Why were the offices of Charlie Hebdo targeted in Paris? If it’s correct that the gunmen told bystanders they were from al-Qaida in Yemen, as some newspapers are reporting, then a possible hypothesis emerges: This is an old-style, al-Qaida jihadi attack against a Western capital designed to create global attention — and its major aim is to compete with the new style of sovereignty-creating jihadism that has been so successful for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The phenomenon that is Islamic State hasn’t just been a surprise to Western observers. It’s caught the traditional jihadi terrorist organizations by surprise, too. Islamic State has created a new paradigm for attracting international Muslim sympathy and support. The al-Qaida affiliates are playing catch-up — and Wednesday’s attack should probably be understood as an attempt to get back in the headlines and draw attention away from Islamic State by using the old techniques.
Recall that from the Sept. 11 attacks onward, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida created a powerful paradigm of terrorist violence that captured global attention and drew a degree of international sympathy from a subset of radical Muslims worldwide.
At the core of the al-Qaida paradigm was the capacity to generate major international headlines by targeting Western capitals: New York, London and Madrid are the three most prominent examples. Killing a large number of people is the most effective way to gain such attention, but it also helps to target the news media itself. Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper, fits that targeting pattern. Not only will the deaths draw headlines, but the rest of the media can be counted upon to comment on the attack on one of their own.
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Supporting this interpretation is the fact that Charlie Hebdo hadn’t done much recently that would necessarily have motivated the attack. The magazine was last firebombed in 2011 — and that was in the near aftermath of a parody issue “guest-edited” by the Prophet Muhammad. True, the magazine published this week a cover story about a Michel Houellebecq novel criticized as Islamaphobic. But it’s unlikely that the planning of such a professional operation happened in just a few days. The more likely explanation is that the attackers were simply looking for a media target in a Western capital.
Islamic State is doing something completely different from al-Qaida — and in a short time it has attracted much greater attention from non-Muslims as well as support from radical Muslims worldwide than al-Qaida has received in recent years. It’s fair to say that Islamic State, although originally an offshoot from al-Qaida, has leapt to the forefront of jihadi terrorist prestige.
The core of Islamic State’s strategy is to use force and violence to conquer territory — and set up a functioning sovereign state. That’s why Islamic State was able to declare the creation of the caliphate, which al-Qaida was never able to do. The caliphate requires the governance of actual territory; the other paraphernalia of governance, from traffic tickets to currency, are meant as proof that the sovereignty is real.
Islamic State, of course, also uses spectacular violence, most prominently beheadings of Western journalists, to gain global attention. But those beheadings have taken place in Islamic State-controlled territory. They therefore draw attention not simply to hatred of the West, but also to the group’s central message — it has a state of its own where it can execute whomever it wants.
This strategy amounts to a new jihadi terrorist model that goes far beyond al-Qaida’s — and it’s been working. The U.S. and European media and governments spend their time fretting about Islamic State. Among radical Muslims — or those prepared to become radicalized — Islamic State has drawn thousands of supporters to its territory. al-Qaida once enjoyed this sort of popularity, but it has diminished.
If indeed the Paris attack is the work of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the franchise that includes Yemen, then its purpose is almost certainly to regain public attention from Islamic State and remind the world, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that the old jihadi terrorist paradigm is still effective. France has no troops in the Middle East right now, so the attack needed another excuse. A satirical magazine that has made fun of the Prophet was just a convenient reason to get the al-Qaida approach back in the headlines.
Of course, it’s possible that an Islamic State connection may still be found to this attack. If it is, that would be evidence that the group wanted capture the traditional al-Qaida terrorism market for its own brand. That would be important and interesting, because it would mean Islamic State was trying to monopolize the global terrorism franchise.
My best guess, however, is that the old paradigm connects to the old actors of al-Qaida. Islamic State will probably stick with its core brand so long as it continues to work so well. Nevertheless, the Paris attack shows old-style terrorism isn’t dead yet.
Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University.
© 2015, Bloomberg News