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Sharpening contradictions: Why al-Qaeda attacked satirists in Paris

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Opinion by Juan ColeThe horrific murder of the editor, cartoonists and other staff of the irreverent satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, along with two policemen, by terrorists in Paris was in my view a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public.

The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.

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This tactic is similar to the one used by Stalinists in the early 20th century. Decades ago I read an account by the philosopher Karl Popper of how he flirted with Marxism for about 6 months in 1919 when he was auditing classes at the University of Vienna. He left the group in disgust when he discovered that they were attempting to use false flag operations to provoke militant confrontations. In one of them police killed 8 socialist youth at Hörlgasse on 15 June 1919. For the unscrupulous among Bolsheviks-who would later be Stalinists- the fact that most students and workers don't want to overthrow the business class is inconvenient, and so it seemed desirable to some of them to "sharpen the contradictions" between labor and capital.

The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophobic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened. This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram). Ironically, there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim.

Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deployed this sort of polarization strategy successfully in Iraq, constantly attacking Shiites and their holy symbols, and provoking the ethnic cleansing of a million Sunnis from Baghdad. The polarization proceeded, with the help of various incarnations of Daesh (Arabic for ISIL or ISIS, which descends from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). And in the end, the brutal and genocidal strategy worked, such that Daesh was able to encompass all of Sunni Arab Iraq, which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals that they sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately and systematically provoked the Shiites.

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Sharpening the contradictions is the strategy of sociopaths and totalitarians, aimed at unmooring people from their ordinary insouciance and preying on them, mobilizing their energies and wealth for the perverted purposes of a self-styled great leader.

The only effective response to this manipulative strategy (as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani tried to tell the Iraqi Shiites a decade ago) is to resist the impulse to blame an entire group for the actions of a few and to refuse to carry out identity-politics reprisals.

For those who require unrelated people to take responsibility for those who claim to be their co-religionists (not a demand ever made of Christians), the al-Azhar Seminary, seat of Sunni Muslim learning and fatwas, condemned the attack, as did the Arab League that comprises 22 Muslim-majority states.

We have a model for response to terrorist provocation and attempts at sharpening the contradictions. It is Norway after Anders Behring Breivik committed mass murder of Norwegian leftists for being soft on Islam. The Norwegian government launched no war on terror. They tried Breivik in court as a common criminal. They remained committed to their admirable modern Norwegian values.

Most of France will also remain committed to French values of the Rights of Man, which they invented. But an insular and hateful minority will take advantage of this deliberately polarizing atrocity to push their own agenda. Europe's future depends on whether the Marine LePens are allowed to become mainstream. Extremism thrives on other people's extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance.

Let me conclude by offering my profound condolences to the families, friends and fans of our murdered colleagues at Charlie Hebdo, including Stephane Charbonnier, Bernard Maris, and cartoonists Georges Wolinski Jean Cabut, aka Cabu, and Berbard Verlhac (Tignous) and all the others. As Charbonnier, known as Charb, said: "I prefer to die standing than to live on my knees."

Defence

‘Europe can – and clearly should – be able and willing to do more on its own’ von der Leyen

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reflected on the precipitous end to the NATO mission in Afghanistan in her ‘State of the EU’ (SOTEU) address. The summer's events have given new impetus to the European Defence Union. 

Von der Leyen described the situation as raising “deeply troubling questions” for the NATO allies, with its consequences for Afghanis, service men and women, as well as for diplomatic and aid workers. Von der Leyen announced that she anticipated a joint EU-NATO statement to be presented before the end of the year, saying that “we” are currently working on this with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

European Defence Union

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Many have been critical of the EU’s failure to use its battlegroups. Von der Leyen attacked the issue head on: “You can have the most advanced forces in the world – but if you are never prepared to use them - of what use are they?” She said the problem wasn’t a lack of capacity, but a lack of political will. 

Von der Leyen said the upcoming Strategic Compass document, to be finalized in November, is key to this discussion: “We need to decide how we can use all of the possibilities that are already in the Treaty. This is why, under the French Presidency, President Macron and I will convene a Summit on European defence. It is time for Europe to step up to the next level.”

Von der Leyen called for greater information-sharing for better situational awareness, sharing of intelligence and information, as well as drawing together all services from aid providers to those who could lead on police training. Secondly, she called for improved interoperability through common European platforms, on everything from fighter jets to drones. She threw out the idea of waiving VAT when buying defence equipment developed and produced in the EU, arguing that this would help interoperability and decrease dependency. Finally, on cyber she said that the EU needed a European Cyber Defence Policy, including legislation on common standards under a new European Cyber Resilience Act.

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What are we waiting for?

Speaking after von der Leyen’s speech, chairman of the European Peoples’ Party Manfred Weber MEP said: “I fully welcome the initiatives from the defence council in Ljubjana. But what are we waiting for? The Lisbon Treaty gives us all options, so let's do it and let's do it now.” He said that President Biden had already made it clear that the US no longer wanted to be the world's policeman and added that both China and Russia were waiting to fill the vacuum: “We would wake up in a world in which our children will not want to live.”

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9/11

20 years since 9/11: Statement by the High Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell

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On 11 September 2001, the deadliest attack in US history killed nearly 3,000 people and injured more than 6,000 when hijacked passenger flights crashed into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

We honour the memory of those who lost their lives on this day, 20 years ago. The victims of terrorism are not forgotten. I express my heartfelt sympathy to the American people, especially those who lost their loved ones in the attacks. Terror attacks are attacks against us all.

9/11 marked a turn in history. It fundamentally changed the global political agenda – for the first time ever, NATO invoked Article 5, allowing its members to respond together in self-defense, and it launched the war against Afghanistan.

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20 years on, terrorist groups such as Al Qaida and Da’esh remain active and virulent in many parts of the world, for example in the Sahel, Middle East and Afghanistan. Their attacks have caused thousands of victims around the world, enormous pain and suffering. They attempt to destroy lives, damage communities and change our way of life. Seeking to destabilise countries as a whole, they prey in particular on fragile societies, but also our Western democracies and the values we stand for. They remind us that terrorism is a threat we live with every day.

Now, as then, we stand determined to fight terrorism in all its forms, anywhere. We stand in admiration, humility and gratitude to those who risk their lives to protect us from this threat and to those who respond in the aftermath of attacks.

Our counter-terrorism experience has taught us that there are no easy answers, or quick fixes. Responding to terrorism and violent extremism by force and military might alone will not help to win hearts and minds. The EU has therefore taken an integrated approach, addressing the root causes of violent extremism, cutting off terrorists’ financing sources and curbing terrorist content online. Five EU security and defence missions around the world are mandated to contribute to the fight against terrorism. In all our efforts, we commit to protect innocent lives, our citizens and our values, as well as uphold human rights and international law.

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The recent events in Afghanistan oblige us to rethink our approach, working with our strategic partners, such as the United States and through multilateral efforts, including with the United Nations, the Global Coalition to Defeat Da’esh and the Global Counter Terrorism Forum (GCTF).

On this day, we should not forget that the only way forward is to stand united and firm against all who seek to damage and divide our societies. The EU will continue to work together with the United States and all its partners to make this world a safer place.

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Education

Statement by Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič on the International Day to Protect Education from Attack

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On the occasion of the International Day to Protect Education from Attack (9 September), the EU reaffirms its commitment to promote and protect the right of every child to grow in a safe environment, have access to quality education, and build a better and more peaceful future, says Janez Lenarčič (pictured).

Attacks on schools, students and teachers have a devastating impact on access to education, education systems and on societal development. Sadly, their incidence is increasing at an alarming rate. This is all too clear from the recent developments in Afghanistan, and the crises in Ethiopia, Chad, Africa's Sahel region, in Syria, Yemen or Myanmar, amongst many others. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack has identified more than 2,400 attacks on education facilities, students, and educators in 2020, a 33 percent increase since 2019.

Attacks on education constitute also violations of International Humanitarian Law, the set of rules seeking to limit the effects of armed conflict. Such violations are multiplying, while their perpetrators are seldom called to account. In this view, we are putting compliance with International Humanitarian Law consistently at the heart of the EU's external action. As one of the largest humanitarian donors, the EU will hence continue to promote and advocate for global respect for International Humanitarian Law, both by states and non-state armed groups during an armed conflict.

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Beyond destruction of facilities, attacks on education result in long-term suspension of learning and teaching, increase the risk of school dropouts, lead to forced labour and recruitment by armed groups and forces. School closures reinforce exposure to all forms of violence, including sexual and gender-based violence or early and forced marriage, levels of which have increased drastically during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated the vulnerability of education worldwide. Now, more than ever, we need to minimise disruption to education disruption, and ensure that children can learn in safety and protection.

Safety of education, including further engagement on the Safe Schools Declaration, is an integral part of our efforts to protect and promote the right to education for every girl and boy.

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Responding to and preventing attacks on schools, supporting protective aspects of education and protecting students and teachers requires a coordinated and inter-sectoral approach.

Through EU-funded projects in Education in Emergencies, we help reduce and mitigate the risks posed by armed conflict.

The EU remains at the forefront of supporting education in emergencies, dedicating 10% of its humanitarian aid budget to support access, quality and protection of education.

More information

Factsheet - Education in Emergencies

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