The ISIS “Attack and Stay in Place” Meme and the “Why” Behind the Charlie Hebdo Attacks


While a manhunt is underway for Cherif and Said Kouachi, the alleged assailants in the Charlie Hebdo attacks Wednesday, Westerner are asking themselves what to expect in terms of further such attacks, what actually motivates them, who is behind them and what, if any, the limits of free speech should be. While it is still unclear if the Charlie Hebdo attacks were organized by any terror group—they appeared coordinated and well carried out—or self organized, with the inspiration of groups like al Qaeda or ISIS, it is sure that more such attacks are coming.

The current ISIS meme that is replicating itself virally over the Internet via Twitter, Facebook and other social media, builds upon the ideology laid down by al Qaeda—namely that Islam, Islamic people and Islamic lands are under attack by the West and that Muslims need to band together and enact terrorist attacks to fight back. The current ISIS meme euphorically claims the Caliphate has been re-established, that all are welcome and that all have a duty to jihad.

Jihad according to ISIS, as Anwar Awlaki so persuasively argued, is the never ending duty to fight in behalf of Islam, never ceasing, until the end times—which ISIS claims are right around the corner. (It should be noted that Awlaki was killed by a drone strike but is still alive and well and still inspiring countless acts of terrorism via the Internet). The ISIS meme also offers those who would like to join them to take hijra (i.e. migration) to Syria and Iraq to come to live a “pure” Islamic life and take part in building the new “utopian” state. And unlike al Qaeda that heavily vetted anyone who wanted to come and had many barriers to joining, ISIS welcomes all. Indeed an estimated 15,000 foreign fighters have already joined their ranks, with estimates of 800 from France and 300 from the U.S.

Perhaps most chilling for those of us in the West, is that the current ISIS meme also offers for those who for whatever reason cannot migrate and join them in Syria and Iraq, the possibility to stay and act in place. These are the new “homegrown” terrorists who take part in simple, but lethal, small scale attacks such as in Ottawa where we saw one homegrown terrorist use a car to mow down and kill two soldiers and another to take a rifle into the Canadian Parliament attempting a massacre. Three such driving attacks have occurred in France in the last month.

And as long as the ISIS meme keeps replicating itself in the minds of young disillusioned, marginalized, and even mentally ill Muslims in the West, these attacks will continue to occur and grow in numbers. One should recognize that the strongest memes are those that replicate themselves well—often even at the expense of their host. In the case of ISIS, the meme requires that the host be willing to self-sacrifice in behalf of the group and its cause to supposedly win the ultimate rewards of paradise. And a small number of, but yet far too many, Muslims who can’t find their way to belong to society, feel rejected or lack purpose in their lives, who want adventure or to bolster their sense of manhood, or who are angered by geopolitics and insults to their religion are buying on to that belief. And if left unstopped, they will continue to cause death and destruction in the West.

Motivations for joining terrorist groups in France and all of Europe for that matter have a lot to do with both politics and living conditions. I lived for seven years in Belgium and traveled into the banlieues in Paris and also throughout Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK asking Muslims about their living conditions and the causes of radicalization. In Paris I was told that the French “liberte, egalite and fraternite” (liberty, equality and brotherhood) which is the motto of France does not apply to them. Trapped in the banlieues of Paris they felt the police discriminated against and mistreated them, that jobs, leisure life and housing were not equally available to them.

Indeed my interpreter in Paris, a Ph.D. in psychology told me she could not rent an apartment in any nice area given she was of Algerian descent. As soon as a prospective landlord saw her, the place she had come to inquire about was suddenly no longer available. I heard the same about jobs and I watched in Belgium at least, as young Moroccan descent men coming to dance in the evenings at the nightclubs and trying to integrate into the Belgian clubbing culture were systematically told by the bouncers, “Go home Moroccans.” While discrimination is illegal in the EU, unlike in the U.S. it is a very bureaucratic process to pursue a case and the penalties are negligible. There is no million-dollar settlement like the U.S. “Denny’s case” where a black man was not served coffee in a timely fashion and won a settlement against the firm for prejudicial treatment.

Interestingly, Europe also has more limited free speech laws than the U.S. In many European countries inciting hatred among religious groups or blatant insults to religion are not allowed in the press. Yet the Danish cartoons were not held to that law. And European Muslims have not managed to organize themselves into having an anti-defamation league like the Jewish people have.

In response to the Danish cartoons, Dyab Abou Jahjah, then head of the Arab European League had a cartoonist retaliate by making a cartoon of Anne Frank in bed with Hitler. He felt that might make people understand how he felt and think again about insulting his sacred values. Other Muslims engaged in a boycott of Danish products. Today Abou Jahjah tweeted, “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.” That’s something to reflect on as well.

Being insensitive to the sacred values of others is an issue. Muslims are sensitive to their Prophet being depicted at all, much less in unfavorable ways, and their scriptures instruct them to use violence to defend their faith. Sensitivity to the faith of others and holding the laws up in a consistent way as far as prohibiting insults to religion may be as important as other ways of fighting terrorism.

Foreign and military policies are also important. I heard many Muslims in Europe decry the U.S. led invasions into Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to think hard about any of our military actions that make it easier for Muslims to buy into the narrative that Islam, Islamic people and Islamic lands are under attack. Drone kills of civilians is one such policy—even if it rids us of some terrorist leaders. Using “ghost planes”, rendition, secret prisons and keeping detainees in Guantanamo is another.

Ultimately the lethal cocktail of terrorism relies on the interaction of a group, its ideology, the social support that exists for both, and the vulnerabilities of individuals who are exposed to the group and its ideology. While it’s unlikely we will defeat ISIS anytime soon, we can work to delegitimize its ideology, poking holes in its claims and showing what is actually happening in Iraq and Syria and de-glamourizing the call to jihad. And we can identify vulnerable persons and begin to redirect them to other ways of answering their needs and concerns. But these things take time, resources and thoughtful approaches. Until our governments commit to spending on thoughtful counter terrorism prevention, intervention and redirection, committing resources as they do for military kinetic solutions we won’t see an end to either ISIS or “stay in place” attacks.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles.  She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.

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