooting circles a “tight group” refers to a shooter’s ability to place a collection of rounds near to the same central aiming point. As shown by the damage to this police vehicle, the shooter was able to deliver two very good groups with only a few strays. This is impressive shooting for shoulder fired, automatic weapons with such large calibers.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, their plan was so complete, they have yet to be caught. The fact that so much time has gone by, probably means that the men are already safe and sound in the Middle East. The gunmen were seen escaping into a black vehicle and going to the Paris suburbs where they abandoned their car and jumped into another. Tactically speaking, the whole event exists to spell out a very clear message to many: Islamic terrorists have the power to create an extremely complex and sophisticated raid and assassination against any Western soft targets, in any cities they want and they could do it again without suffering harm.
The Raid on Charlie Hebdo
The big question, at least the big question to me, is “Why?” I understand the obvious answer, they wanted to avenge the blasphemous portrayal of their prophet. Having two homegrown Parisian jihadists just arrive on the scene may have simply been too good of an opportunity to let go. Perhaps, all they really did want was to send a message to the West, as well as their own people. Disrespect of their prophet or their organization won’t be tolerated, and retribution will be too grand not to be showcased. Perhaps they wanted to raise tensions in France, the nation with the largest Islamic population in Europe. France has a full 10% Muslim population which, if properly motivated by revenge and retribution attacks by overzealous Frenchmen, could produce many new converts for jihad. Observe what was done with two. Imagine twenty.
Al Qaeda, though, doesn’t ever just do something for the “obvious” reason. They are very nuanced and their planning is many layers deep. As with 9/11 being used to generate rage in Americans to destabilize the entire Middle East, and Madrid being used to encourage Spain to vote against a government which would support the Iraq war, Al Qaeda has shown that they have mastered the art of manipulating Western mentalities to greater, yet less obvious purposes. What I wonder is, what are these purposes?
I’m free to speculate, as it is asked by the OP.also brings to the table a theory that is very valid so I will start there.
You have to keep in mind that the primary audience for the terrorists is on their home turf and they are seeking whatever advantage they can gain with those whom they might woo either to their cause or to their support. I am of the mind, though I know this is a somewhat contentious idea, that the attack was meant to provide the terrorists with western provided media items, memes, that they can use to grow their support base.
Westerners outside of France seem to have a hard enough time grasping the proper context of the cartoons and I think that this is also part of the strategy. The images will circulate in places where people don’t have access to the internet or to “fact checking” methods like we do. In the end all that matters will be the image and not the unintelligible speech bubbles.
Another theory, lending itself to Charles’, is that the attacks may have been used to encourage additional funding and support from Arab patrons, the long time financiers of global Islamic terrorism. In recent months we have seen drastic changes in the Arabian Peninsula in two forms; one the reduction of the price of oil has upset many of the economies in the oil dependent region and frozen expendable funds for terrorist donations, and two being that these donations have finally been outlawed by the Saudi Arabian monarch. I haven’t done the research to see how successful that initiative has been, but the fact of the matter is that the two mean dangerous times for jihadists abroad if they don’t adapt soon.
Lastly, there is one more motive I would like to pose. From its inception the group known in the West as ISIS has been a force for great destruction and havoc in the region of Iraq and Syria. It was actually born of Al Qaeda in Iraq before breaking off to take part in the Syrian Civil War where it evolved. During that time they reinvented themselves as the “Islamic States” a modern day Caliphate. Al Qaeda, Arabic for “the base” disagreed with this. They felt that the creation of a true Islamic State was premature and should be held off. At that point, the two were at odds with one another. Recently, however, there has been news that the two groups have reconciled. In another answer I said that it should be noted that the attack took place seemingly in response to the unexpected boldness of French bombing offensives in Syria and Iraq over the last few months. There, the allied bombing campaign has had tremendous effect in breaking key points of the battlespace and opening the way for advances by Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army. For the French to decide to back off, would very much relieve front line fighters in Syria and Iraq. All I’m saying is that we haven’t heard a great deal from Al Qaeda in quite a while, so why such a bold move? Why now? Why France?
As I have said, everything is speculation at this point. What Western readers need to understand, though, is that this raid on Charlie Hebdo was not just some rogue terrorists who got lucky. It was not the act of some “lone gunmen”. It was an advanced and well planned, well supported military raid. Not only this, but it isn’t the first. It is the continuation of a very long history of these raids. What might be scary though, as many have feared, insurgents trained and blooded in combat in Syria and Iraq are returning home to Europe and the West. This probably won’t be the last time we see a story like this. This time though, they are good enough to get away, rather than just blowing themselves to pieces.
Jon Davis is a US Marine Corps veteran writer, focusing on the topics of US veterans and international defense. His work has been featured in Newsweek, Forbes, Gizmodo and elsewhere. He is also a writer of military science fiction with his first book, The Next War, due out early this year. You can follow Jon Davis via his personal blog Jon’s Deep Thoughts, and can support his writing via the web donation service, Patreon.