Charlie Hebdo attack: Killers' sophistication suggests they had powerful backers

They were well armed, organised, and were able to get away

What took place at the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a mission of targeted assassinations carried out by proficient killers armed with Kalashnikovs for urban guerrilla fighting. And, as such, it is markedly different from bombings such as the ones in London and Madrid which sought to inflict the maximum number of indiscriminate casualties.

According to reports, the gunmen sought out by name cartoonists, accused of producing drawings insulting towards Islam, and then executed them, before turning their fire on the others. This was very specific retribution; the masked men were heard shouting “the Prophet has been avenged”.

Warning: Viewers may find this video distressing

Unlike most bombings, or even the recent siege in the café in Sydney which began after Man Haron Monis, the Iranian-born preacher, took hostages, it should be easier, theoretically, to avoid being victims of this type of attack. One can do so by not saying or doing anything which may offend a certain brand of Muslim. This self-censorship is already practiced by some, but that cannot be the rule in a pluralist, democratic society with a relatively free media. As a former intelligence official told me: “This is as much a moral as a security issue. It’s all about the kind of society we choose to live in, what level of risk people are prepared to accept.”

 

What also became apparent during the Paris assault was that the gunmen, while killing journalists, were keen to use newspaper and television to project themselves and their message. “You say to the media, it was al-Qaeda in Yemen,” one shouted at a member of the public.

There is no evidence at this stage that it is actually the case that al-Qaeda in Yemen, or al-Qaeda  in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as they are known, were involved. Their usual modus operandi against the West so far has been in plots to bring down airliners or take hostages in Yemen. In 2009, at Little Rock in Arkansas, Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad, a Muslim convert, killed a soldier outside a recruitment office. He had spent some time in Yemen, but the shooting appeared to be a spontaneous act.

Isis, the highest profile of all the Muslim extremist groups, had stated that its immediate objective was to establish an Islamic state in the Levant rather than take jihad to the West. That changed after the US-led air campaign began and the French security services, once they establish the identity of the killers, would undoubtedly examine whether they had been to Syria and Iraq either to fight for Isis, or any other hardline group such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

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Fighters from Isis marching in Raqqa, Syria (AP)

This does not mean that the gunmen were being controlled by the Caliph in Raqqa or Mosul. They could have formed individual cells and picked their own targets, as radical clerics on the internet have been asking jihadis in the West to do. However, the fact that they had acquired automatic rifles, carried out their plan efficiently and managed to get away, shows a level of organisation not usually seen among “lone wolves”.

Can similar attacks take place in Britain? The security agencies have been warning precisely of this for some time. Several plots to carry out “Mumbai-style” attacks involving guns and grenades, rather than bombs, have been detected and foiled in the past two years.

The murder of Lee Rigby was a selective killing; one cannot ignore the possibility that targeted assassinations with trained terrorists may well take place in London or Birmingham in the future.

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