Understanding the threat of Islamic extremism in Europe – Part 3

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    And we get a wider perspective now with two people, longtime Radio France journalist and current senior editor there Bertrand Vannier, and former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. He's Michael Leiter. He's now executive vice president of Leidos. It is an applied technology company.

    And, Michael, I hope I pronounced that correctly.

    Let me turn to you, Bertrand Vannier.

    We just heard from Mark Austin about the people in Paris coming out into the streets feeling offended. And yet these three men were able to pull off this terrible act, killing 12 people, wounding a number of others. Is there a — is it a surprise that something like this could happen in Paris?

  • BERTRAND VANNIER, Radio France:

    No, I think we can't say it is a surprise.

    No one knew that it was going to happen this morning. And two of the dead are — were a very good friend of mine. But it was not really a surprise, because, from days and days and days, the prime minister and the president were telling us every day, every two days that the risk was very high, the level of security was very high.

    You had policemen, soldiers in the railway stations in Paris, for example. So, I think that, mainly, the Parisians were used to that kind of level of security. They were surprised that there was an attack on Charlie Hebdo, but they were not surpassed that there was something, something somewhere in France and mainly in Paris.


    Michael Leiter, what we know about these — these men is that they — one of them said something about al-Qaida in Yemen. And we know that two of them, they are described as being linked, at least by a French official, to a Yemeni terrorist network.

    What more is known about a Yemeni terrorist network?

  • MICHAEL LEITER, National Counterterrorism Center:

    Well, there are several possible groups that are sort of behind this, either by direction or inspiration.

    The group in Yemen is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, known to most Americans because it was behind the Christmas Day underwear bomber, and has been very, very active targeting Western interests. But I think there are several other possibilities still here, certainly that these were three individuals who were simply inspired by the mass of al-Qaida-associated rhetoric and propaganda.

    That might have come from al-Qaida in Yemen, and certainly they have been pushing Westerners to do so, but also, of course, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. And from a French perspective, really, one of the principal concerns in France has been al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in Northern Africa.

    And the French have been quite engaged there, and at least the early reports are that two of these gentlemen — or two of these terrorists, I really should say, are of Algerian descent. So I think there are really a number of organizations that might have had some association. And, ultimately, we may find out this was nothing more than inspiration for these three.


    So you're saying, literally, it could have been just something they decided on their own that wasn't organized outside?


    I think that's possible, although there are certainly some factors which weigh against that.

    This was a level of organization, of planning, of targeting this magazine at a time where many what be there, the getaway car — the fact that they have alluded arrest for several hours now suggests that this group really thought this out, which I think is different from some of the inspired terrorists we have seen recently in Sydney, in Ottawa and also in France.


    Bertrand Vannier, tell us about Charlie Hebdo. We are told it is a provocative publication. What does that mean? How provocative?


    Oh, a lot.

    I mean, 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.

    They were journalists more or less engaged on the left part of the political spectrum. And they were attacking everything that the French saying, which is everything which was moving. And they were attacking every week the Vatican, the pope, Muslims, Jews, politicians, institutions, companies.

    The provocation was the basis of their acts and mainly with cartoons. They are very good cartoonists, the best cartoonists in France, I think.


    How — staying with you, Bertrand Vannier, how widely read is Charlie Hebdo?


    Not that much.

    I think the last figure, the figure I can remember was 130,000 copies a week. And Charlie Hebdo was in financial difficulties these days. They were asking their readers to send them money. There is no ads in Charlie Hebdo. So the only money they get is the money they get by selling the paper every week.

    So they were asking their reader to send money, because they were in a very, very good — bad shape, these monthlies. But it wasn't the first time that Charlie Hebdo has encountered that kind of difficulties. And every time, people were sending money to help them survive. It was — it was an institution. It's maybe funny to say that, because they were attacking every institution.

    But, in a way, they were — they were and they are, because I think they will — they are not dead. The newspaper is not dead. I think it was a kind of institution in France.

    Charlie Hebdo was the son of an old satirical newspaper called Hara-Kiri, which was clothed by the government in the end of the '60s, after a cover very, very rude against President de Gaulle at the time. And then some of the cartoonists from Hara-Kiri in the beginning of the '90s regrouped to create Charlie Hebdo.


    Do you — would you describe it as popular, or was there a debate in France about whether it went too far?


    No, there was certainly a debate. And they were going too far.

    But it was their own mark. You know the French philosopher Voltaire, which used — who used to say, I hate what you think, but I'm going to fight to the death so that you can say it or think it.

    And I think that the French people were in that kind of ideal. So, they didn't like every week what Charlie Hebdo was writing or showing in the cartoon, but, at the same time, they were proud that Charlie Hebdo was — that it did exist.

    And you had tens of thousands of people in the streets tonight in France, in Marseille, in all the main cities in France, saying, "Je suis Charlie," "I am Charlie."

    And even if they didn't agree with Charlie Hebdo, they did agree with the fact that Charlie Hebdo — Charlie Hebdo did exist and had to exist.


    Michael Leiter, very quick final question. How much of a threat is it believed still exists from either this group or these individuals or others who share their views in France?


    I think these three will be found relatively quickly, and not a significant risk.

    But what they represent is a real risk. It's a real risk in Western Europe, and to a less extent here in the United States. There is real traction in this extremist message right now. And these things can snowball. So, we have a real challenge, and we have to do real risk-mitigation strategies, not just to try to stop this, but try to minimize the effect, engage these communities, and try to minimize the likelihood that this can occur again at a range of targets across Western Europe and the U.S.


    Michael Leiter, Bertrand Vannier in Paris, we thank you both.


    Thank you.

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