The jihadists responsible for the most successful terrorist attack in France in decades hunted down cartoonists. They did not target a significant historical landmark, such as the Eiffel Tower, or any well-known French politicians. They did not seek to maximize civilian casualties in a suicide bombing, a trademark of previous attacks. Instead, they methodically killed Stéphane Charbonnier, the editorial director of Charlie Hebdo, and other members of the French magazine’s staff. This was deliberate. The attack was intended to convey a message straight out of jihadist propaganda. It is a message that the West still doesn’t fully understand—and isn’t prepared to combat.
Charlie Hebdo, as is widely known, specializes in uninhibited satire, lampooning and caricaturing celebrities and religious figures of multiple faiths. It was not the magazine’s 2010 portrayal of Pope Benedict XVI holding a condom over his head that grabbed murderous attention, though. No, jihadist conviction mandated that Charbonnier and his colleagues be killed because of the magazine’s depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.
In the hours since the attack, many in the Western press have engaged in a discussion about free speech; are certain images just too provocative? The Associated Press, the New York Times, and many other news organizations have gone out of their way to stress that they will not commit Charlie Hebdo’s offenses. They have even censored images of Charbonnier holding up the very cartoons that led jihadists to kill him.
These press outlets will not admit it, but they have surrendered—and not just to political correctness. There is still much we do not know about the terrorists responsible for the attack. We do know that their terror was planned and entirely consistent with previous threats by which al Qaeda and like-minded jihadists aim to impose their draconian views on our society.
In early 2013, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an official branch of the international terrorist organization, released the tenth edition of its English-language magazine, Inspire. The issue included a “wanted” poster headlined “Dead or Alive For Crimes Against Islam” that encouraged followers to shoot 11 people. One of those pictured was Charbonnier.
It was just part of a broader propaganda campaign to portray the jihadists as the true defenders of Muhammad’s legacy. Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, and other key jihadist figures routinely expound upon this theme, hoping to incite other Muslims to commit acts of violence in defense of the prophet.
The same issue of Inspire that threatened Charbonnier also celebrated the September 2012 assaults on various U.S. diplomatic facilities, including the embassies in Cairo, Tunis, and Sanaa and the mission in Benghazi. The cover photo shows an al Qaeda-style black banner being raised in place of the Stars and Stripes on a flagpole in front of the U.S. embassy in Tunis.
The Obama administration told the American people that those attacks were the result of spontaneous riots provoked by an online video promoting an anti-Islam film. But that story was always false. More important, it ignored what the jihadists are really trying to do.
Multiple al Qaeda-linked organizations either helped incite protests outside U.S. diplomatic facilities or directly assaulted them beginning on September 11, 2012. In Cairo, Tunis, and Sanaa, they did so, they claimed, in defense of the Prophet Muhammad’s reputation. But AQAP’s tenth edition of Inspire magazine helpfully reminded readers that those events were not just a protest of an anti-Islam video; they were a celebration of Osama bin Laden’s legacy. “We Are All Usama,” the cover read, repeating a chant that was heard in front of multiple U.S. embassies.
An editorial in that issue of Inspire cites an infamous quotation from Osama bin Laden: “If there is no check on the freedom of your words, then let your hearts be open to the freedom of our actions.” Some AQAP supporters repeated this same line on Twitter as a justification for the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices. The meaning is obvious: If we will not restrict our speech in a way that satisfies al Qaeda, they will attack us.
Reports indicate that the terrorists responsible for the attack on Charlie Hebdo may have ties to AQAP. “You can tell the media that it’s al Qaeda in Yemen,” one of the attackers said during the assault, according to an eyewitness cited in the press. Al Qaeda in Yemen is, in fact, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The gunmen have been identified as brothers Said and Chérif Kouachi. According to Fox News and CNN, one of the pair traveled to Yemen, where he was trained by AQAP.