Sharpening Contradictions: Why al-Qaeda attacked Satirists in Paris

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By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)

The horrific murder of the editor, cartoonists and other staff of the irreverent satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, along with two policemen, by terrorists in Paris was in my view a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public.

The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.

This tactic is similar to the one used by Stalinists in the early 20th century. Decades ago I read an account by the philosopher Karl Popper of how he flirted with Marxism for about 6 months in 1919 when he was auditing classes at the University of Vienna. He left the group in disgust when he discovered that they were attempting to use false flag operations to provoke militant confrontations. In one of them police killed 8 socialist youth at Hörlgasse on 15 June 1919. For the unscrupulous among Bolsheviks–who would later be Stalinists– the fact that most students and workers don’t want to overthrow the business class is inconvenient, and so it seemed desirable to some of them to “sharpen the contradictions” between labor and capital.

The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophobic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened. This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram term deriving from wordplay involving scrambling of letters). Ironically, there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim.

Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deployed this sort of polarization strategy successfully in Iraq, constantly attacking Shiites and their holy symbols, and provoking the ethnic cleansing of a million Sunnis from Baghdad. The polarization proceeded, with the help of various incarnations of Daesh (Arabic for ISIL or ISIS, which descends from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). And in the end, the brutal and genocidal strategy worked, such that Daesh was able to encompass all of Sunni Arab Iraq, which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals that they sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately and systematically provoked the Shiites.

“Sharpening the contradictions” is the strategy of sociopaths and totalitarians, aimed at unmooring people from their ordinary insouciance and preying on them, mobilizing their energies and wealth for the perverted purposes of a self-styled great leader.

The only effective response to this manipulative strategy (as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani tried to tell the Iraqi Shiites a decade ago) is to resist the impulse to blame an entire group for the actions of a few and to refuse to carry out identity-politics reprisals.

For those who require unrelated people to take responsibility for those who claim to be their co-religionists (not a demand ever made of Christians), the al-Azhar Seminary, seat of Sunni Muslim learning and fatwas, condemned the attack, as did the Arab League that comprises 22 Muslim-majority states.

We have a model for response to terrorist provocation and attempts at sharpening the contradictions. It is Norway after Anders Behring Breivik committed mass murder of Norwegian leftists for being soft on Islam. The Norwegian government launched no war on terror. They tried Breivik in court as a common criminal. They remained committed to their admirable modern Norwegian values.

Most of France will also remain committed to French values of the Rights of Man, which they invented. But an insular and hateful minority will take advantage of this deliberately polarizing atrocity to push their own agenda. Europe’s future depends on whether the Marine LePens are allowed to become mainstream. Extremism thrives on other people’s extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance.

Let me conclude by offering my profound condolences to the families, friends and fans of our murdered colleagues at Charlie Hebdo, including Stephane Charbonnier, Bernard Maris, and cartoonists Georges Wolinski Jean Cabut, aka Cabu, and Berbard Verlhac (Tignous)– and all the others. As Charbonnier, known as Charb, said, “I prefer to die standing than to live on my knees.”.

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190 Responses

  1. This vile tactic was exploited in the late 1990s: “[B]in Laden, Zawahiri, and company were pursuing bigger ambitions [than other jihadists]—waking the Muslim community from its slumber.…In a secret 1998 letter to another militant—recovered in 2001 from captured Al Qaeda computers in Kabul—Zawahiri points out that Al Qaeda had escalated the fight against ‘the biggest of the criminals, the Americans’ to drag them for an open battle with the nation’s masses…” Bin Laden and Zawahiri “expected a Muslim response similar to that following the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Their goal was to generate a major world crisis, provoking the United States…; American attacks on Muslim countries would reinvigorate and unify a splintered, war-torn jihadist movement and restore its credibility in the eyes of [Muslims]…” link to

    • Hezbollah is a Shia jihadist group which has had exponential increases in popularity in south Lebanon by engaging in rocket strikes and terror attacks against Israel commencing in the 1980s and provoking Israeli reprisals which have galvanized Shi’ites there to rally around Hezbollah.

      The Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces has recently acknowledged Hezbollah as the seventh most powerful military force in the world. Then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak in 2008 was quoted as saying the IDF had lost their deterrent effect in south Lebanon

      The Maronite Christian president Emile Lahoud had deputized Hezbollah as having the support of the Lebanese government in its defense of Lebanon in 2006.

      In sum, Hezbollah consolidated its political and military power in Lebanon as a by-product of its conflicts with the Israel Defense Forces.

      There is little doubt that Al-Qaeda’s leadership has felt that Western backlash from its terror attacks could result in a defensive cohesiveness among Muslims as a positive effect.

      • But as far as i know Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and arrived to Beirut, the capital! and Hezbollah was formed after the invasion no?!!!

      • I’d argue that the record clearly shows that Israel has sought “pretexts” since the late 1970s to invade Lebanon. Thus, it is a major mistake to say that Hezbollah has provoked Israeli reprisals. For example, consider Israel’s 2006 invasion: “Since Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, Hezbollah and Israel had clashed sporadically….Nasrallah had said again and again that Hezbollah’s primary military goal was to secure the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel and the return of Lebanese dead. The way forward, he said, was to seize Israeli captives and trade them. [In a typical incident, Hezbollah fighters] attacked an Israeli military post in an attempt to capture soldiers. The Israelis fended them off, and not much came of the incident.” Nevertheless, Israel exploited a successful Hezbollah operation to justify its 2006 invasion of Lebanon. On 12 July 2006, Hezbollah commandos succeeded in capturing Israeli soldiers; the commandos had tried similar raids in the past without success. Nasrallah expected that Israel’s response would be similar to past experience. Hezbollah had negotiated a January 2004 prisoner exchange with Israel. And, “when its fighters attacked an Israeli army unit on July 12, 2006, and captured two soldiers, Hezbollah announced it would exchange them for…Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in Israel.” link to

        • It goes both ways.

          Israel has had pretexts:

          (A) the 1982 Abu Nidal Organization attempted assassination of Israeli Ambassador to London Shlomo Argov was used as a pretext to invade Lebanon’s PLO strongholds, even though Abu Nidal’s next target was going to be the PLO representative to Britain and Abu Nidal was under a death sentence from Arafat;

          (B) leaked secret testimony to the Winograd Commission investigating the Second Lebanon War revealed that the invasion had been planned months in advance and the capture of IDF soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev by Hezbollah commandos were pretextual – and the Israeli government knew immediately from the massive amount of blood left at the encounter that it was likely both Israeli soldiers had been fatally wounded.

          That said, regular Hezbollah rocket attacks into northern Israel over the years have been clearly provocative as well as terror attacks in Europe and South America against Israeli interests – although some attacks were retaliatory.

      • @Mark Koroi


        In 1982, Israel launched an unprovoked (i.e., the PLO had scrupulously adhered to the 1981 cease-fire negotiated by the Reagan administration) invasion of Lebanon with the objective of destroying the morale of Palestinians in the occupied territories by obliterating the PLO, gaining control of Lebanon’s Litani River (to divert its waters into northern Israel) and to install a “friendly” Phalangist government in Beirut. (Israel had already seized and occupied Lebanon’s Shebaa Farms during the war it launched on 5 June 1967.) As the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee declared at the time, well over 20,000 Lebanese nationals and Palestinian refugees were killed (80% were civilians) and half a million turned into refugees by Israel during its 1982 invasion.

        Also, as orchestrated by then Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, 2,000-3,000 defenseless Palestinian children, women and old men were massacred in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Israel’s Phalangist allies while Israel’s occupation forces looked on from observation towers. With Sharon’s full approval, Israeli soldiers provided the Phalangists with night time illumination and bulldozers to dispose of the bodies, served them tea, cookies, and cokes during breaks from their murderous rampage, and prevented the Palestinians from escaping. Sharon paid no meaningful price for his monstrous crime even though Israel’s Kahan Report found that he “bears personal responsibility” for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila ((only one of many documented unspeakable atrocities he instigated and/or directly participated in.)

        Israel’s brutal invasion of Lebanon in 1982, its slaughter of thousands upon thousands, mostly innocents, and its subsequent occupation of Lebanon led to the formation of Hezbollah.

        • @ Mark Korol – can you please list the Hezbollah attacks on European or American soil? In general as far as I am aware the group is pretty much only active in Lebanon or northern Israel (what it claims as Lebanese territory) and is not actively pursuing any expansionist policies or hostilites against third parties. This is why I would not put it nearly in the same group as ISIS or Al-Queda.

        • @BP:

          “……can you please list the Hezbollah attacks on European or American soil?”

          (1)1994 attack on Israeli Embassy in London;

          (2) 2012 bus bombing in Bulgaria;

          (3) Israeli Embassy and Jewish cultural center bombings in Argentina in early 1990s;

          (4) plane bombing in Panama killing 4 Israelis in early 1990s.

          The FBI secured an indictment against an alleged Hezbollah terror cell in Detroit – however the charges were later dismissed following a judicial finding of prosecutorial misconduct.

      • Kindly stop making excuses for the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon. Hezbollah isn’t “jihadist,” it exists specifically BECAUSE Israel can’t keep its mitts off of other people’s land. If there had been no occupation and bombing of Lebanon, there would be no Hezbollah today.

      • “The Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces has recently acknowledged Hezbollah as the seventh most powerful military force in the world.”

        That is the stupidest thing I’ve read in at least a month — and I read the Wall Street Journal editorial page on a pretty regular basis.

    • After every such tragedy, we always hear the same platitudes from politicians of all Governments.
      I do see a connection… and it is not religion.
      Religion is the pretext for this revolt, aka terrorism.
      The real reason is the ongoing pillaging of countries by the West and Europe, for their natural resources, aka oil, and leaving the country in tatters… It is called Capitalism at any cost to society…

      • It’s overdetermined. There are many causes, complexly woven. Capitalism is certainly a factor, but not the only one. What, for instance, does it have to do with Sunni-Shia rivalries, which preceded its arrival?

        • The U.S. used it to its advantage : divide and regn. The political system pushed forward in Iraq by the U.S. increased these divisions. They disbanded the former Iraqi army and thus threw the Iraqi Sunnites in the arms of the radicalists.
          When a latent rivalry is present, you can either try to tame it, or increase it. The U.S. didn’t want the former Iraqi Sunnites, because they were a) secularised but b) patriots.. So they preferred to play with the religious opposition between Sunnites and Shiites.

        • I read that Baghdad and many other cities now “cleansed” or rubble-ized by humans, using their Sunni or Shi’a identification as “reason enough,” used to be hotbeds of comity, where neighborhoods existed and were “integrated.” link to The rapacity of the planet-burning consumptive monstrosity called for lack of a better term “capitalism” and the motions and stratagems of its players sure seems to be a major part of what has turned into the current Sunni-Shi’a “frame…”

      • I agree that western imperialism has inflamed this problem but i sometimes wonder if it was invented by the west as an excuse to get access to oil and in the case of the USA to profit from weapons manufacture as you say Capitalism at any cost

        • It’s never about oil. There has never been a shortage of reserves and never will be. There have been incidents where under investment in exploration and production has led to over dependence on too few suppliers (the 1960s and 1970s saw this) but the market solves that. Since the 1980s the world has been awash with oil. The long run history of oil will be written up as over supply. Western desire for oil can be satisfied much easier elsewhere. Western adventures in the Middle East are powered by ideological factors.

      • No. Unfettered capitalism might be a contributing factor, not the sole factor. Pick on the Chinese a bit, as they’re busy raping Africa for their resources and abusing the local populations, at any cost. What’s occurring here is what the Bolsheviks (a minority) pulled off, having murdered tens of millions, stole their property, and killed a nation. It’s the desire for power through terrorism through information (ideologies ie, marxism, Islamism, etc).

    • Thank you for showing the game in this war. “Spillover” and “blow back” will come to Europe and more weapons is not the answer. (I am Norwegian.)

    • I’m afraid your focus on sharpening the contradictions doesn’t work. Martin Luther King’s strategy involved just that. What differentiates his approach is that he was committed to non-violence to provoke the other side to intolerable acts. Islamic radicals of this ilk commit the intolerable acts in the first round.

    • It is very possible that these terrorists learned this “vile tactic” from the Americans (to provoke war in Vietnam, to name just one of many places), and the Americans learned it from the Germans (the Reichstag burning, again just one example), and so on.

  2. I’m willing to be argued with, but I find it difficult to believe that the primary goal of this attack was to provoke a backlash against French Muslims. If that had been the primary goal, then why they attack Charlie Hebdo of all things? As strong as the reaction has been, it surely would be a thousand times stronger had they targeted, say, an elementary school. If there is a recruitment message in the attack, the choice of target makes it seem as though the message is aimed directly at any other Muslims who might already be primed for radicalization.

    • Because attacking an elementary school would ONLY generate negative publicity. Attacking the newspaper allows the attackers to at least try and claim some moral justification.

      • My thoughts exactly. Attacking a school would make them seem just barbaric. If the backlash succeeds and they lure new recruits in they’ll use the attack on CH as example that their aim has always been defending the honor of their belief system.

    • “… the message is aimed directly at any other Muslims who might already be primed for radicalization.”

      Seems to me this target perfectly serves both purposes.

    • If the French value one thing above all else, it is the freedom of speech and press. This is a meaningful target to such a group.

        • Manta, I don’t understand what you mean by that. Do you think there should have been no prosecution ? Freedom of speech has limitations in France when it’s hateful. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a really important value for us (I’m VFrench), because it is, Zar is right.

          And by the way : elementary schools WERE targeted not so long ago (by a guy called Merah) and there was a very strong reaction. But this time it’s a specific symbol.

    • Who would willingly align themselves with people that went out of their way to murder children?

      By attacking a magazine that had repeatedly been denounced for publishing images considered blasphemous by the ideologues they can at least hide behind the notion that they were fighting for their beliefs.

      Gunning down a classroom full of kids wouldn’t allow even that fig-leaf. If the objective is to provoke a response, there’s a point that the provocation risks being more horrific than the response for the target audience. Killing people that French Muslims may already be primed to see as bigots may seem like a comparatively safe middle ground to the perpetrators.

      • Being from India, where we see around 3-4 big terror attacks (killing > 25 people, targeting a leader etc) and maybe a hundred smaller ones (destroying property, raping women, killing a few individuals) a year for past several years, I think :

        In the bigger attacks, their targets are chosen to attract maximum media attention and help recruit malcontents. After such attacks, they claim responsibility and show themselves as martyrs to other ‘believers’. In this the article gets it right.

        In the smaller ones, their targets are chosen almost at random, to ‘keep the flock together’ i.e. those who may have qualms, and also test their troops. After such attacks, they never claim responsibility and try hard to slip away un-noticed.

        Maybe Paris being on high alert for terror attacks made them scale down their targets? I do not buy the argument that attacking a school would turn off their potential recruits – as can be seen in Nigeria, Pakistan, Nepal, Burma etc.

    • An attack on a school is really hard to get behind. It could be viewed as too barbaric, even for those who would typically be on the fence of or primed for radicalization. Cartoonists, however, poking fun at their god and religion? Fish in a barrel.

      • Yeah, tell that to 132 children killed in a school in Pakistan earlier this year…terrorism does not always make sense or has sensibility of what would be barbaric or not. Also all of those beheadings are just to stun, horrify and scare people. Sick individuals that have those kind of twisted beliefs and go to scary lengths to make their point and push their own agendas don’t think as ordinary and normal people.

    • An attack on an elementary school would be defended by virtually nobody. An attack on adults who’ve recently published offensive things about Islam can count on a substantially greater population of potential supporters who think mockery of Islam should be met with violence, and equivocators who’ll say things like, “Well, murder is wrong, but Charlie Hebdo had published lots of really offensive things about minorities so they shouldn’t be surprised someone finally decided enough was enough.”

      Seriously, I came here from a link in a discussion thread where multiple people were making that exact argument.

      • Just the kind of thing that stiifles freedom of speech. The victims were people of great courage and humanity in standing up for what makes human and humorous – which got soldiers through the horrors of the two World Wars!

    • I think the would avoid a target like say an elementary school, which even sympathetic Muslims would be repulsed by. So they picked one that Muslims would be unsympathtic towards.

      • Not true. Algerian gunman murdered a Rabbi and 4 children at point blank range a couple of years ago. The President of le Republique made a nice speech. France yawned. Same with attack on Lyon School years before.Zzzzzzzzz

    • Attacking a school, or any other innocent population, then the Muslim French would be opposed to them, would publicly denounce the atrocity, and would potentially suffer any backlash as a misunderstanding. By attacking a satirical paper that is critical of Islam, at least some of the Muslim French would be sympathizers. Any backlash against Muslims in general would then work towards radicalizing the sympathizers, drawing them to the cause.

    • Mark, maybe you don’t understand the French culture as much as these perpetrators do. Charlie hebdo is not just a leftist irreverent magazine, a remnant of the 1968 anarchist culture which it also is. It uses a style of mockery and caricature that harkens right back to “gauloiseries” (link to, something as deep to French culture as say the viking culture may be in Norway. Killing kids in a school is horrific but can be cast as the attack of a bunch of psychopaths, killing a feature of the national culture is much more scary in a nationalistic way because it declares “we are organized, rational, and we are out to kill your culture”. This is a great article and Juan is spot on! This action will blow a lot of wind in French fascist sails like those of the Front National (which is already showing today (link to

    • Charlie Hebdo was the perfect target strategically (if you’re a terrorist). Anyone could simply say “those terrorists were extremists getting revenge” and then apply that idea to all Muslims if they wish. That is precisely what people are doing now, if you look at comment threads. It has been perfect for polarization of those who were primed for it. Now, there is a much more distinct divide between Muslim and non-Muslim, and a radicalized and enlarged anti-Muslim voice which is pretty loud today. If they had attacked an elementary school (or some other thing with no conceivable rationale behind it for normal people), it would still have been possible to say “well, those were extreme Muslims, they aren’t like the rest of the population … they wouldn’t support such things”. Precisely because Charlie Hebdo printed things that were clearly potentially offensive to any Muslim (really, stick Jesus into any of those cartoons and half of the USA would be going crazy) it makes it much more possible to paint all Muslims with the same brush after this attack, if you are the type to lean that way.

      They have effectively galvanized their anti-Muslim opposition and added to their ranks … the terrorists do not want peace and tolerance, they want war and more reasons to attack again … they want hate, and they have quiet successfully cranked it up. They have learned how to do this, and they repeat the same tactics over and over.

      This is about power, and it is working so far.

      • You know what’s funny to me? All these points that you and Professor Cole are making point to the fact that this attack is the EXACT opposite of what Muslims want, certainly as far as self interest goes if nothing else.

        Meanwhile, Israel and its cadre of Islamophobic supporters? They benefited immensely from this act. Netanyahu couldn’t wait to leap onto TV and try to galvanize this into anti-Palestinian sentiment. Nothing but profit for them… Funny, that.

      • A small addition: AFAIK, Charlie Hebdo did indeed have offensive comics about Jesus and other religions.

      • Saying that if Jesus were in those cartoons half the USA would go nuts is…well, nuts! Jesus is lampooned far and wide without much ire beyond evangelical leaders grumbling a bit. Heck, remember when the US National Endowment for the Arts even funded (as best I recall) the “Piss Christ” (Jesus…on the cross I think…submerged in a jar of urine) as “art” in some swanky NY gallery? Get real.

        And as regards the idea of shooting up a school – isn’t that what the Pakistani Taliban did just last month in Pakistan at a school with mostly Pakistani military offspring?

        • everybody seems to also overlook the fact that there have been, and most probably still are, satirical cartoonists in the muslim society at large.. and they have been very satirical in the past.. itś just a few idiots here who are trying to fuck the world up for all of us, religious and non-religious (I am an atheist myself, so I don care either way about cartoons about Muhammed or Jezus..)

      • Agree with a lot of that.

        One point though is that there were many cartoons be Charlie Hebdo about Jesus, Jews, the pope etc. and they were full on.

        Might have been some hurt people but there was nothing to note in the Christian sphere.

        Look at Piss Christ, it angered many but there was no riots etc.

    • But what would the pretext for that have been?

      Besides, just because we may believe that this was their primary end doesn’t mean it was their only end. You can shoot or blow up just about anything to provoke the reaction you want, but you’ll go after those things that you have an agenda about.

    • I agree, Mark. This seemed to me to be simply a revenge attack on a notorious (in their minds) target, the subject of various fatwahs. Juan may be overthinking this – or, to be more charitable, the Al Queda/ISIS backers may be thinking more strategically than these 2 guys (but then we don’t know if they named the target of their own initiative.

      Having just returned from Paris, if Juan is right, this was a strategic error. I was amazed at the resolute anger about defending free expression from all Parisians I heard and spoke with. This is likely to cause far greater European resolve in fighting terror rather than in generating a right-wing backlash.

  3. “Most of France will also remain committed to French values of the Rights of Man, which they invented. ”

    Great article; thanks. A correction: if any people invented the Rights of Man, it was most likely the Persians. Google the Cyrus Cylinder.

    • You are probably referring to a bogus translation of this document that has been popularized. It’s really about Cyrus establishing the legitimacy of his reign and divine right. In a word, official propaganda of the ancient world. See the real thing here:
      link to

    • Reason IS human nature as well.

      Why do we insist on attributing our worst moments to ourselves but allow ‘reason’ to float about unattached?

  4. Most of France will also remain committed to French values of the Rights of Man, which they invented.

    I hope this is true. But the FN is currently polling ahead of all other parties, even before this happened.

    • One major reason why the Front National is polling well in France is the failure of François Hollande’s economic policies. He desperately wants to help the French working class, but he is trapped by the Euro (much as Ramsay MacDonald – the Depression-era British Labour prime minister – was trapped by the Gold Standard). The Front National’s policy of quitting the Euro (and presumably allowing the New Franc to depreciate so that France could regain competitiveness) probably looks like an attractive alternative.

      Anyway, could the Front National itself have been a target in this latest atrocity? Marine Le Pen has sought to distance the party from its neo-Nazi past as much as possible, as well as from genuine Islam-haters such as the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders. Perhaps this attack was meant to bolster hard-line Islamophobes against moderates within the FN?

      • The FN has quite a large number of muslim followers as they feel the party best represents the working class they are part of.

      • Interesting: If the basic needs and aspirations of ordinary people get met — a meaningful job, enough food, a safe place to live with family and friends, some respect for tolerable differences, an actual “rule of law,” a religion of conservation rather than consumption — it sort of seems that the things that apparently drive such episodes, what us fearful people call “monstrous” because we can imagine it happening so easily to US, sort of evaporate. Not too many forces and powers and interests pushing in that direction, of course…

  5. Very good and important insight from Juan Cole. But just to note, referring to “Stalinist” tactics in 1919 rings a slipshod note. Stalinist as a term applies to later era. “Bolshevik,” I think would be more historically correct.

    • Also, the tactic he cites, I believe, is better known as “heightening the contradictions”. Means the same as “sharpening” them, of course. But it would be more immediately recognizable as the Leninist doctrine he’s referring to if the more common phrasing was used.

      • Heightening contradictions, as far as I know didn’t mean hitting your owns to make you believe it was undertaken by the adversary. It meant choosing a very symbolic target and hoping that this act would encourage other to enter in the fight.
        In this sense, the target was perfectly chosen.

  6. “Most of France will also remain committed to French values of the Rights of Man, which they invented. But an insular and hateful minority will take advantage of this deliberately polarizing atrocity to push their own agenda. ”

    I would like to believe this statement is true. I wish it were true. But I doubt the Jews in France would agree based on their French experience over the past few years. It certainly has been no French vacation at the beach. 6000 French Jews, a record, out of 600,000 moved to Israel. Another amount moved to Montreal and the US. It was a moved based on fear.

  7. Your analysis seems, sadly, spot-on. This horrific attack will lift the hopes of all those who are already pushing their reactionary agendas on the back of perceived “Islamization.” In Germany, for example, the reactionary Pegida (an acronym that stands for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident”) has been rearing its ugly head for several weeks now, but counter-demonstrations have attracted far more people, and thankfully the political elites have largely distanced themselves from this anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim group.

    But the Paris slaughter will be wind under their wings, judging by initial reactions on the discussion boards of German newspapers. We are in for highly-charged, difficult times, in many countries. Perspectives like yours, Prof. Cole, are desperately needed. So, a heartfelt thanks for your analysis.

  8. FEDERATION Iraq? Why kill more Sunni? Iraq dream like a Western idea melancholy hype. Sunni/Shia like oil & water. Separate entity. Kurds will fight to death for own! Drop ISIS by Sunni final agreement federated Iraq

  9. “‘Sharpening the contradictions’ is the strategy of sociopaths and totalitarians, aimed at unmooring people from their ordinary insouciance and preying on them, mobilizing their energies and wealth for the perverted purposes of a self-styled great leader.”

    A pertinent historical example is the Prophet Mohammed, who used these tactics to disrupt the existing cults of his day, consolidate power, and ultimately commanded his follows to emulate his example.

    Which has been done in unbroken succession for 1400 years.

    • As if this is the only example of an culture subscribing to an Abrahamic religion doing this. You’ve heard of the Crusades?

      • You have misunderstood your history as regards the Crusades. The territory that the European knights were fighting in had been part of the Eastern Roman Empire for over a thousand years until it was captured by the Muslim armies. Those armies didn’t stop there, they continued on right to France (where they were defeated otherwise we would all be speaking Arabic). The first crusade was a response to a request from the Eastern Roman Emperor for help in defending his Empire from the Muslim armies and not a war of aggression. It was the Muslims who were the aggressors during the crusades and both sides fought in terrible ways but the series of wars we know as the crusades were not started by Europeans but were started by the Muslim armies and were, from a European point of view, wars of defence and not of aggression.

        • Except that greedy Crusaders eventually sacked Constantinople itself, so they had no regard for the Orthodox faith. Nor did they turn over captured Jerusalem to the Eastern emperor, but butchered its inhabitants, and installed their own Catholic rulers and colonists. You’re buying a cynical excuse for a war, like the supposed “rescue” of Iraqi Christians by George Bush.

  10. Juan, I am surprised that someone with your erudition can talk about “Stalinism” in 1919. Maybe you meant Marxists. If so, that is even worse.

    • Hey! That name is common enough that you must be the guy who wrote a blog post about Birobidzhan that I really enjoyed. If so, consider this a “hi” from an appreciative reader.

  11. It is not terrorism, it is criminality. I don’t see differences between today’s shooting and Mafia’s activities. Don’t tell them terrorists, you give them the importance they don’t deserve.

  12. Pancho Villa did something similar to provoke the USA to attack Mexico by attacking civilians in Columbus.

  13. Don’t a large number of Muslims joining ISIS come from France? If so, then your argument not so strong as you might believe it to be. Previously, death threats were also made to those who defamed the Prophet.

    • Out of 5-6 million Muslims, a few hundred went to fight in Syria; note that the French gov’t wanted Bashar overthrown, too. This is not a counter argument

      • It might even be a motivation? If it is currently fertile enough to get a few hundred, if they can provoke anti-muslim counterattacks -or even just distrust, recruitment might increase severalfold.

      • 930 was a number published in September. Although 1/4 are suspects of eminenent departure, it’s certainly an underestimate: often some are identified once they’re in Syria. The knuckleheads often have 2 nationalities and transiting through North Africa does the rest.
        But regardless, there are far more organizers, facilitators and most of all, sympathisers.
        1 example: I was living in Toulouse when the school was targeted. People were in shock to see the support the perpetrator had received in certain neighborhoods.
        I also lived in Lille in the 90’s and Paris. I can tell you that bracing ourselves won’t cut it.

  14. I would go even further, Juan, and say that “‘sharpening the contradictions’ exists as a strategy because of the problem of creating “imagined communities” for a global diaspora whose religious beliefs and linguistic diversity make it incredibly challenging for there to be cross-cultural solidarity.

    The typical Anglo-American response (read the columns in the UK’s Guardian and the comments as they are revealing) is to emphasize that those of Muslim and Arab descent (as if they were the same), naturally support such violence.

    Few people understand how secular the Muslim population in France is as well as in Central Asia. Even fewer understand that the overwhelming majority of Iranians under 50 are “pro-Western.”

    It’s politically shrewd though morally repugnant to use violence to create a sense of transnational solidarity among people whose cultural tastes, social identities and economic needs are so very different. It’s a tactic that is probably one of best “weapons of the weak” in a militarized asymmetric political struggle.

    Fear is a great mobilizer and how many states can adopt the Norwegian response to acts of terror? Unfortunately, reliance on panic, fear and distrust continue to be successful ways of accomplishing an otherwise impossible political strategy.

  15. thank you so much for this analysis- i can just feel the pogroms forming and it’s anguishing. I agree about the level of skills displayed in the appalling videos, and I also thought I heard French accents … I relieved not to feel alone in my confusion, though regardeless of skills, accents and motives, yodays acts are foul and appalling

  16. Alain Chouet, the former head of French Intel agency, pointed out ‘sharpening contradictions’ as well but I must say his perspective is much more informative, with all due respect. But firstly, as a side note, he firmly condemns the media’s use of the appellation al qaeda for such tragedies. I could try to explain if needed; this video is in French.
    link to

  17. “‘Sharpening the contradictions’ as a strategy seems premeditated, which infers Charlie Hebdo’s tweet of al-Zawahiri an hour before the attack was coincidence?

  18. Great piece. I’m pessimistic though. For centuries, Europeans have perfected an ability to find scapegoats. The Muslim community will eventually become a target.

  19. So Islamist militants have murdered 12 French journalists for publishing cartoons depicting followers of the Prophet Mohammed as bloodthirsty barbarians.

    That’s like raping 12 kids to prove you’re not a pedophile.

  20. As usual too much is being read in a very simple murder of innocent people.French people should have waken up when opposition leaders of the Islamic Republic were being assassinated in Paris and their government turned a blind eye and letting the assasins go because it was bad for business!!

  21. This is an interesting read and has lots of truth to it. Thanks for offering an intelligent view on how extremists exploit situations like this in order to recruit and perpetuate hate.

    Just FYI, I know that Charbonnier said he’d “…rather die on his feet than live on his knees,” but he was actually quoting Emiliano Zapata.

  22. Christians regularly disavow violence committed by other Christian groups. When an abortion clinic is bombed in the U.S. Christian groups strongly condemn the violence, even if their denomination is anti-abortion. All Christians churches in the U.S. denounce the Klu Klux Klan and most denounce acts like the burning of the Koran and the homophobic Westboro Church demonstrations.

    • Before claiming such broad “Christian” disavowal, one might spend some wasted hours inhaling the fumes of brimstone on the “Christian” TV channels and in youtubeland and Facebook. No shame, no pity, only often false and fraudulent statements of what “the Bible” (the Old Testament, and bits of Paulist sales pitches, and that fortuitous add-in, Revelation, the Gospels not so much) “says.” There’s no “Jesus” in “Christian,” to speak of. Not even, not maybe especially, the Jesus I learned about in Presbyterian Sunday School and Westminster Fellowship. “Conservative Christians” like Hagee and Angley and Falwell and Robertson and too many others and their Megaflocks hear the parts about “suffer the little children,” and “moneychangers in the Temple,” and “false prophets,” they just parse and construe and interpret them very differently…

  23. A succinct way of putting their aims: turn secular France into revenge worshiping, God and guns America. You cant have a real crusade without evangelical fervor; nothing brings back religion more than existential fear–now the Right can claim self-defense, and the necessity of rolling back the humanism that leads the cosmopolitan weakness, that the great predator of Islam is attacking.

  24. I posted this the night before the attack on another website, but I think it acquires an additional, terrible significance and meaning after the fact: “Houellebecq is sincere when he says that Western civilization is hollow to its core and only Islam can save it, his is a truly intelligent, radical, and prescient (indeed alchemical or kabbalistic) response to that gargantuan, continent-sized malaise that, for example, (and here lies the crux of the controversy) Breivik was also responding to, but while the latter would and could only transform himself into a blood-soaked caricature (though quite actually “demon” possessed) of a Dostoevskian “underground” or “superfluous” man, Houellebecq has the capacity, which is above all a creative ability, to resort to the relative equanimity, the sangfroid, the intuition (which is a sort of purity despite all) of the genuine artist, and this makes the transformative possibilities of his impulses, the “eppur-si-muove” power of his vision, all the more actual and existent, because it has not been exhausted, aborted, or made monstrous by self-destruction or destruction of the other.”
    link to

    “Une caricature sanglante” of Islam made monstrously literal at Charlie Hebdo?

  25. Dear Juan,

    I wish you could also extend your condolence to the family of Ahmed, the policeman who was gunned down in cold blood while guarding the building. We saw him in the video. Why no one paid attention to his tragic death? I wish you said something about him.

    • See the end of the fifth paragraph of the article, above:

      “……there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim.”

  26. Holy crap! There is a gigantic assumption in Juan’s theory that the perpetrators are members of al-Qaeda or ISIS or that they were acting under orders from said groups. No doubt they are in sympathy with jihadists, but that does not not mean that they conspired with them in a plot to increase recruitment. Ultimately, the impact may be the same, but how about waiting for more facts to come in before jumping to such conclusions?

    • They announced that they are al-Qaeda and told a bystander that they represented AQAP in Yemen. They had come back from fighting in Syria where they very likely were Jabhat al-Nusra, i.e. al-Qaeda. You can believe this was random if you like, but it has al-Qaeda’s fingerprints all over it.

      • The common-law wife of one of the assailants is reported by Turkish intelligence to have fled to Turkey under an assumed name and was last seen in a Turkish community near the Syrian border.

        Jabhat al-Nusra is on the U.S. State Department list of terror organizations subject to sanctions, however there is no extensive history of this group engaging in prior terror activity against Western interests. The Syrian National Coalition had earlier attempted to get the U.S. to drop this odious designation

        There is speculation that ISIS may have organized the attack.

  27. One additional motivating factor for targeting Paris for the attack that may be France’s former status as a colonial power in Arab nations such as Syria and Lebanon.

    In Syria particularly, the Alawite minority served as police and administrative authorities for the French colonial rulers prior to independence and later took control of the Syrian government as Baathists where they continue to this day.

  28. Maybe you’re trying to make sense out of the senseless ? maybe this attack was just born out of nihilism and irrtionalism and had no overaching stretegic goal ? you might be right about the outcome of this attack, it may serves to divide the people of france from the muslim community, but was that the goal or is that just a welcome consequence to the people who carried out the attack ?.

    Mostly these attacks arent motivated by an urge for revege over something as trivial as a cartoon or a “way of life” , its usually grievances against western foriegn policy, but every now and then you do get completely irrational attackers purely motivated by the trivial.

    Although, without the backdrop of the last 10-14 years of western intervention in the middle east I doubt most of these attacks on places like charlie hebdo would even have occured.

  29. Well-written critical analysis, and many thanks for posting this. Just one tiny correction, with all due respect: prefer “Human Rights” to “Rights of Man”, notwithstanding the French “Droits de l’Homme”. The French usage means “human”.

  30. Intellectuals have voluntary fans those who like their works.
    Expressions are one form of manifestation.
    Killing of a generation of intellect calls for shameful mercenaries who are paid for.
    They will meet their fate.
    I condole with all who are hurt by this gruesome attack.

  31. I appreciate the attempt to draw attention towards the risk of throwing Muslims into “one single bucket” and overall this is a good article with a great comparative paragraph about Stalinism etc. However I find the following sentence a bit problematic: “In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.”
    In a way this sentence presupposes that Muslims – per se – are not very well educated and also it seems to suggest that they favour violence? Now I don’t think that the author of this article intended to give this impression but one has to be very careful with statements like this. It seems such a subtle thing but it does contribute to automated assumptions that we – the westerners – make about the Muslim, “the other”. The point is that the so-called Muslim is not “the other”, even if he doesn’t live amongst us, in Paris. I am certain that people who do have a strong Islamic belief, or people who still live in a country wher Islam is the main religion, do not favour terrorism or totalitarianism. In much the same way as we do, over here.

  32. What was supremely shocking about the massacre was that it took place in a civilized place like Paris, where you look to words not deeds to settle disagreements. This was an honour killing, inspired by the tribal mentality of some primitive hill village where words are lacking and violence fills the gap. As they left, they shouted “We avenged the Prophet,” “We killed Charlie,” and “Allahu akhbar.” They stalked Charlie for years, they knew the editorial meeting took place on Wednesday mornings and that everyone would be there, they were clearly trained professionals. Who trained them is perhaps not important. What is important is that the French state has failed to give part of its people a stake in the Republic. François Fillon, a former prime minister, acknowledged this on television last night. It’s worth noting that all the political and cultural figures I saw on television last night rose above the usual platitudes and lapsed into honesty for a change. Everyone was clearly very shaken. Even Marine Le Pen condemned the attack in no uncertain terms and said that no “amalgame” should be made between the attackers and the Muslim community. I don’t know what response the attackers were hoping for – possibly they weren’t looking that far ahead – but the outpouring of solidarity in several French cities last night gives one hope that something constructive may emerge from this. If so, they won’t have died in vain. Nous sommes tous Charlie.

  33. The idea that there is no market for radical Islamism among young Muslims in France (or in Britain for that matter) is somewhat wishful thinking. It is big enough to be a serious problem. To reduce it to a manageable size it would be necessary to integrate the vast majority of those Muslims economically (not politically or culturally but economically).

  34. It is exactly what 9/11 did in causing Bush to invade Iraq and Afghanisthan. It worked there, so this makes absolute sense

  35. there are gradations of everything ………an attack on a school full of kids would be condemned worldwide?….maybe so….but the terrorists who attacked the school in pakistan felt justified because they saw it as legitimate target because the kids were children of the military…….any fanatic can come up with any justification…especially if theyre pointed in the right direction…..
    if there was a genuine uprising of muslims worldwide you would be seeing a lot more lone wolf activity…….because most of what we see is planned and organised i’m led to believe that there are
    people for whom this chaos is in their best interests……..follow the money…thats where the power is……check out the conceptual artist who has been advising putin for the last 15 years….vladislav surkov…..hes performing live on a daily basis in front of millions of people…and hes getting away with it…..i think attacks like this are
    part of a much bigger deception being practiced worldwide…and no…i’m not a conspiracy theorist……

  36. ” In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious,”
    This part confused me. Aren’t usually more educated people LESS religious?

  37. What the murderers might have in mind: to generate a powerful backlash against all Muslims, and a society in which further marginalization of minorities drives ever-greater alienation and radicalization. This would certainly spur more recruits to violence, and serve to purport “legitimized resistance” to perceived repression. It a very old strategy. To these killers, the notion of reasonable accommodation with others’ beliefs and lifestyles is anathema. It is very unlikely that they were seeking some sort of ‘respect and dignity’ within the culture of secular France—and there is much work to be done toward that reasonable goal that does not include curbing free expression. Much more likely they aimed their terror as a salvo in the battle for the universal jurisdiction of a ‘global caliphate’ — in which the most severe and twisted hyper-Islamist misinterpretation of their religion’s teachings would be imposed on all.

  38. The French did not “invent the Rights of Man”. The Rights of Man was written by Thomas Paine, who was British, though inspired by the American and French Revolutions. Nor was he the first to posit these views.

    Other than that, I agree with the article.

  39. You’ve totally misread the situation, Mr. Cole. Young Muslims in France might have little time for the discipline and morality of Islam, but cling quite tightly to the tribal identity of “Muslim” in opposition and hostility to their host population. This is expressed in their music and culture, as well as in their behavior- the gaybashing, the Jew-bashing, the bullying and intimidation of French kids. Many will fly Islamist flags just to alienate the French. This is a tribal identity, not a religion.

  40. The one glaring omission from this article is any sort of evidence for this plot. This shouldn’t be posed as anything other than conjecture.

  41. One information of this article is simply wrong :
    “thet spoke unaccented french”.
    For the rest, it is a free interpretation of french reality. ..

  42. Sharif and Said Kouashi are uneducated, low IQ, violent petty criminals turned lone wolves with limited connections to al-Qeada, Daesh or any other radical Islamic terror group. Yesterday, I was sure this attack was coordinated by Daesh intelligence with fighters returning from Syria but with more information that doesn’t seem to be the case. Apparently, these two nutjobs decided on their own to go on a rampage. This attack makes clear how much damage can be done in just a few minutes by ONLY two people just using guns and without any bombs.

  43. “For those who require unrelated people to take responsibility for those who claim to be their co-religionists (not a demand ever made of Christians)” I want to believe this is sarcasm intended to draw attention to what Christians actually endure regularly but it just doesn’t work. At the risk of being accused of trying to hijack the comments section (I’m not) of an otherwise good article, let me say, acknowledging the above quote’s different context, that there are nonetheless a nearly identical group of people doing precisely that blame-spreading to Christians and other religious when Islamist terrorist acts like this occur – anti-religious bigots who rant online against everyone except Islamists after Islamist incidents just like today’s occur. It seems by your comment you need to be made aware of it. I don’t know what motivates such to offer blaming and hence wiping out religion altogether as a cure-all for society’s ills, but the discrimination they endorse in society against all faithful regardless of stripe is clear and real. Setting aside for a moment the extreme cowardice in using a moment like this to dodge repercussions of criticism by blasting entirely other religions, the number of thusly hostile online comments today alone can’t be ignored if you want to say what you did. To go back to your parenthetical comment, sorry but in the West at least, there is plenty of blame-spreading for these acts to Christians by anti-religious posters, lumping them and other religious quite regularly with the most unreasonable members of entirely other religions. As an atheist who appreciates the value of culture and history I resent bigots waving around atheism as an antidote as if religion were a sickness. It is arrogant and intellectually stunting to be so cavalier about the boundaries of one’s own ignorance, a problem which writers much greater than me have pointed out as a real threat to the sciences. You are not guilty of any of this of course, but passing off comments which ignore a very similar experience had by Christians, Buddhist activists, and others under a possibly even worse premise (i.e. all faithful need to go) is unacceptable (to say nothing of the absurd notion that the creativity of abusers and the mentally ill will instantly cease in a world without religion).

    Thank you.

    • Difference is, evangelical Christians like G. W. Bush have had positions of ultimate power, and committed crimes on a scale that few Moslems (except our billionaire Saudi allies) can even conceive. The GOP has become the Christian Party in America, and at some point American Christianity must bear some responsibility for not restraining its crimes, or preventing well-funded extremists from hijacking Christian legitimacy.

  44. Friendly editor suggests…”Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of apathy. ” “disinterest” is not the word you want.

  45. It is an “interesting” article but this quote “lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram),” leads me to believe that the author is not completely informed on French culture. Beur is not an anagram, it is Verlan, and French Arabs do not playfully use it, it is actually derogatory.

    • “Beur” is derogatory? Some might use it derogatorily, but many youths of immigrant origin use it proudly. See for example the success of the radio station Beur FM.

      • Just because some idiots use it and reclaimed the word doesn’t make it non-offensive… Many people still believe ‘ni**er’ is offensive despite some black youths using it among their peers. Beur is equally offensive. When I lived in France lots of bar owners would refuse my entry because I was with ‘Beur’ friends… France is a messed up society.

  46. Violence is not a solution for difference of opinion. As Mahatma Gandhi said, if an eye for an eye was followed by all the whole world will be blind.

  47. Yet another reason for the attack, IMHO, is France’s current full court press against the Al-Qaedas in Algeria, Mali, Niger, Syria and Yemen. Anything they can do to turn public opinion against the French actions is a victory for the Islamofacists..

  48. As usual, Juan, you have given us the most insightful and useful commentary on these horrific events. It is exactly what I was thinking, but you explained it much more clearly. Fingerprints of Al Qaeda indeed! When OBL attacked the twin towers, his goal was not to hurt the US. It was like hitting the big toe of a giant with a hammer. Why do you do that, at least if you are not stupid, and by all accounts OBL was very intelligent- after all so was Lenin? For one reason only: to provoke a response. OBL’s motive was never to take over or destroy the US, with 6 boxcutters, it was to take over in Pakistan (which already has nukes) or Syria or Saudi or wherever, meanwhile letting the US destroy itself in its insensate rage and insatiable lust for revenge. That Bush was a faux cowboy with father issues made him the perfect foil, much better than an Al Gore would have been! So stupid and so predictable….we all knew what would happen, and could only watch with crying hearts as the tragedy unfolded, as it continues to expand into the future, on and on. As you point out, AQ has pursued the same strategy over and over again in Iraq and Syria, first by killing the Northern Alliance leader 2 days before 9-11, then killing the Brazilian UN envoy, then bombing Shiites,
    mosques, schools, historic sites… and we all fell into their traps perfectly, again and again. It is much more effective to attack progressive cartoonists than to attack say Le Pen’s folks, or school kids.
    The target was expertly chosen. They have forced Hollande’s hand, he must be firm in his response because of clamor from the right. The danger is to be pushed too far and do exactly what AQ wants. That is unfortunately in all probability what will be the result.

    I hope you get this posted on HuffPo or TruthDig and elsewhere so as many people as possible can understand what is behind all this and see some reason.

    The likely response however is either cowardice (blaming the cartoonists, and refusing to republish their cartoons) or the over-reactions of anger, hatred, intolerance, racism..

  49. An extremist sect, Wahabism who pass themselves off as Sunnis is causing confusion outside the Islamic world.Majority of the worlds muslims are peaceful,moderate and loving Muslims including myself.Why is the west afraid to tell the world that many of the terrorists of Al Qaeda,Isis,Taliban..etc follow the warped extreme ideology of Wahabism.There is no sunni/shia conflict….it is a wahabi/shia conflict.Even the Taliban follow a Wahabi/Deobandi ideology. What ever western media you read this “Wahabi”factor is left out.Wahabism is the official ideology of Saudi Arabia.These Wahabis are giving Islam a negative image.For those that need a simplier explaination…Sunnis are akin to the Catholic faith and Wahabism the protestants.

    • Sam, most muslim countries have strong penalties including capital punishment for blasphemy, and apostasy and these laws are popular with Sunnis who are not necessarily Wahabist. Shiite Iran enforces these laws too. Catholics and Protestants are not killing people for leaving Christianity or making cartoons.

      • The persecution of leftists by government and businessmen during the McCarthy terror certainly destroyed lives and caused suicides. The crime of the leftists was that they offended America’s unofficial religion of capitalism.

        And America was riddled with blasphemy laws and clergy-staffed censorship boards in its past days. Note that we have this political movement called the Tea Party that stridently demands to “restore” the governing system of those days – while conveniently omitting the ugly details of laws against blasphemy, miscegenation, labor organizing, etc. Maybe our extremists have simply become more sophisticated liars under the experience of democracy. When a major presidential candidate declares his manifesto to be a return to “1792 – without slavery”, what is he and his followers self-servingly omitting?

      • The West is and has been involved in killing innumerable people of all stripes, with a significant influence from the Evangelical right of the U.S. It’s kind of a funny position to take, to claim “Christians aren’t killing people over religion”. Well, we might want to take a look at civilian death tolls from U.S./U.K./French/Israeli/etc aggression. The numbers would be shocking if anyone, you know, cared.

  50. “Beur” is not an anagram. Its origin is indeed in “Arabe”, to which a loose “verlan” (reversing of a word’s syllables) has been applied, but it is far from being an anagram.

  51. Totally off topic, but as a matter of historical knowledge. The democratic constitution of Poland preceded France’s “rights of man” by 2 years.

  52. Hi
    I’m French, and sad, and much more worried for future trends in my country than I was only Monday.
    Just want to say thank you for your very wise articles. Hopefully you will be heard.

  53. This is the Achilles heel of collectivism: the relative ease with which conflict between groups can be ignited. Radical Islam seeks to initiate a kind of class warfare, and where Muslims are segregated, and especially where they are economically and politically disadvantaged or persecuted, the strategy works.

  54. Let’s keep it simple and just say that it all started when the Bush1 regime manufactured a reason to go to Iraq and overthrow Saddam who was maintaining peace and prosperity for his country. We can discuss the real reasons why later.

  55. “War”, “violence”, “killing”………..all are used by everyone in this mess. Violence and counter-violence. Obama attacks New York. Bush and Cheney attack Iraq. The USA kills Obama. The USA kills all sorts of people with drones…….and now some highly motivated lunatics kill journalists. This cycle of violence WON’T end………..but there absolutely will be a lot more dead people……..and all the while EVERYONE thinks that right is on their side! Go figure.

  56. Culture shock is certainly the tactic of those who want to capitalize on the fabrication of the notion of the ‘us’ and the ‘them’; the Nazis thrived on it; ‘sharpening the difference’ is just that. People of muslim faith around the world are no different from other peoples, all that ordinary people want is a decent life; But there are some handfuls of terrorists who would use any tactics to promote their hideous agenda, like killing school kids, abducting school girls, perpetrating terrorist acts. Sometimes to intimidate whole communities; sometimes to make the relationship among ethnic groups so venomous that the recruitment of hate-agents become easier for them. I think that not to fall prey to the schemes of these human-haters, people should stop equating Muslims with Al-Quaeda; this would come down to refusing to give the terrorists what they want precisely; indeed, just like the Talibans who should not have been tagged Muslims, since they were savagely destroying Muslims people. Giving in to the ‘Muslims’ and ‘us’ dichotomy will only reinforce the ‘psychose’ and trigger more hate events, also turning peace-loving individuals to ethnic beasts, who end up getting sucked up by Right Wing Movements or terrorist fundamentalists. The thing is, if Muslims themselves do not want to be linked to those terrorists barbarians, the non-muslims are all too ready to equate terrorists to Muslims; little do they realize that they are playing in the hands of the scheming terrorists. The Swedish were right to judge terrorists as common criminals. Much intelligence and clarity of mind is needed to combat such enemies, the events of the past should teach us, Hitler knew how to gain solidarity of his people and of other nations; he sent his soldiers to do his dirty job. Fundamentalist terrorists have a far easier job, they only have to raise antagonism between people of Muslim faith, who live all round the world and the non-muslims , and their work of hate, slaughter and destruction can proceed unhampered.

  57. strategic ability is one of Al Qaeda’s fortes. The horrendously efficient attacks of 9/11 and subsequent disinformation campaign to blame the Jews, under the “truther” guise, is a pretty poignant example of this.

    • bin Laden claimed responsibility more than once for 9/11 and explained precisely that the US presence in his native Saudi Arabia was the motive. Whether any other group had foreknowledge and looked the other way is quite another matter.

      • Bin Laden blamed lots of things, including high infant mortality during the US sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s (500,000 dead) and at one point the 1982 Israeli destruction of Beirut.

  58. Most insightful, thought provoking and honest article I have read so far ahout a tragedy that should not have happened by any means. Thank you for sharing.

  59. Joel Cohen

    Thank you for writing this, Juan. My sense is that these two guys were put up to it/incited by higher-up strategists, who had a plan very much like the one you describe.
    I’ve been a fan of Cabu and Wolinski since the 1960’s, it felt like a personal assault — as it did to millions of others, surely.

  60. Perhaps you are over analysing this, do you not think its a simple violent retaliation for something as simple as a ‘snapping’ after repeated insults of their prophet Mohammed, whom these people hold in the highest regard and are unwilling to tolerate any disrespect. I suppose you would have to be a fundamentalist muslim to understand it, freedom of speech and satire is unimportant to them. I’m being a devils’s advocate here of course.

    • they ran a recruitment ring for al-Qaeda in Iraq and one was convicted for it. Does that sound like a lone wolf to you?

  61. I totally disagree with the “motivation” referred to in your view. Given the events (in Paris and thereafter). I don’t believe this was a “hit” orchestrated by a larger party. like al-Queda or Isis…but rather an act of a few radical (upset) individuals (alike Hebdo had experienced before). Hence I strongly oppose to the endless “links & references”, made to Right, Left, Islam, Muslim and/or whatever – “labeling” these events is extremely dangerous & provocative in it’s own right. This was however, a barbaric act and once more goes to emphasize how volatile “we and our values” are to a disgruntled few.

    • “I don’t believe this was a “hit” orchestrated by a larger party like al-Queda or ISIS.”

      Did their superiors in a terrorist group order this attack? Right now, it doesn’t look like it. Training with AQ in Yemen several years ago isn’t enough to call this an organized terrorist attack.

      This attack is similar to the London bombings or the Boston Marathon bombings. No higher ups were involved in either attack.

      • usual caveat apply but: link to

        One of the perpetrators was reportedly trained in Yemen by AQAP (which has not affiliated with DAESH) although a prior known associate apparently may be affiliated (BBC).
        This could be Al-Qaeda resurgent or at least showing signs of operational life.
        By reports, this appears to have been very well planned — there was police protection on-site — not a crime of opportunity or “good luck” …
        I’m appalled at the amount of mitigation being given readily to this cold-blooded act. The blow-back on European Muslims will be considerable — their insecurity increased. If it was done in-order-to sharpen the contradictions, it becomes even more despicable to worry about how rude and unfunny many of the cartoons were… or that all groups (meaning Jews) were not skewered equally … as if this mattered — certainly if it was to “sharpen the contradictions” or show signs of life or aid as a recruiting tool — all those excuses (even legitimate historic grievances) become merely misplaced mitigation.

        • In 2011, over three years ago,, one of the brothers went to YEMEN and underwent some training by AQAP in small arms combat. How much training does a person need to kill unarmed people trapped in a room?

          The reports I read indicate this attack was SLOPPY, to say the least.. The first building they tried to enter was the wrong one. After finding the right building they only gained entry by threatening at gunpoint a female employee arriving for work. They were lucky both policemen were caught completely off guard. Neither one got off a shot.

          Last night, on The Charlie Rose Show, a journalist said the French are calling this their 9/.11. She even showed a picture of two pencils standing up like the twin towers with a jet in the background like the 9/11 attack. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times ran front page articles detailing the trip to Yemen and the al-Qeada connection. Here we go again.

          Right now, the two al-Qeada terrorists seemed to be cornered in a small grocery store thirty miles outside of Paris. Both of the brothers are very violent and VERY UNEDUCATED young men. How much of an AQ connection do they really have and how much is being played up by politicians and the media as a fear mongering tactic?

  62. The strategy plays into inherited tendencies to choose up sides and hate those who attacked us, and ALSO those we attack. link to If it isn’t actively countered — as it was with the “Je Suis Ahmed” meme — it could work.

  63. I think you are wrong. Sure Al Qaeda has been mentioned, but the proponents in this case may have simply been inspired by Al Qaeda, much like the Sydney hostage raker was insired by IS.
    They were more likely responding to the Al Qaeda hit list of blaphemers
    link to
    Or was the assassin of Rushdie’s translator also seeking to “sharpen the contradictions”?
    The strategy you imagine is not well suited to Western countries, where a free press and social media would render it transparent.
    If anything, the crime has “sharpened” the contradiction between primitive Islamic doctrine and Western enlightenment values – to the detriment of Islam.

    • Only if the public CHOOSE to view Muslims as a homogenous entity, with all being of the same hue. However, most understand that this is not the case. Now it is about those of us that do understand, aligning ourselves with moderate Muslims – not slagging off Muslims in general, which would be the redneck, generalist bigoted way to react.

      • What’s a “moderate” Muslim, anyways? For someone talking about others being bigoted, that’s a funny term to use.

        Do Jews have to be “moderate”? Christians? Atheists? Or does that just apply to Muslims, along the lines of “We’ll tolerate them, as long as they aren’t TOO Muslim?

  64. “Heightening the contradictions” is part of every revolutionary struggle in the history of man, Prof. Cole. Do you think the leaders of that violent mob at the Boston Massacre was unaware of the propaganda value of provoking the Redcoats into shooting? John Adams admitted after the Revolution that the American population was split, 1/3 for his side, 1/3 for the King, and 1/3 undecided. The Founding Fathers needed to provoke people into getting off the fence to establish a right to take power. They were very circumspect in their military actions, but from preachers calling George III the Antichrist to guerrillas waging dirty war, neighbor against neighbor, in the Carolinas, we owe our “nation” to deliberate and violent provocations meant to “reveal” the oppressive nature of British rule.

    It’s a legitimate strategy, that has become a pathology from overuse.

  65. I’m mostly grateful for Mr. Cole’s blogging. This well written article gets a useful unique discussion going, raising some points the mainstream avoids, yet it places most of the attention on Muslims (deserved, partly), especially the obvious, Al Qaeda (who’s backing ties to US and its allies), as we are dutifully expected based on what is provided by the media (the show) and what “officials say”. (compare this to the medias treatment of non-Muslim terror attacks in the US–usually they disappear within a day or week)

    Recall the history of other violent attacks throughout Europe, especially Turkey, Italy and Greece, but also Sweden, Switzerland, Austria and Finland, following WW II by NATO stay behind forces and ultra-violent nationalists. Allegedly this collusion was supposed to prevent residual Soviet influence, but also to turn public opinion against socialism and communism. It was terrorism that killed innocent people and put the blame on the wrong people. Yet they were being offed and harmed by their own government-not the Commies. It is clear, however, it helped justify NATO, US staying behind-forever-, arms deals galore, spying, and of course making financiers even richer than they did off WWII. On the other hand, resources towards social causes and an anti-Capitalism ethos would be diverted more than they otherwise could.. Remember, post-WWII, Europeans had unprecedented social and infrastructure needs, and the war of Fascism against Socialism NEVER did end, in Europe or America, or elsewhere for that matter.

    Yet Mr. Cole incorrectly selects Stalinists false flags, then other Islamist false flags, but makes NO mention of the stay behind attacks that went on for decades in Europe.
    Look up stay behind and Operation Gladio. Then think about the mysteries of ISIS, the mischief of Israel and the US in Africa and the Lebanon and elsewhere, e.g., the former Soviet countries-Yugolavia, Ukraine, Georgia. Daniel Ganser wrote about this. Sibel Edmonds and the Corbett Report discusses stay behind forces in Europe, esp Gladio and Turkish variations often, too. Heck ,look these subjects up in Wikipedia, or YouTube. Scary subversive unsettling and all too close to home. Relevant to today’s terror, too. Is that why it’s not discussed in the mainline? What say you Mr. Cole?
    And do we really know who did this because the perps yelled out who was responsible? Works in the old Hollywood films, but then, they always made the yellow, brown, black and REEL Bad Arabs REEL Injuns out to be the REEL real bad guys.

  66. I suggest readers contrast NATOs strategy of tension/ stay-behind operations with sharpening contradictions/ heightening contradictions.

    I’d value Mr. Cole’s comparison between these two and their relevance and similarities in today’s most violent and high stakes foreign affairs between the US allies and those who are not.

  67. Interesting article and poignant as well. It was learning for me and provided me food for thought to absorb your line of thinking. You have made a very rational argument and I thank you for your clarity of thought. I am sure the world will also learn something from your article as it is rich in perspective based on logic. Thank you.

  68. unless you mention emotional insecurity and suppressed fear it’s just academic or political analysis ..

    it is people who do this, not strategies

  69. At the root of this sort of outrageous response are Salafist beliefs relating to literalism in religion and its portrayal. IS and seemingly this group believe that there should no idolic representation in Islam ….hence IS has threatened on its journey cleansing the Middle East that it actually go to Saudi…Mecca and the Kaaba to smash it. To me if they are willing to desecrate the most holy sites of even their Sunni fellow travelors there is nothing sacrosanct under the sky.

  70. I could not believe this was a journalist article. Thanks God this is in fact an informed comment:

    Any mention in this analysis of the HUNDREDS of threat letters that Charlie Hebdo received before the attack? Any mention in this article of the fire which totally burned the last Charlie Hebdo office? Any mention in here of the different pressures that they had on a regular basis (please let me highlight that they were under police protection because of these past attacks and threat). And finally any mention in this poor article of the name of CHARB being part of Al-Qaeda list of dead or alive wanted individuals? This crime will definitely benefit both extremes in France but the theory of the plot is the worst thing you can write right now, for the journalists and there families died because fighting against any kind of oppression. I am shocked and think that any comment should be better informed before to become public….!

  71. I wonder about whether the western impulse to re-post all Charlie’s most satirical cartoons aimed toward Islam is also a galvanizing force that helps the Terrorists’ cause. What kind of response is the best antidote to the “sharpening contradictions” strategy?

    Martin Luther King Jr. dealt with the issue of white fear: “A mass movement exercising love and non-violence IS an object lesson in power under discipline, a demonstration, to the white community that if such a movement attained a degree of strength, it would use its power creatively and not vengefully” (King, 1962/3). I am pretty sure that non-violent movements work best to thwart the brutality of a minority, but I would love read an article about the flipped response to what they perpetrated this week.

  72. When has extremism ever been defeated by tolerance? Genuine question.

    Human history is blood red and I haven’t read an account of tolerance of barbarianism defeating barbarianism.

    I suppose you could argue over the long haul, enlightenment and all that, but that includes a lot of unnecessary death of completely innocent people.

    So I suppose you are saying we should all just watch our backs and hope for the best until this all blows over. Bad luck to the many who will be murdered?

    I think this is a great article, I just don’t believe radical religion is going to go away without some kind of pushback.

  73. As for the present attack being part of an elaborate strategy, I wouldn’t read that much into it; they really seem to be two ex-amateur rappers who threw themselves into war to find meaning and possibly hero/martyr status instead of the expected burger-flipping future.

  74. That is what terrorism is based on – the creation of fear and division within society. The only way to counter it is not to fall into their plans by fearing Muslims, but reject the seeds of discontent that they sow by embracing Muslims and giving them benefit of the doubt. Like the Sydney #illridewithyou campaign. Show solidarity WITH the Muslim population. Dont help the terrorists create hatred.

  75. I’m a Muslim and I condemn this terrorist act. Nothing can justify killing anybody like this. And these same animals not only kill non-muslims, they also kill innocent Muslims in Muslim nations. Peshawer school killing is one of such incident that happened recently.

  76. In my country and I personally feel very sorry about the attack. However, it is not good to accepy this attack as a characteristic of Islam. Those people are radical and they kill muslums more than the others. They understand Islam in a very wrong way. I follow the news and I see that there are some other attacks against to innocent Turks and other muslims in Paris. This is not a good thing. Please, dont be provacated! Not all muslims are enemy. This is a very narrow idea without thinking in a good sense and ultimatley this is racism. In addition, as much as those people are wrong, Western world also wrong. They insult, isolate those people. They are lack of education, job so there is nothing to loose. Because of this, they can join this radical grups easily. We have to educate people not to provacate them. Please everybody be foresightful!

  77. I think we need to draw breath and apply Occam’s razor here.

    It is entirely possible that the attack was undertaken because:
    (1) The fanatics truly believe that insulting Islam and/or its prophet is a capital crime
    (2) Charlie Hebdo was already well-known, and hated, in Islamist circles
    (3) These guys were back from the front and their blood was up

    No need for sophisticated strategic thinking.

    No need for centralized AQ command structure giving subtle orders like Dr No

    All it took was a small band of nutters with links to criminals (to source the weapons – sadly, not at all hard to do in mainland Europe) and a strong motivation.

    Expect a lot more of this before it’s over :-(

  78. “Beur” comes from two successive oral-reversals (a very popular slang technique in France) of the word “Arabe” :
    Arabe –> Rebeu –> Beur
    It is also a pun on “beurre”, pronounced the same and meaning “butter”.

  79. There is a lot of high quality discourse on this thread which takes the general view towards Jihadists that they are dupes who have been “radicalised” by self-seeking leaders who are exploiting the weak. But … what if Jihadism and radical Islam represent intelligent, principled men with sincerely held beliefs that are grounded in a moral philosophy that can withstand reasoned, intelligent argument. Maybe the Glasgow airport bombers (who were physicians) provide some substance to this theory. If this turns out to be a robust ideology that meets the spiritual and material aspirations of substantial numbers of people, including many who are intelligent and “rational”, then you have a much bigger problem to solve.

  80. Going to Yemen and attacking a newspaper got the brothers labeled al-Qeada terrorists. That CRACKPOT in Sydney, Australia was a Shiite from Iran and made his attack on a restaurant so he wasn’t considered a real terrorist even though all these loons were really just peas in a nutty pod.

    I just heard on the news the brothers expected to be killed when they attacked the newspaper. After they escaped, they had NO PLANS and no idea where they were going or what they would do next.

    Per The Guardian, the French had over 88,000 police and other authorities on the scene.


  81. This is such a convoluted and speculative argument when talking about a pizza=delivering pot-smoking rap artist and his group with no tactical skills to entertain these thoughts! Their imam was a janitor. How can I take your article seriously?

    • Those are the kinds of people who have all along been recruited by al-Qaeda. The pillars of the community are not terrorists. That these guys were hooked into a network and likely put up to this seems to me fairly clear from their bios. And then there is this:

      link to

  82. I think you’re giving too much credit to the killers. Just after commiting their crimes, they were shouting: “We avenged the prophet !”, and from the tone they used, I clearly think this was their only intention.

    However, I agree with you that there’s a bigger picture, and the leaders of the terrorists want to create a situation where it will be easier for them to recruit. I just think they’re keeping this “plan” to themselves, and the ones doing the terrorists attacks, like the 3 guys in France, are just used like unwtitting pawns.

  83. You really can’t say christians are not asked to take responsibility for what their fellon chritians did have done or are doing. Catholics are continually asked to take responsibility for the past crimes or the church: accepting slavery, forcing religion on other people, inquisition, slaughtering protestants. I the same way protestants are called to take charge for religious war, for their behavior in the America and Australia in the last ce turies. More recently, catholics are always called to condemn peadophilia ( the action of 4% of the priest who represents themselves less than 1% of the catholics). Protestants are made responsible and are asked to condemn the homophobia of fundamentalist, their sexism and bigotery, the segregation in the USA, apartheid in South Africa. I could make the least for the orthodox, etc…
    What is asked to muslim is the same thinks that as been asked from christians, again and again: to condemn these actions , and the fact that spontaneously many of them decided to say # notinmy name# proves it is not outrageous to ask that, and also acknowledge that in their sacred texts and the way they are used, we can find the basis of that violence, exactly as you can find the basis of homophobic and sexist behaviour in the Bible, so that they need reforms, as we needed reform and reformed our beliefs during the 18th ( enlightenment) and 19th centuries.
    If we had not been collectively called to be responsible for what was done in the name of christianity, religious wars would still be a reality, women would be banned from work once married, homosexuality would still be a crime, as well as working on Sunday, etc… To be called to condemn people who misrepresent your faith and question the basis of that faith is good for everybody.

    • There is a difference between asking the Catholic Church to take responsibility for actions of its own hierarchy in shielding pedophile priests, and asking all Christians (yes) to own and apologize for priest pedophilia.

  84. ‘but faces a wall of disinterest’. Uninterest, not disinterest. Those words mean different things.

  85. A “strategic strike” such as this can only be countered by an organized dis-owning of the tactics used. If this strike was intended to cause a rift between Islam and the rest of the world then organized Islam, institutional Islam must stand tall and disavow their central doctrine: the error of all other religion. Islam must support and plainly state peaceful co-existence as a religious doctrine.

  86. “For those who require unrelated people to take responsibility for those who claim to be their co-religionists (not a demand ever made of Christians)[….]”

    Is this true? I know it certainly isn’t true apropos of demands many Muslims make of Jews. Moreover, inasmuch as there is absolutely nothing intrinsic about being a Muslim, what is wrong with holding an ideology to account for the ideologues who associate with it? Even if the vast majority of French Muslims are peaceful or only quasi-religious, a substantial number within that community have expressed a dangerous religiosity which has resulted in violent, terrorist acts. It is simply a fact that, whatever their individual derangements, in the 21st century the violently deranged seem to have a disproportionate propensity for electing to convey their violence via expression through “Islam.” Is it really so gauche to ask other (including nominal) followers of Islam to explain this? Would such a line of questioning actually constitute or create what you call a “pogrom”? Will turning away from such questions– for fear of further increasing the number of hostile Muslims by having the temerity to raise them–somehow better address a serious problem which clearly already exists?

  87. The goal behind the Paris shootings was indeed to provoke attacks against Muslims by Europeans and to spread Islamophobia,(evident by the number of attacks on Mosques and Hijab-clad women) however the article fails to mention that Al-Qaeda was a brainchild of the CIA prepared to be used in the war against USSR, but failed to realize that they will later become a menace for everyone. Al-Qaeda and other such groups,namely ISIS and Daaish (also TTP,LEJ,BLA) receive heavy funding from the Zionist- controlled lobby of US. The aim of these militant groups is to de-stabilize Muslim countries so that they are easier to attack and take over. This would be evident if you compared their casualties Muslim to Non-Muslim ratio is around 100:1 .They also refuse to declare Jihad against Israel,which is responsible for genocide of Muslims,but instead targets Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan(97% Muslim Population)and Iraq. Makes no sense right? Why kill muslims when you can kill infidels? Because these Militant groups have nothing to do with Islam,they are mercenaries paid to defame Islam and demonize Muslims and develop a narrative against Islam to justify killing more Muslims by Israel and US. The world needs to wake-up and realize they are being fooled. Killing Muslims and calling them terrorists is only going to piss some of us enough to pick up arms against this filthy Zionist agenda. I am a Muslim and I detest such militant groups like Al-Qaeda,TTP,Daaish,ISIS because they have a)slaughtered almost as many Muslims as US b)defamed Islam . The world would be a better place if CIA and Mossad weren’t funding these groups but fighting them.

  88. I’m French and Juan Cole has left out some facts, like that of France’s colonial history with Algeria (a major hot-button issue when considering race relations in our country) and the fact that people born in the cites (Paris’s answer to council estates) are at a major disadvantage compared to the rest of the country (economically, professionally, socially, etc.) and that has not changed much in fifty years. His theory of divide and conquer may hold water but it is but the tip of the iceberg. These young idiots who unleashed this shit-storm of hatred upon the city of lights were not all that well-trained. One shouldn’t confuse the aloofness on display during the CH massacres with professionalism. These miserable fools come from orphanages & stints in jail, the kind of pathetic existence that has “low self-esteem” written all over it. Al-Qaeda and their brethrens look for these easy targets and brain-wash them. And this week is the result of the wonderfully-effective brain-washing at the hand of those committed to a political-brand of Islam.

    Where I go to my favorite couscous restaurant in Montparnasse, Paris, our host is an Algerian man in his mid-sixties. He plays music and plies us with alcohol. This is the Islam that I, a catholic-born agnostic can recognize and affirm as the only legitimate form of Islam, the one practiced by the last two generations in France. Those Muslims did not go to mosque (and certainly did not ask for new ones to be built), drank and ate pork and couldn’t give two fucks about all this sharia bullshit.

    For a variety of reasons, some which have been described earlier, the new generation has awakened to the sound of a collective catharsis, a poisonous primal scream their feeble mind somehow easily tethers to. And they are turning into remote-controlled robots. And no one will be able to do anything about it.

    This is the sinister and dark time of our history that we need to get through. It’s a historical cycle. This, too, shall pass.

  89. Delores Ibarruri, a Spanish Republican leader of the Spanish Civil War and communist is the person who first said, “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” Frankly, I am not Charlie — they may be martyrs, but not heroes to me.

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