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The Message of Charlie Hebdo: Europe, Welcome to the ISIS Era

The Charlie Hebdo attack shows us that organized Islamic terrorism is still alive and capable.


The “cartoon jihad” has returned, and this time around it has claimed four French cartoonists.

This morning, the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French newsmagazine, were attacked by gunmen who shouted the usual “Allahu akbar,” but also: “We have avenged the prophet.” Among the killed were four of France’s most famous political cartoonists: Jean Cabut, known as “Cabu,” Georges Wolinski, Bernard “Tignous” Velhac, and Stéphane Charbonnier, “Charb,” who was the magazine’s editor-in-chief.

The Daily Beast, to its credit, has published a gallery of some of Charlie Hebdo‘s provocative covers, and I hope many other publication will do so as well, as an act of defiance and frankly as a big middle finger raised against Islamic fanatics. As I put it nine years ago, this is a case of “publish or perish.” We must declare ourselves unbowed before demands to impose Islamic censorship, because anything else is suicide for our civilization.

But what struck me most were two aspects of early reports about the attack. One was that the attackers spoke “perfect French”—a compliment Parisians don’t throw around lightly—and that the attack was well organized. The attackers appear to have been uncharacteristically well-trained, winning a shoot-out with two gendarmes who arrived at the scene and ended up as two of the 12 casualties.

These were not the “lone wolf” types we keep hearing about. This was never a very comforting distinction, as if it really matters whether you’re killed by someone who is part of an organized cell or by a disgruntled free-lancer who radicalized himself online. Then again, organization matters. Terrorists who are trained, armed, and supported by a larger group tend to be more effective.

That raises the possibility that what we are seeing here is the fruit of the ISIS era, in which large numbers of Western citizens, born and raised in European countries—and yes, undoubtedly some Americans—have traveled to the Middle East to fight in the jihad. They may now be returning with the benefit of tactical training and combat experience, and with support networks that provide them with arms and getaway vehicles. All this, plus a thorough familiarity with their home countries and the perfect accents of native speakers.

We still don’t know much about the attackers. The gunmen appear to have escaped for now and have not been identified yet, at least not to the public. So we will have to wait to see whether these early suspicions are ultimately confirmed. What we can say for certain is that organized Islamic terrorism is still alive and very capable of organizing large-scale attacks like this.

The lesson, as with the Sydney siege, is that the war is still interested in us. We may have lost interest in fighting them over there, but they haven’t lost any interest in fighting us over here.

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