Charlie Hebdo attack: Is the homegrown amateur terrorist extremism's new face?

While little is known about the attackers involved in the Charlie Hebdo attack so far, one link it does seem to have with previous terror strikes of a previous nature is the involvement of a 'lone wolf' group that had caught the eye of security agencies earlier.

FP Staff January 08, 2015 10:51:49 IST
Charlie Hebdo attack: Is the homegrown amateur terrorist extremism's new face?

While there is no definitive confirmation about the attackers involved in the Charlie Hebdo attack so far, the primary suspects who are the target of the French manhunt fits an emerging trend toward a new kind of terrorist: amateur, homegrown and with a criminal history.

One of the suspects in the Charlie Hebdo attack, French national Cherif Kouachi, was charged with criminal association related to a terrorist enterprise in 2005, when he was arrested before leaving for Iraq to join Islamist militants.

Kouachi was sentenced to 18 months in prison after being convicted of terrorism charges in 2008 for helping funnel fighters to Iraq's insurgency. The Paris resident had said he was outraged at the torture of Iraqi inmates at the US prison at Abu Ghraib near Baghdad. After his release, Kouachi fell of the radar until he popped back up in a spectacular fashion in Paris yesterday.

Charlie Hebdo attack Is the homegrown amateur terrorist extremisms new face

The site of the attack on Wednesday. AP image

Kouachi, if he is the suspect involved in the shooting, mirrors the cases of various other major terror strikes in the western world in recent times where the attackers have been under surveillance but then managed to carry out devastating attacks.

Man Haron Monis had also attracted a fair share of attention for crimes ranging from sexual assault to offensive letters to families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. But even security agencies were unable to foresee that the Iranian who had acquired political asylum in Australia would gain access to an automatic weapon and hold 17 patrons of the Lindt cafe in Sydney hostage in December 2014.

His former lawyer was quoted as telling the BBC that while Monis had become 'unhinged' there was no evidence of him having become a jihadist.

The Tsarnaev brothers responsible for the Boston marathon bombing had been citizens of the US for a decade and while elder brother Tamerlan had been flagged by security agencies earlier, there was little warning about their plan to bomb the Boston Marathon in 2013. Indoctrinated by Al Qaeda ideology, the duo had downloaded bomb making instructions from the internet to make the bomb used.

A fresh worry for security agencies are those returning undetected from battling alongside the Islamic State in countries like Syria and Iraq. In May last year, Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national -- later found to be linked to the Islamic State in Syria -- stormed a Jewish Museum in Brussels and killed four people with an assault rifle. In the case of France, the problem is more acute given it has an estimated 1,000 citizens fighting in Syria despite actions including the seizure of passports and aggressive monitoring of terror groups, as this Washington Post piece points out

But established links with groups such as ISIS or Al Qaeda are hardly sufficient to weed out potential terrorists. While videos of the Islamic State calling for similar 'lone wolf' attacks  have been quickly released after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, no group has claimed responsibility for the tragedy. It is difficult to predict whether such lone wolf incidents will inspire more copycat attacks. Of course, as this piece points out, lone wolves subscribe to a variety of ideologies, and Islamic extremism is no exception. Norway's Anders Breivik who killed 77 people in Norway was a rightwing Islamophobe.

But if there's even a tenuous link with the Islamic State proven in this case it will only intensify pressure on US and European authorities to crack down on suspected militants, watch Islamic groups more closely and screen European travellers far more closely than before. Even in India, security agencies are attempting to cope with the growing popularity of the Islamic State among some young alienated Muslim men. Of course, IS is just the new Al Qaeda which was dangerously popular in the early 2000s.

What remains a puzzle, however,  is how watched individuals like Monis and the Hebdo attackers managed to get their hands on advanced weaponry like automatic rifles that shouldn't be easily accessible. Given that it would be impossible to predict who will launch a lone wolf attack, and track everyone who's had a brush with the security agencies, what is required is better gun control laws. An extremist without an assault rifle is a far milder threat than one armed to his teeth.

 

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