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January 9, 2015

What motivated the attacks on Charlie Hebdo?

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The deadly attack on the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has raised questions about freedom of expression and the dangers of extremism.

Three gunmen entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo and fatally shot at least 12 people. They shouted that their attack “avenged the Prophet Mohammed.” One suspect has surrendered and French police are still looking for two brothers who are the primary suspects.

Two of the suspects have been linked to al-Qaida in Yemen and are of Algerian descent, raising the possibility of association with multiple organizations, according to Michael Leiter, former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center.

It’s also possible that the two were acting alone and were inspired by al Qaida, the Islamic State or other Islamic extremist groups, he said.

Charlie Hebdo has satirized various religious and political figures throughout its history, including the Pope and French President Francois Hollande, but had sparked a recent controversy with sexually graphic depictions of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed. Islamic teachings forbid depictions of the prophet.

The attack represents a “real risk” of religious extremism leading to violence, Leiter said. “There is real traction in this extremist message right now. And these things can snowball,” Leiter said.

Countries should follow a policy of “risk-mitigation strategies” to engage marginalized communities to lessen the likelihood that a similar attack could happen again, according to Leiter.

Update January 9th, 2014: The two terrorists responsible for the killings at Charlie Hebdo and a third, who seized hostages at a supermarket in Paris , were killed Friday along with three of their hostages by French police forces.


Warm up questions
  1. What is satire? Where have you seen it used? Do you think it is a good way to express an opinion?
  2. When does satire go too far and become offensive? What is your definition of the word “offensive”?
  3. How have you seen terrorists use fear to create change? Do you think terrorism is an effective method? Explain your answer
Critical thinking questions
  1. French journalist Bertrand Vannier described the newspaper Charlie Hebdo: “The basis of the work of Charlie Hebdo, their philosophy was to attack everything which looked like an institution, politics, religions, even the press, if they thought that it was needed to be done. I mean, it was satirical, but it was very, very political.”
  2. Should the journalists have been more careful about what they wrote? What are the repercussions of not criticizing a group or institution out of fear?
  3. French journalist Bertrand Vannier quoted Voltaire when describing the relationship between the satirical newspaper Charlie Bebdo and France: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Explain how this message relates to what is currently happening in France.
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