French policemen stand guard the site of a knife attack at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice in Nice on 29 October, 2020, as forensics officers prepare to enter. (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Understanding France’s newest terrorism

Lockdown interrupted terrorism, but the post-lockdown West is more permissive

On Thursday, we got a terrible reminder of the terrorism to which we normalized in the rest of this decade, before Covid-19 and social justice occupied Western attention.

In one day, France suffered several attacks. Three people were killed with a knife inside a church in Nice, by a man shouting “Allahu Akbar,” before he was wounded by police. In Avignon (also in southern France), police shot a man wielding a handgun. And in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a man stabbed a guard outside the French consulate, before he was taken down. A fourth man, known to intelligence services, was arrested in Lyons with a knife and a tactical vest.

These attacks occurred 13 days after a teacher (Samuel Paty) was beheaded outside a school in France for using cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed during a class discussion.

Being outraged does not justify violence

Cartoons have a long history in terrorism excuses. In 2005, a Danish newspaper published cartoons as part of a story about the difficulties faced by a children’s author in finding illustrators for a book on the Koran and the Prophet. For months, the issue seemed uncontroversial, except with a few local Imams. But in 2006 they went abroad to convene with other extremists, invented revolting versions of the cartoons, and incited violence around the world, resulting in nearly 300 deaths (primarily Christians) and damage to Christian and “Western” properties.

Most Westerners self-censored, as if caving to extremism would reduce extremism. Some in the media made their self-censorship explicit, such as the American public broadcaster PBS, whose “Newshour” introduced each report on the controversy by declaring that it had eschewed any depictions “which Muslims find offensive.”

In fact, most Muslims were not outraged by the cartoons. Muslims are not homogenous, any more than Christians. Outrage is an extreme position and should not drown out the quiet majority. And being outraged does not justify violence.

The magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris was an outlier. In 2006, it republished the Danish cartoons, and survived a civil attempt to apply hate speech laws. In 2011, it published its own cartoon on its cover, and was firebombed. In 2012, it published a series of new cartoons, in protest against attacks on American targets abroad, after the release of a movie (“Innocence of Muslims”), whose American-ness was ambiguous anyway. The French government shuttered its properties in Muslim countries for a while.

In subsequent years, several plots against Charlie Hebdo were intercepted, but in 2015, two brothers entered its offices with rifles and killed 12. They were cornered in a small town, but meanwhile had inspired a hostage-taking at a kosher supermarket, where four were killed, until that perpetrator too was shot dead.

Social justice warriors have much in common with Jihadis

Now, here’s the key Western choice that still haunts us. Westerners rallied against the attacks, adopted the slogan “Je suis Charlie,” and waved pencils in solidarity with the cartoonists. But they didn’t display the cartoons. I personally don’t find any artistic or intellectual merit in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, but that’s not the point. They defy the extremists. Westerners rallied for the cartoonists but didn’t display the cartoons. The extremists won. That’s not my interpretation: that’s what they said. And they were encouraged.

In that same decade, Jihadis shifted to a more distributed strategy, given the increasing effectiveness of defences, particularly around passenger aircraft (their preferred target). Jihadis went through ever more refined innovations (shoes, underpants, bottles, laptops) to smuggle explosives aboard. Laptop bombs succeeded on Egyptian and Sudanese flights in 2016. But access controls and intelligence defeated most attempts.

Jihadis then aimed at public spaces without access controls, such as the Bataclan Theatre in 2015, and the exit of the Manchester Arena in 2017.

Such explosive attacks are increasingly rare. Large group attacks, on multiple sites, as in Paris in 2015, are rarer too. By then, Jihadis were encouraging Western disciples to act alone, with accessible technologies, such as knives and automobiles. Thursday’s attack in Nice occurred less than a kilometre from the promenade on which a Jihadi in a truck killed 86 people during Bastille Day celebrations in 2016.

A competent individual who follows this strategy is practically impossible to foresee, although the zealous often can’t keep their mouths shut. (America is particularly adept at catching them via informants and stings.)

Jihadis have turned this distributed, low-tech strategy to their advantage by encouraging more horrific violence: taking hostages, extending the drama, with intent to kill everybody anyway, on camera, as bloodily and intimately as possible.

In prior research, I called this the newest terrorism. It does not have any defensive solution beyond prior measures, although some in-fill can be achieved locally (such as the anti-vehicle barriers across the pavement on which Khalid Masood drove a car, on his way to Parliament, in 2017).

Terrorism declined by Spring 2020, but not because of any defensive innovation. Rather, intelligence remained excellent, the Islamic State was defeated by 2019, and lockdown and other social restrictions lowered crime of all kinds, if only by decreasing social opportunities.

Western terrorist renewal started with the end of lockdown, which released more targets and ideological permissiveness. Social justice warriors led the breakdown of lockdown, and law and order, in the name of George Floyd, who died in police custody, in Minneapolis, in late May.

Western institutions acquiesced. Black Lives Matter received millions of dollars in donations within two weeks. Mainstream media peddled the myth that the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful. Sports bodies ordered a moment of silence, in solidarity, before every game. And some city centres are still dominated by groups (such as Antifa) whose raison d’etre is political violence.

Social justice warriors have much in common with Jihadis: they think the West is always wrong, whiteness and Christianity are problematic, the West needs to atone, and violence is justified against certain identities.

In September, a French court started to try 14 associates of the attackers on Charlie Hebdo in 2015. French President Emmanuel Macron noted a resurgence in radical Islam and pledged to crack down.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took the other side. He had been stereotyping the French since August, given France’s support of Greek resistance to Turkish drilling in Greek waters. Once the EU clarified its position, Erdogan asked for Muslim solidarity in boycotting European goods.

Macron’s pledge possibly encouraged Samuel Paty in mid-October to ask his students to debate the cartoons. Paty must have known, in this feverish year, that word would get out. He possibly thought he would get some warning and police protection. But the extremist opportunists moved too quickly.

Macron doubled down. Over the weekend, government buildings in Paris were lit up with Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and other religious icons. Erdogan led the outrage. The New York Times took his side.

On Tuesday, Charlie Hebdo released a magazine cover with a cartoon depicting Erdogan exposing the behind of a delighted woman in a headscarf. “Oooh! The prophet,” he says. On Wednesday, the Turkish government threatened legal action.

Western institutions need to reaffirm our freedoms and our laws

Within minutes of Thursday’s attacks, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad launched a long series of tweets about the supposed Muslim “right to be angry and to kill millions of French people.” The justification, according to another tweet, was: “The French in the course of their history has killed millions of people. Many were Muslims.” The other tweets attack Western morality, culture, freedom of expression, and identity. Some of these tweets, all written in English, seem to have borrowed from Western woke-ism: “You cannot go up to a man and curse him simply because you believe in freedom of speech.” Actually, you can, although it might be impolite.

Interestingly, Twitter banned the tweet about the right to kill French but left everything else alone. This from a company that jumps to ban the United States President for criticizing Antifa’s political violence.

We’re back in a cultural war, in which the social justice warriors are enabling political violence. At the least, Marxist nonsense about systemic racism has constrained our culture’s capacity for calling out the real extremists. Further nonsense about defunding the police makes counterterrorism more difficult in practical terms.

Western media and some politicians have neglected the Jihadi risk in recent years, while they jumped on the social justice bandwagon. Relatedly, so far as they addressed terrorism at all, they obsessed about almost non-existent white supremacist, Christian, and right-wing terrorism. Meanwhile, they turned a blind eye to anti-white, anti-Christian, and left-wing political violence. This is a cultural problem for which the media need to take primary responsibility. They should stop censoring and cancelling discussion of BLM, Islamist, and Antifa violence, and stand with the majority who are not offended by cartoons but are offended by mob rule.

Western institutions need to reaffirm our freedoms and our laws, starting with laws against incitement to violence. We are already at the limit of what we can do in terms of defensive measures.

We are also at our limit in terms of accommodations, cancellations, and self-censorship. Don’t bend the knee to identity politics: restore empiricism. Don’t cancel Christian markets: protect them. Don’t censor inquiry: defend freedom of expression.

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