Regardless of how the debate over the degree to which the perpetrators were directed or inspired shakes out, the tragic attack against Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7 was not an isolated incident. This event is best understood as being part of a loosely coordinated jihadist campaign against media and journalistic entities in response to the release of cartoons or other material deemed offensive to Muslims.

Previous attacks include the murder of Theo van Gogh in 2004, a Danish filmmaker whose 10-minute film about violence against Muslim women earlier that year angered many Muslims. In addition, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard has survived multiple murder attempts after publishing a controversial 2005 cartoon, and Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist, was the target of numerous plots, including one hatched by three U.S. citizens. Most similar in aims to the Charlie Hebdo attack was the plot against Jyllands-Posten, the same Danish paper where Westergaard worked. Ilyas Kashmiri, the al-Qa`ida operative who was directing the plot, wanted the attackers to infiltrate the office, assassinate employees, decapitate them, and then throw their heads out the window.[1]

Jihadis have purposefully and repeatedly targeted such provocateurs due to the clear, and in some respects unique, benefits and effects achieved by striking such targets. This article will assess the appeal of this target set to jihadis from a strategic perspective. In doing so, it focuses beyond the obvious emotions the cartoons generated due to their perceived offensive and blasphemous content. Rather, it examines the strategic goals of jihadis to inspire sympathizers to commit violence, to exacerbate social divisions, and to provoke a heavy-handed and counterproductive response.

An Attractive Target
On the one hand, the goals of the Charlie Hebdo attack were no different than those of any terrorist attack committed against an adversary’s homeland (e.g. to project strength and capability, generate fear and unrest in the broader population, influence government policy and action, and enhance recruitment). But on the other, the selection of this specific target set significantly magnifies these desired effects due to the nature of the target and the degree to which it animates the emotions of both the jihadis’ constituency base (due to the perceived attack on Islam) and the broader population of the target country (due to the perceived attack on freedom of speech).

Undeterred by recent failed plots, and presumably animated by the continuing attractiveness of these targets (and the benefits even failed attacks offer), jihadi organizations maintained their commitment to advocating for continued attempts. Inspire, the al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) English language magazine, has addressed this topic repeatedly since its inception, devoting eight pages in the inaugural issue in 2010 to “The Cartoon Crusade.”[2] In the context of the Paris attack, the March 2013 edition of Inspire featured Westergaard, Vilks, two Jyllands-Posten editors, the editor of Charlie Hedbo, Stéphane Charbonnier, and six other cartoonists, authors, activists, and provocateurs as prime targets on a “wanted list…for crimes against Islam.”[3] Although there is some skepticism about the level of AQAP’s direct involvement in the Paris attack–despite that group’s January 14 claim of responsibility–it appears that at a minimum AQAP played a significant inspirational role.[4]

One of the core reasons why jihadis are motivated to attack the producers and distributors of these materials is genuine outrage over their perceived offensive and blasphemous nature. This is likely the most important proximate motivator for the actual attackers themselves, who, goaded by urging from jihadi propagandists, are looking for retribution for what they believe to be direct attacks against Islam and its most sacred principles. As Cherif Kouachi stated in an interview conducted while he was holed up in a printing factory outside Paris following the attacks, “We are not killers. We are defenders of the prophet.”[5]

Strategic Goals
For the groups that aim to inspire such attacks, however, there are more strategic calculations in play. While the outrage of senior jihadi leaders over such publications is likely equally as genuine as that of their followers, they can also see the strategic opportunities the publications present. These opportunities are at least three-fold: they are the perfect tool for inspiring action by adherents; they exacerbate social divides; and they invite charges of hypocrisy and repression if the jihadis can provoke their state-actor enemies into reacting with heavy-handed counterterrorism tactics that curtail the very rights their enemies claim to be defending.

Inspire the Believers
The cartoons offer an ideal motivator that jihadis can use to enhance their already ongoing campaign to inspire sympathizers in the West to wage violence. Motivating adherents by convincing them of the supposed evil and duplicitous nature of Western foreign policy is certainly doable (and is historically the most common motivator for homegrown jihadist activity), but it does require at least a rudimentary understanding of global events and a compelling narrative to convince someone to turn against their country. However, a cartoon mocking the prophet offers up a propaganda and incitement slam dunk. Nothing rallies the base like a target that presents such an affront to the values held so dear by the intended audience of their recruitment efforts. It adds to a pre-existing sense of collective humiliation and feeds into a desire to lash back. Little to no further explanation or justification is required.

In addition, a successful attack on such a target only enhances the reputation (and future recruiting power) of the group that can credibly take responsibility for the action. In the case of Paris, targeting Charlie Hebdo allows AQAP and the broader jihadist enterprise to tie the operation to broad-based grievances held by a large portion of Muslims with regard to these cartoons and others like them. Claiming responsibility for the attack on Charlie Hebdo allowed AQAP to position itself as a bold, front-line defender of Islam. It projects itself as an organization that was willing to act when others would not or could not, which also instantly increases the group’s relevance at a time when it has arguably been eclipsed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. And while it is true that many Muslims, including some Muslim leaders, have firmly denounced the attack,[6] those are not the Muslims AQAP is speaking to in its statement. Rather, it is focused on jihadi sympathizers and fence-sitters considering, but not yet sold on taking violent action.

Exacerbate Social Divides
This target set also offers a prime opportunity to further another strategic objective of jihadi organizations that target the West, and that is to drive wedges between different communities in the target country and sharpen the dividing line between value systems. Jihadis have historically gone to great lengths, primarily through their propaganda, to tear at the fabric of Western society by highlighting controversial issues and societal divides in an attempt to undermine the multicultural framework that liberal societies champion, and in turn undermine public support for the government.

Al-Qa’ida and its affiliates have repeatedly done this in the past, targeting via their propaganda, for example, the African American community with references to slavery, civil rights abuses, and more recent flash points in American race relations (to include commentary about the 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri, by numerous jihadist sympathizers online). In addressing these issues, al-Qa’ida is asking the African American community why it would support a government that has, in its view, repeatedly and consistently discriminated against it. Aymen al-Zawahiri emphasizes this at length in a 2007 interview. He also specifically addresses African American soldiers: “I am hurt when I find a black American fighting the Muslims under the American flag. Why is he fighting us when the racist Crusader regime in America is persecuting him like it persecutes us, and oppressing him like it oppresses us?”[7]

Of course, the primary focus of these efforts at exacerbating societal rifts has been on Muslims in the West. For example, jihadis repeatedly and often deftly seize on opportunities to “demonstrate” how the society many Muslim-Americans think is relatively tolerant of their faith will ultimately turn on them and reveal its true colors as a society in which Muslims are not allowed to prosper. While some of these opportunities for jihadi propagandists came in the form of fringe provocateurs who garnered little sympathy or support from the broader population (see Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who has been involved in several incidents of anti-Muslim activity),[8] in other cases groups like AQAP were able to weigh in on more mainstream controversies and debates. A notable example of such a debate was the dispute over the placement of a mosque near the Ground Zero site in New York City. Inspire’s second issue, in Fall 2010, states, “The NY Cordoba mosque issue reveals to us the religious discrimination that exists in America. The polls show that a majority are against the building of the mosque even though the sponsors of the project profess to being patriotic loyal Americans. Isn’t it time that American Muslims wake up to the fact that America is Islam’s number one enemy?”[9]

Anwar al-Awlaki, an AQAP leader and prolific propagandist who was killed in 2011, also regularly contextualized current events in this manner in an attempt to convince Muslims in the West that their support for their government was unjustified and dangerous to their own welfare. As was seen time and time again,[10] to include, apparently, in the Charlie Hebdo case,[11] Awlaki was remarkably successful in this endeavor. His broader message is summed up in a March 2010 statement: “Muslims of the West, take heed and learn from the lessons of history: there are ominous clouds gathering in your horizon. Yesterday America was a land of slavery, segregation, lynching, and Ku Klux Klan, and tomorrow it will be a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps. Don’t be deceived by the promises of preserving your rights from a government that is right now killing your own brothers and sisters….The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens.”[12] After setting this up, any future perceived discrimination can be claimed as fulfillment of his prophecy.

The benefit of the cartoon publications for those jihadis looking to demonstrate societal divides is that those incidents require even less contextualization and manipulation than these other cases in order to be used effectively as evidence of the West’s alleged discrimination against Muslims, due to how starkly they offended the vast majority of Muslims around the world. And there is the added benefit that when looking to attract media attention, there are few better targets than the media itself, as such attacks prompt a vigorous defense of its brethren and their rights to free speech.[13]

This response is welcomed by jihadis, as it offers yet another opportunity to highlight the polarization of communities and values. The “freedom of speech” defense put forward in the West after attacks of this nature is vehemently rejected by jihadis, notably by Usama bin Ladin. In a March 2008 release, he states that even the U.S. bombing of Muslim lands pales in comparison to the “publishing of these defaming drawings….This is the greater and more serious disaster, and punishment for it will be harsher.” He then argues that the “excuse” of freedom of expression is hypocritical at best due to what he argues is the West’s willingness to violate its own laws and stated values when it so chooses. He warns, “If there is no check on the freedom of your words, then let your hearts be open to the freedom of our actions.”[14] It was this last phrase that AQAP used to lead off its claim of responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Strategy of Provocation
By instigating attacks on targets like Charlie Hebdo, jihadis achieve a third key strategic benefit through the value such attacks have in successfully executing the classic terrorist strategy of provocation. First popularized and proven effective by the anti-colonial movements of the 1920s to 1960s,[15] this strategy seeks to goad the target government into a response that harms civilians from within the terrorist organization’s community (in this case, community in the religious sense), thereby persuading the audience that the target of attacks is evil, untrustworthy, and an enemy that must be vigorously resisted,[16] As one expert writing on the Basque conflict in Spain points out, “Nothing radicalizes a people faster than the unleashing of undisciplined security forces on its towns and villages.”[17]

In the context of these attacks on producers of inflammatory material, and the broader jihadi effort to inspire attacks in the West, one of the goals is to provoke a government response that will exacerbate the social cleavages described above. While today’s Western governments rarely use the brutal tactics that were more routinely employed by colonial powers over a half century ago, there has been a plethora of antiterror legislation, administrative measures, and intelligence collection enhancements enacted in response to terrorist attacks and plots on the homeland. In many cases, these measures are seen by Muslims in the West as unfairly targeting that community and infringing on their civil liberties.[18] This enhances the jihadi narrative of repression of Muslims by the West, and in turn maximizes the recruiting base. And the provocation is not merely targeted at Western governments, but also the broader population. Anti-Islamic protests and vigilantism that often occurs in response to such attacks only serves to reinforce the message that Muslims are not welcome in Western society.[19]

Targeting the producers of perceived offensive material to provoke a heavy-handed response has the added benefit of “proving” the hypocrisy that jihadis argue is inherent in Western policy towards Muslims. After such an attack, politicians, media, and the general public alike rightly decry the assault on freedom of speech, and then some proceed to enact or support measures that members of Muslim minority communities may perceive as limiting their freedoms, such as relaxing restrictions on intelligence collection. To complete the cycle, jihadis then use this perceived hypocrisy to instigate future attacks.

This challenge became evident in the aftermath of the Paris attack. After the assault, the French Ministry of Justice directed prosecutors to react firmly. As a result, prosecutors began to aggressively apply a November 2014 law that prohibits speech that might invoke or support violence. This law was rarely used prior to the attacks, but up to 100 people have been placed under investigation since then, to include several already receiving jail sentences for verbalizing support for the actions of the attackers.[20] So the expected jihadi narrative is clear: the right of the majority to disseminate material offensive to a minority must be defended, while members of the minority population will be jailed for saying things deemed offensive by the majority.

This is not to say that enhancing antiterrorism and counterterrorism measures in the aftermath of an attack is not appropriate. States have a right and a responsibility to defend themselves after all. But when it comes to propaganda this is not the point. If there is even a hint of hypocrisy or discrimination in a resulting counterterrorism action, an effective propagandist can exploit it to drive home the repression narrative, regardless of the actual benefit to public safety that may result from such actions or policies. This is not an argument for or against specific antiterrorism or counterterrorism policies, just a call to ensure the effects of each are considered.[21]

While the context and environment has obviously completely changed, one’s mind cannot help but drift back to the French experience portrayed in the Battle of Algiers, the classic film about the Algerian war for independence over 50 years ago and the lessons the French learned regarding the dangers of using disproportionate and heavy-handed tactics in response to terrorist attacks. Given the persistence of the jihadist threat over the last decade, it is important to remember that the endurance and long-term appeal of global jihadism is as much about how we respond and the actions we take. While a strong and effective response is required, equally as important is that the West does not allow itself to be blindly led down the path by the jihadis.

Given the strategic goals of jihadis to inspire sympathizers to commit violence, exacerbate social divisions, and provoke a heavy-handed and counterproductive response, Western counterterrorism policy must be carefully calibrated to maintain the precarious balance between security and liberty. Getting this balance correct is critically important, lest the West play into the hands of their terrorist adversaries and allow them to achieve those goals.

In the past, the prescribed best response to a terrorist group’s provocation strategy was to focus on enhanced intelligence capabilities in order to avoid collateral damage by the military.[22] The events of the last decade suggest this prescription needs to be further refined, as the intelligence collection itself is perceived as causing harm to the community. The focus must be on intelligence and counterterrorism actions that are effective and are mindful of the costs of violating civil liberties, and, above all, avoiding policies that are neither.

Brian Dodwell is the Deputy Director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] Carrie Johnson, “U.S. citizen David Coleman Headley admits role in Mumbai attacks,” The Washington Post, March 19, 2010.
[2] Inspire, Issue 1, Summer 2010, pp. 21-28.
[3] Inspire, Issue 10, Spring 2013, pp. 14-15.
[4] It is unclear whether the Paris plot was hatched prior to the particular issue of Inspire cited here, but as described above, AQAP has been advocating for attacks against these targets for years, and travel by one of the Kouachi brothers to AQAP territory clearly points to AQAP’s inspirational role, at a bare minimum.
[5] Emmanuelle Saliba, “Paris Killer Cherif Kouachi Gave Interview to TV Channel Before He Died,” NBC News, January 9, 2015.
[6] It must be noted that while many denounced the attacks themselves, this did not necessarily translate to a defense of Charlie Hebdo’s right to produce the cartoons in the first place. The widespread protests in the Muslim world in response to the newspaper’s first post-attack edition and its depiction of the prophet demonstrate the dividing line between rejection of terrorism and defense of freedom of speech.
[7] “Interview with Shaykh Aymen al-Zawahiri,” As-Sahab Media, April/May 2007.
[8] While the actions of Jones were utilized to great effect to incite anger against the United States internationally, his actions are less useful in terms of driving societal wedges domestically in the United States, given that no significant segment of the community would publicly come to his defense due to the extreme nature of his actions and words.
[9] Inspire, Issue 2, Fall 2010, p. 7.
[10] The New America Foundation Homegrown Extremism database reports that 63 of the 258 individuals charged with jihadist terrorism in the United States since 2001 were influenced by Awlaki; see
[11] Catherine E. Shoichet and Josh Levs, “Al Qaeda Branch Claims Charlie Hebdo Attack was Years in the Making,” CNN, January 14, 2015.
[12] Anwar al-Awlaki, “A Message to the American People,” March 2010.
[13] See Brian Fishman, “Jihadis Are Not Only Attacking the Media; They are Using It,” War on the Rocks, January 15, 2015.
[14] Usama bin Ladin, “May our Mothers Become Bereaved if we do not Support our Prophet (Peace be Upon Him),” Audio Statement, March 19, 2008.
[15] David C. Rapaport, “The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11,” Anthropoetics, Vol. 8 No. 1, Spring/Summer 2002.
[16] Andrew H. Kydd and Barbara F. Walter, “The Strategies of Terrorism,” International Security, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Summer 2006), p. 69.
[17] Ibid., p. 70. The authors are citing: Paddy Woodworth, “Why Do They Kill? The Basque Conflict in Spain,” World Policy Journal, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring 2001), p. 7.
[18] For examples of such concerns, see Faiza Patel, “Rethinking Radicalization,” Brennan Center for Justice, 2011.
[19] As examples of such activity, France’s Interior Ministry reported more than 50 violent anti-Muslim acts in the six days following the attack, and an anti-Islam rally held in Germany was attended by 25,000 people. See “Anti-Muslim Acts Escalate After Paris Terrorist Attacks,” France 24, January 13, 2015; and Leon Mangasarian and Patrick Donahue, “German Anti-Islam Rally Draws Record Crowd After Paris Attacks,” Bloomberg, January 13, 2015.
[20] Doreen Carvajal and Alan Cowell, “French Rein in Speech Backing Acts of Terror,” The New York Times, January 15, 2015.
[21] For a comprehensive assessment of the effects of such policies, see J.M. Berger, “Europe Cracks Down,” Foreign Policy, January 16, 2015.
[22] Kydd and Walter, p. 72.

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