By Khaled Okasha
Was the attack on Charlie Hebdo in the French capital just a coincidence? Or was it a plan to threaten anyone who mocks Islam? According to eyewitnesses of the attack, while firing their guns, the attackers were shouting that they had avenged the prophet. There is no doubt, however, that this attack occurred during a time when arguments spread about the nature of Islam in France, especially following ISIS’ appearance in terrorist operations, as well as the publishing of the numbers of ISIS’ new generations, which are of European origin.
It is said that 5 to 6 million Muslims live in France, raising the fears of the French people towards the future of secular France, and how the state will react if such attackers were to attack again in light of the advancement of the extremist right wing, compared to immigrants whose children have the French nationality.
This issue has been ongoing since 1830, when France occupied Algeria and extended its rule to create a French territory. There are two sides of this era; the French and Algerian, according to French historian Benjamin Stora. One side is the French nationalist, which until now deplores the retreat from Algeria. The other side is the Algerian nationalist, which gained its legislative power through defeating the occupation. The argument, however, is still ongoing.
On Thursday, a few hours after the terrorist operation, the French police published a picture of Sharif Kouachi, 32, and his brother Said Kouachi, 34, as suspects of the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Sharif Kouachi was born on 28 November 1982 in Paris with a French nationality. He is nicknamed “Abo Hassan” and joined a network run by the Islamist “spiritual guide” named “Farid Benyettou,” whose role was to send jihadists to Iraq to join Al-Qaeda, which was at that time ruled by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He was detained before arriving to Syria and Iraq, and in 2008 was sentenced to three years. Sharif got out of jail after 18 months only.
After two years, his name was on a list of people who helped free Ismail Ait Ali Bel Qassim from prison, who is an ex-member of the “Armed Islamic Group of Algeria” and was sentenced to life in prison in 2002 for an attack in a metro station in Paris in October 1995, which resulted in 30 injured victims.
French security reports stated that Kouachi was close to another French terrorist named Djamel Beghal who served 10 years in prison for planning several attacks in France. Sharif was also a suspect for participating in training with Beghal.
On the French side, on Thursday, 8 January, French President François Hollande stated that the attack on Charlie Hebdo is an attack on the freedom of expression in France. In a press release, he also stated that the government created a security plan and raised precautionary measures to the maximum in order to face such terrorist attacks. In a speech to the people of France, the president stated that “we have to stick to unity so that terrorist attacks do not divide us. We will stand against anything against the freedom of expression in France.” The speech stressed freedom of expression within the French society.
On the other hand, Italian and Danish newspapers re-published some of the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo. In Denmark, Copenhagen-based Berlingske published satirical cartoons in a Thursday issue, which were previously published in the French newspaper. The cartoons included a picture of the Prophet Mohammed. In Italy, the editor-in-chief of Corriere della Sera published in an editorial that the newspaper was going to re-publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in solidarity with the victims of the attack. This decision caught the interest of the public opinion in Europe, who considers freedom of expression a red line.
The Islamic crisis in France is not only a security issue, but also has a cultural dimension. In summer 2014, the European Court of Human Rights declared the law banning the face veil in France, a law issued by the country since 2011. In March 2012, there was widespread rage following an attack against a Jewish school performed by a French man of Algerian origin. The attack resulted in the death of four people, three of whom were children.
On the other hand, many Muslims in France have complained of previous laws and of discrimination against them. In 2010, Marine Le Pen, Leader of the National Front, described the Muslim prayer on Friday as the “occupation of French land”. This statement was considered racist, resulting in the lifting of her immunity by the European Parliament.
ISIS also contributed to the increasing fear of Islam, following the horrific terrorist attacks and the bloody executions of Western citizens. The attack on Charlie Hebdo indicated that these attackers are going after what ISIS wants to achieve in Europe; to create a huge gap between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe. A terrorist act such as this could reoccur in France and other European capitals, since there are many other terrorist organisations that might perform such attacks, like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Are we, thus, about to see a series of terrorist attacks on Europe? Will the European security be able to solve the situation before it aggravates it?
Khaled Okasha is the chairman of the National Center for Security Studies