As police close in on the suspects in the deadly shooting at a French satirical magazine, the murders have highlighted again the role Islamist training camps in the Middle East play in attacks in Europe.
Two months ago, men in black hoods surrounded French fighter Abu Salman al-Faranci as he urged his countrymen to attack non-Muslims in France. Since then, several incidents have rocked France, the most deadly being this week’s attack on Charlie Hebdo in which a dozen people died.
“Terrorize them and do not allow them to sleep due to fear and horror,” Abu Salman, dressed in battle fatigues, said in a broadcast posted online from Islamic State territory. “Kill them and spit in their faces and run them over with your cars.”
One of the brothers suspected of the Charlie Hebdo murders was linked by police to al-Qaeda in Yemen rather than Islamic State, known also by the acronym ISIS. Yet the rise of the extremist group alongside others in the region is helping legitimize the claims and aspirations of jihadists, said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at Eurasia Group.
“The fact that so many fighters have joined ISIS from Europe is reflective of a broader sympathy or a broader disconnect with their societies,” Kamel said from London. “It’s difficult to imagine that absent the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, jihadists would have been equally energized to resort to militancy.”
The suspects, Cherif Kouachi, 32, and Said, 34, are French of Algerian descent. They were described by a police source cited by Le Point magazine as hoodlums who became radicals.
Armed gunmen face police officers near the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Jan 7, during an attack on the offices of the newspaper. One of the brothers suspected of the Charle Hebdo murders was linked by police to al-Qaeda in Yemen rather than Islamic State, known also by the acronym ISIS.
The elder brother may have trained for jihad in Yemen, according to information from French and U.S. intelligence agencies, said a French police official. The younger is known to the French police and intelligence. He was arrested for his role in a jihadist recruitment cell sending fighters to Iraq, the first such group identified in France.
In addition, at least 1,200 citizens are or have been involved in the Syrian war, according to French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. He told parliament on Dec. 17 the government estimates that 60 have been killed and 185 have returned to France, of which 82 are in jail and 36 others are under some form of judicial control.
Many have taken their wives and children, according to three French jihadists who appeared in the November video. Some expressed their intention not to return home by burning their passports as the camera rolled.
Call to arms
“You have oppressed us, fought our religion and insulted our prophet and today we disbelieve in you and your passports and if you come here we will fight you,” a hooded fighter said.
Firefighters carry an injured man on a stretcher in front of the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Jan 7, after armed gunmen stormed the offices.
The following month, on Dec. 20, a 20-year-old man in Joue-les-Tours who had converted to Islam three years ago was killed after he stabbed and injured two policemen.
Two days later, a man plowed through a Christmas market in the western French city of Nantes, injuring more than 10 people, one of whom has since died.
Islamic State, set up in an area straddling the Syria-Iraq border, has the potential to become more lethal than al-Qaeda, which attracted thousands of fighters to Afghanistan, said Mark Singleton, director of the International Centre for Counter Terrorism in The Hague.
“It’s closer to our borders, it’s a safe haven, there’s a more or less easy passage to cross borders and get into Europe,” said Singleton.
Many of the French involved in jihadist networks failed at school, were marginalized or involved in petty crime, said Marc Hecker, a research fellow at the Security Studies Center at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales in Paris.
At least 20 percent were converts, he said. Then there are those who are well integrated, have well-paid jobs and dropped everything for Syria, he added.
“You can’t draw a clear line between poverty, discrimination and jihad,” Hecker said. “It’s not that easy.”
French police encircled the brothers suspected of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, cornering them in a small town near Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport. In a suburb of the French capital, there was a hostage taking at a kosher food store that left at least two people dead, Agence France-Press reported.
“People are now wondering is this the first of a series of attacks,” said Hecker. “The terrorist phenomenon is now back on our streets.”