The attack on Charlie Hebdo was about strategy, not cartoons

Let’s start by getting something straight: The attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo was terrorism. It was planned, carefully targeted and intended to spur people other than those who were attacked to take actions in line with the terrorists’ goals. Unable to accomplish these goals via conventional means, the perpetrators chose the tactic of terrorism instead. The strategic goals of the terrorists are what is important in understanding their actions and how to counter them, not the ideas they toss around as easy supposed justifications for their actions.

{mosads}The actual identity of the target was symbolically important but incidental to the strategic goal of the attack. Yes, the perpetrators might have found Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons deeply offensive. But they also surely knew that the magazine is not unique in its offensiveness, has relatively small print number, and would only gain more attention after the attack. In fact, the magazine now plans a print run over 30 times greater than usual. So in what way does that target suit their goals?

One factor that commonly plays a role in terrorist attacks is symbolic value. To get a response, terrorists need to target something that matters to people. Free speech is one of those things, and few things are more emblematic of free speech than a magazine like Charlie Hebdo which pushes its boundaries. One need only check any social media site to observe the resonance the attack has had.

Another common and important factor is opportunity. Attacking a powerful symbol is all well and good, but many symbols are difficult to strike. Not so Charlie Hebdo, which had minimal police protection even after being firebombed in 2011. It only took two terrorists with apparent military training and weaponry in 2015 to kill 12 people and escape.

In general, terrorist groups have a long history of altering targets in response to defensive measures, and they choose the path of least resistance that is still able to achieve their goals. In other words, they tend to choose the easiest target that yields the political outcome they desire.

Then what were the perpetrators trying to achieve? We can’t know for sure at this point, but we do know what terrorists usually try. One common terror strategy is provocation. Attacks are often meant to provoke governments and others into repression and violence against the religious or ethnic group of which the terrorists are members. This is done to alienate these groups. Alienated populations provide support, protection and resources. These enable terrorist groups to gather money and weapons and evade capture.

Another common strategy is intimidation. By promising violence to all who defy them, they hope to control society in a manner they cannot otherwise achieve. Hackers targeting Sony had similar intent, though with different methods.

We most effectively prevent terrorists from achieving their goals by countering their strategies. Intimidation is getting the most media attention, but it’s an easy strategy for us to defeat. Calls to read Charlie Hebdo or watch the Interview are intended to show our defiance, but really, just going about our lives as usual defeats an intimidation strategy.

Countering provocation is more difficult, as it requires that we not be provoked by horrific acts of violence. We have to respond instead with calm and tolerance. This should come from an understanding that, however horrible the actions of a few people are, these actions are shunned by nearly all religious and ethnic groups. If we can do this, terrorists fail to achieve their goals. Moreover, other would-be terrorists note that provocation strategies are ineffective. This makes them less likely to turn to terrorism.

If instead we give in to hate and raise old, discredited arguments about the inherent evil of some religious or ethnic group, then we are giving terrorists exactly what they want. We alienate already marginalized populations and suggest that their core beliefs are somehow incompatible with peaceful coexistence. Alienation makes them more likely to support those who claim to act in their name — the terrorist group. This serves only the terrorists.

We’ve seen it in Iraq, as Sunnis who supported the “surge” were systematically marginalized by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. They are now constituents in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) attempt at a state. That outcome was entirely avoidable. We can keep it from repeating merely by refusing to be provoked. In combatting terrorism, calm and tolerance can often be an effective strategy.

Siegel is an associate professor of political science at Duke University.

Tags Charlie Hebdo France Paris Terrorism
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