Charlie Hebdo: How lambs become 'lone wolves'

Charlie Hebdo: How lambs become 'lone wolves'
Western governments have increased "security" measures, as they struggle to understand and confront the changing nature of attacks.
5 min read
13 Jan, 2015
Western governments have raised security threat levels after the recent attacks [Getty]
Al-Qaeda's Yemeni branch has claimed responsibility for the attack on 7 January in Paris on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, carried out by brothers Saeed and Sharif Kouachi.

The third attacker, Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four hostages and was shot dead at a kosher supermarket in north-east Paris on 9 January, had reportedly declared allegiance to the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) in a phone call with a French television network.

He also claimed to be operating in coordination with the Kouachi brothers.
     Although the attack was notoriously violent, it was by no means unique or exceptional.

Crossing borders

The attack on Charlie Hebdo shook France and turned it upside down, as one New York Times headline declared. Although the attack was notoriously violent, it was by no means unique or exceptional.

There have been several recent attacks in France with violent Islamist connections.

On 21 December, a motorist, who was later deemed mentally unstable, ran over pedestrians in Dijon shouting "Allahu Akhbar" [Arabic: "God is great"]. A day earlier, a man was shot dead after running into a police station in the city of Tours in central France, also shouting "Allahu Akhbar", and stabbing three police officers.

The attacks happened after IS had called on its followers to target France for participating in the US-led anti-IS military coalition.

IS also called for Canadians to be attacked after Ottawa decided to join the US-led coalition.

On 22 October 2014, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau attacked the parliament building in Ottawa, and killed a soldier before being shot dead. Days earlier, two Canadian soldiers were rammed with a car near Montreal, which killed one of them.

In both attacks, Canadian authorities had banned the perpetrators from travelling, fearing they would join IS in Iraq or Syria.

There was also the Sydney hostage-taking on 15-16 December 2014, when two hostages and the gunmen were killed. The perpetrator, an Iranian-born Australian citizen, had reportedly also pledged allegiance to IS.

Awlaki's influence

These events show a shift in the strategy of al-Qaeda and Salafi-jihadis in general. They have moved from carrying out complex, highly organised, well-planned attacks such as on 11 September 2001, to staging individual "lone wolf" attacks.

The rise of another generation of self-styled jihadis after the Afghan war started in 2001 has coincided with the growth of the internet, and the rising influence of jihadi groups on Muslim communities across the West.

This paradigm shift emerged under the influence of Dr Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a US drone strike in 2011. Awlaki was born in the US in 1971 to Yemeni parents. He lived there until he was eight before moving to Yemen.

In 1991 he returned to the US to study at college in Colorado, and he returned to Yemen in early 2004. He became a leading ideologue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the godfather of the latest generation of jihadis.

Awlaki had considerable influence on Muslim communities in the West. Reports indicate he recruited Nidal Malik Hasan, the man who carried out the 2009 Fort Hood shooting that killed 13, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab - "the underwear bomber" - who tried to blow up a US passenger jet in 2009.

Saeed Kouachi said he too was influenced by Awlaki when he visited Yemen in 2011.

The 'caliphate'

The biggest change took place after the emergence of IS, that declared its so-called caliphate in June 2014. This caused hundreds of jihadis and converts inspired by Salafist-jihadism to flock to Syria and Iraq. As a result, an unprecedented convergence emerged between new expertise and capacities from the West, and Salafi-jihadi ideology.

Awlaki founded Inspire, the first English-language magazine for Salafi-Jihadis. IS built on this to develop the English-speaking jihadi magazine Dabek. IS also produced English-language videos, and clearly prioritised the policy of communicating with and influencing westerners.

     Western governments have implemented unprecedented measures to track down and survey individuals.
Western governments have since implemented unprecedented measures to track down and survey individuals influenced by this ideology, and efforts have been coordinated at regional and international levels.

However, it remains unclear if western governments will be able to meet the challenge of the so-called lone wolves, which has made it easier for jihadis to recruit and carry out simple-yet-effective attacks that pose a grave threat to security in the West.

An attractive prospect

Intelligence efforts to counter this phenomenon, which has coincided with the international war on IS, are matched by attempts to understand why IS is so attractive and influential - especially to young people.

How can an organisation subscribing to such a radical ideology and savage ideas outdo the West's hegemonic media, security services, and major cultural and academic institutions? Why are young people being enticed to abandon life in technological and economically advanced societies, and adopt a radically different way of life and thinking?

Many Western and Arab analysts have tried to explain the phenomena. It has been blamed variously on a spiritual void, an identity crisis among the new generation of Muslims in western societies, the influence of the internet, and socio-economic conditions in the West.

What seems to be one of the most important causes, which is often ignored or downplayed, concerns the circumstances that gave rise to al-Qaeda and Salafi-jihadi groups and their new more radical forms, such as embodied by the Islamic State group.

This is part of the major crises currently rocking the Arab world, amid feelings of oppression, marginalisation, exclusion and injustice.

It has been produced by a political crisis, fuelled by the actions of corrupt tyrannical regimes and the policies of western governments allied to them.

However, whatever the "explanation", any attack on civilians, or act of terrorism in the name of religion must be strongly condemned. It is also important for us to dig deep to find the root cause of this emerging phenomenon, something both western and Arab scholars and intellectuals are striving to do.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.