The massacre of the staff of Charlie Hebdo takes its place among the despicable crimes committed in the name of Islamic fundamentalism. As the nation of France and the world come to terms with both horror and grief, details are emerging about the perpetrators of this atrocity and the means by which it was carried out.
Before the blood could be washed from the sidewalks, network pundits and talking heads were calling the Charlie Hebdo massacre a “highly sophisticated” operation, adding nervously that the murders had been carried out with “military commando-style” precision.
In plain fact, the slaughter of five unarmed journalists and seven other innocent, unarmed people is nothing more than a brutal and senseless crime. Nor were the perps especially versed in the skills of war or the intricate tradecraft of international terror. Within hours of committing their murders, the terrorists were cornered in a print shop north of Paris, surrounded by real commandos and taking refuge behind a randomly snatched hostage. Their ‘sophisticated’ operation unraveled even as it unfolded.
The assassins were of a type increasingly common in 21st century jihad— not highly trained imported specialists as in the case of the Munich Massacre of 1973, or the conflagration of 9/11, but homegrown Islamic fundamentalists. Charlie Hebdo’s executioners were French citizens, domestic radical converts to Islam in whose lives the seeds of frustration, alienation, and discrimination ripened into the bitter fruit of senseless violence. The murders at Charlie Hebdo are an affront to the secular pillar of freedom of expression, and a harbinger of calamities yet to come.
I have more than a passing interest in the tactics, techniques and procedures of terrorist organizations. I served formerly as an assault element commander at the Navy’s SEAL Team Six, and after I left the Navy I worked as a contractor for the CIA, FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the other usual suspects in the alphabet soup of Intelligence and Counterterrorism organizations. Sophistication was not one of the hallmarks of the Paris attack.
The men who committed the murders, thirty-somethings Said and Cherif Kouachi, were naturalized French citizens, the sons of a moderately assimilated immigrant family. Like the brothers Tsarnaev, the alleged authors of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Kouachi brothers had been newly radicalized. Succumbing to the siren call of jihad, the brothers came to hate the nation that failed to assimilate them. In both cases, immigrant middle class families produced sons who tried and failed to succeed. In Boston, Tamerlan Tsarnaev pursued dreams of being a prizefighter; in France, Cherif Kouachi delivered pizzas and fancied the life of a rap star. When their paths to glory failed, each tried to find solace in Islam. Bitter, increasingly angry and secluded, they were beckoned into the virulent ideals of extremist teachers. Both sets of brothers decided to destroy their adopted countries from within.
Like the Boston bombers, Said and Cherif Kouachi chose to pour out their wrath not on a key node of critical infrastructure, but on a cultural symbol. And in both cases, the brothers sought out temptingly soft targets. Like the Tsarnaevs, Said and Cherif Kouachi blipped on the radar of the authorities. U.S. government sources have stated that Cherif and Said Kouachi were listed in two American counterterrorism databases, one called TIDE, and the other the “no fly” list maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center. Said had previously been convicted in French court of funneling fighters to Iraq, and French authorities have stated that both brothers had been “under surveillance”. In a haunting reprise of the CIA’s passing interest in the brothers Tsarnaev, the French Security apparatus failed to watch the Kouachis long or closely enough.
The weekly Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo has a long history of satire. Left-wing in outlook, its writers, editors and artists ridiculed politicians, celebrities and the absurdities of modern life. It frequently published cartoons featuring not only the Prophet Mohammed, but masked, gun-toting terrorists, and skewered them with acerbic, if sometimes sophomoric, glee. Charlie Hebdo not only poked fun at fanatical Islam, it mocked other religions, including Judaism and Catholicism. Its cartoonists were as hard on the Pope as they were on ISIL. Free speech and creativity were to the staff of Charlie Hebdo both weapons and birthrights. They knew they stood on conspicuous and perilous ground. On November 1, 2011, the magazine announced that it had appointed the Prophet Mohammed as “Editor in Chief”. The next day, the offices were firebombed. Undaunted, the magazine reestablished itself, and a police officer was placed outside the door of the building.
The skill set required of the Charlie Hebdo murderers was not much above that required by the average gangbanger. The Kouachi brothers’ ruthlessness, however, was world class— even by the twisted benchmarks of Al Qaeda’s murderous psychopathology. For the terrorists, a few simple recons were sufficient to discern the layout of the magazine’s offices and identify the thin screen of security. This casual surveillance was also enough to suggest an opening. A member of the staff routinely arrived at work with her young daughter in tow. On the morning of the attack, the brothers assaulted the young mother, shoving her against a wall and threatening to kill the girl unless they were given the code to open the door. Upon entering the lobby, the assailants gunned down a pair of receptionists and stormed upstairs into the magazine’s offices. They called out the names of their victims— the editor and several artists and writers— and then shot each in the head. The crime took less than five minutes.
As they exited the building, the brothers betrayed their amateurism by spraying gunfire into the street, and calling out Allahu Akbar. An unmarked police vehicle was quick to the scene; just as quickly its windshield was spattered with bullets, killing the officer behind the wheel. The Kouachi’s last victim was a second police officer, Ahmed Marabet, the Muslim son of North African immigrants. Marabet was shot in cold blood as he sprawled unarmed and helpless on the sidewalk. A citizen with a cell phone recorded the ugly murder as it happened.
It has been revealed that Said Kouachi travelled to Yemen in 2011. There he received a modicum of training from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Said departed after learning to competently handle an AK-47 rifle and imbuing hatred sufficient to plot the murder of a dozen people he had never met. He returned to France, melted into the teeming population of Paris, and bided his time. Charlie Hebdo continued to publish. Said Kouachi drew his brother and at least one accomplice into his scheme and gradually made his plans. All that was required of the would-be avengers of the Prophet was ruthlessness and an ugly disregard for human life.
Soon after the murders, pundits hailed the attack as sophisticated, apparently because one of the brothers demonstrated that he could group his shots as he fired point blank into the faces of two policemen. The brothers were soon driving aimlessly north, without a plan– and even, it turns out, without enough gas to get where they were going. There were no backstopped false identities, no smoothly executed extraction plan, no false passports, and no pre-arranged safe houses. The Kouachis, like the Tsarnaevs before them, simply went on the lamb. They did not get far. Within hours, French security services put out an international bulletin naming the Kouachis as prime suspects. As the search intensified, an 18-year-old accomplice, Hamyd Mourad, walked into a police station north of Paris and surrendered. A dozen other Kouachi acquaintances were soon swept into custody and the noose tightened.
North of Paris, the brothers robbed a gas station with what appeared to be a rocket launcher and then abandoned a car filled with jihadist paraphernalia and Molotov cocktails. Flushed from a wooded area, the suspects eventually took a hostage in a print shop in Dammartin-en-Goele. They were quickly surrounded by the operators of the Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN), the crack counterterrorism force of the French National Gendarmerie.
As this hostage drama unfolded, Amedi Coulibaly and his wife, Hayat Boumediene, terrorist friends of the Kouachis, stormed into a kosher market in in the Porte de Vincennes, in Paris. On the previous evening, Coulibaly had shot and killed an unarmed Paris policewoman. Again, terror alighted on a pair of temptingly soft targets. When Amedi Coulibaly threatened to execute his supermarket captives if the Kouachi brothers were assaulted, the decision was made to launch simultaneous raids against both locations.
In Dammartin-en-Goele, the Kouachi brothers died in the print shop after GIGN staged a flawless rescue operation. The hostage taken by the Kouachis was freed unharmed.
At the Kosher market in Paris, Amedi Coulibaly was killed when GIGN staged a nearly simultaneous operation. His wife, Hayat Boumediene, believed to be an accomplice, is presently still at large. Four hostages were killed in the market, and four police officers were injured in both operations– preventing what would have certainly been a pair of protracted and bloody sieges.
The operators of GIGN, real commandoes, simultaneously raided two hostage barricade sites, miles apart, and freed dozens of hostages— a feat as accomplished and daring as any in modern counterterrorism. These operations were sophisticated. Carried out by exemplary professionals, the GIGN demonstrated that Western security services are past masters of hostage rescue. Proficiency in this craft— perfected by the interoperability and cooperation of all NATO counterterrorism forces since the 1980s— is the reason why so few actual terrorism related hostage barricade situations occurred during the 90s and early 2000s. It is likely that, should a further incident of hostage taking occur in France, the United States, or any other NATO nation, the result will be the same. I have worked with French counterterrorism forces, as I have worked with those of Britain, Australia, Canada, Germany, Denmark and Norway. All are highly trained, all are capable of simultaneous, coordinated action. All can handle a similar multipolar incident with precisely the same results. The terrorists will die.
The assault on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on free speech and freedom of expression. These fundamental liberties are pillars of progressive western democracy, and are, as such, as desirable a target set as any brick and mortar building, monument, or piece of infrastructure. ISIL and Al Qaeda’s goals and ideologies are the same: the use of terror to replace parliamentary democracy with Islamic theocracy. Their goal is an intrusive religious state governed by a self-appointed caliph who would exclude dissent, free speech, freedom of religion and fundamental human rights. This skewed dream of such an “Islamic” paradise will never be realized, but incidents like the Paris massacre, will, unfortunately, occur again. And again we will be dismayed to find that the perpetrators will be from the very countries at which they strike; isolated, frustrated individuals who fall prey to the teachers of hatred and intolerance.
We are all now, Frenchmen and Americans alike, on the front lines; we must all stand together in support of “Liberty, Fraternity and Egality” and freedom of expression. Like it or not, we are all Charlie Hebdo.