Angry, confused, vindictive, and poorly organized. The unnamed individual who tried to attack Charlie Hebdo last week seems to share many traits with similar — albeit more lethal — previous attackers.
Compared to the period 2015-2016, the last three years have witnessed a decrease in jihadist attacks in Europe and the general alert on this kind of violence has diminished accordingly.
Now that we are not constantly confronted with dozens of large-, medium-, and small-scale attacks, it is the perfect time to improve our ability to decode weak signals and assess low profile threats.
The latest attack targeting Charlie Hebdo represents a case in point, as it was preceded and followed by a number of communicative acts and statements both by jihadist and Islamist groups and preachers that went almost unnoticed in the West. These things deserve close monitoring.
On September 25, an 18-year-old born in Pakistan injured two people with a meat cleaver in Paris. He has admitted his will to target the former offices of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine.
Common to other wannabe jihadists, however, the suspect displayed a sort of impulsive naivety and did not realize that the magazine headquarters had been moved to a secret location after the January 2015 massacre of its staff by the Islamic State (ISIS).
The suspected attacker reportedly linked his actions to the magazine’s recent republication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, timed by Charlie Hebdo to coincide with the beginning of the trial of fourteen people accused of taking part in the 2015 attack.
The building which used to house Charlie Hebdo’s offices is now used by the television production company Premières Lignes Television and the two victims of Friday’s attack were a man and woman who worked there. Paris police said they are in critical condition with “not life-threatening” injuries.
Eight other people are in police custody over the attack, including a former housemate of the main suspect. The investigation falls under “attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise.”
Decoding Weak Signals and Low Profile Threats
In response to the reprinting of the controversial cartoons, the militant group Al-Qaeda — and we should remember that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed the 2015 attack — issued further threats against the magazine.
On September 11, the publication One Umma warned: “if your freedom of expression does not respect limits, you have to prepare to confront the freedom of our actions.”
A few weeks before, The Voice of Hind, released online by ISIS supporters in India, reminded Muslims worldwide “the governments you live under are providing full support and protection to every person who attacks our beloved Prophet, under the pretext of freedom of expression.”
Compared to the jihadi terror phase of a few years ago, these threats sound generic and vague.
But what if, by considering these threats just a bunch of over-rehearsed tropes, we are missing the chance of improving our ability to decode weak signals and keep an enduring focus on any kind of violent message?
What if, as impossible as it may seem, a few relatively quiet years are leading us to partly forget some lesson learned, for example, that even a generic threat can trigger a lone actor and that, in turn, even the most unorganized and self-taught attacker can become lethal?
Also defined as sensitivity analysis, what-if analysis is used to compare different scenarios and their potential outcomes based on changing conditions.
Not only can we make more aware decisions by changing assumptions, we are also more able to predict the outcome of our decisions.
Isn’t This Violence? The Case Of Sheikh Mohammad Al-Hasan Al-Dedu Al-Shinqiti
It is with this in mind that we should scrutinize weak signals such as the statements of Sheikh Mohammad al-Hasan al-Dedu al-Shinqiti who, just a couple of weeks before the attack, targeted Charlie Hebdo’s alleged offenses against Islam in a peculiar way.
In a video with almost 5,000 likes (as of September 27) the Mauritanian preacher reminds listeners that anyone who stands with Islam should remember the repeated offenses received from the French magazine and any believer who is still alive is now expected to react.
Later on, in an interesting turn, Al-Shinqiti focuses on the strategy of boycotting and exhorts Muslims worldwide to boycott products, goods, and services coming from France.
Al-Shinqiti, a preacher in his forties who allegedly became a hafiz by the age of 8, cleverly brings about a discourse that is not openly violent but still contains the seeds of division and clash.
Indeed, even if his resentment does not call for physical violence and jihadi attacks, it displays the “synecdoche” that is typical of any radical discourse.
A synecdoche is a figure of speech that uses part of something to represent the whole: similarly, Sheikh Mohammad al-Hasan al-Dedu al-Shinqiti urges Muslims to punish an entire country for what the editorial staff of one magazine decided to do.
When decoding weak signals and low profile threats, the alert level will stop depending on how explicit these threats are and start focusing on how conducive to violence they can potentially be.
Continuing with our brief case study, it should also be noted that Al-Shinqiti — like many other contemporary preachers — has been able to establish a sophisticated television and internet presence and appears regularly in Arab regional media.
In many videos the Sheikh speaks in fusha, rather than his native dialect, thus confirming the outreach goals of the preacher.
Politically, he is extremely close to Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for whom he also made da’awa in 2018, praising the Turkish leader for his services to his people and guests.
His relentless anti-Israel activism, started more than two decades ago, brought him close to Jamil Mansour and the rest of the Tewassoul leadership, the Mauritanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The party displays characteristics, tactics, and strategies that closely resemble those of the Muslim Brotherhood in other countries of the Greater Middle East.
In Mauritania, in particular, the plan of bottom-up Islamization was based on the multi-ethnic nature of the social fabric.
Indeed, Tewassoul has always tried desperately to appeal to different communities and look inclusive. Moreover, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Mauritanian Brotherhood has been trying to take advantage of the country’s poverty to re-emerge on the political scene by distributing food aid and medical supplies. Once again, their recipe is a mix of service provision on the ground alongside ubiquitous proselytism.
Meantime, the tech-savvy and cosmopolitan Sheikh al-Shinqiti is still a relevant mentor for the party.
After the attack, the French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin stated: “We are still at war against Islamist terrorism”. Complementing this, Prime Minister Jean Castex reaffirmed what is being fought for, namely “our unwavering attachment to freedom of the press” and other liberties, even as the fight against terrorism must continue and might well require the “full mobilization to the nation.”
Underestimating statements, sermons, and public exhortations such as those issued by Al-Shinqiti jeopardize the anti-radicalism efforts; the signals might be weak and not openly violent, but they can enrich the breeding ground for further radicalization, in Europe and elsewhere.