Today's attack by masked gunman on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France, in which 12 people were killed, is the latest in a string of terror attacks that have put the country on edge over the past month.
Ten journalists and three cartoonists were killed today at Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that has a history of critiquing extremist Muslims and has previously published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed and, this morning, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
It still isn't clear what group or motive was behind today's attack, which is the deadliest terror in France in two decades.
French President Francois Hollande said the country had thwarted multiple other attacks in recent weeks after a deadly spate of "lone wolf"-style attacks in December. France is one of a number of Western countries to have seen such attacks in recent months, which include lone-wolf terror attacks in Canada and the US this past fall.
Peter Gumbel, author and global fellow at The Wilson Center's Global Europe Program, told VICE News from Paris today that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was calculated and premeditated in a way the other three attacks were not.
"It seems to me what happened today was so startlingly different and professional and cold-blooded it's in a league of its own," he said.
The earlier attacks began December 20, when on December 20 a Burundian national who had converted to Islam walked into a police station in Joue-les-Tours and stabbed three police officers with a knife while shouting "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great"). He was shot and killed at the scene. A picture of an Islamic State flag had reportedly been posted to the attacker's Facebook account before the attack. The Islamic State has encouraged Muslims around the world to carry out their own attacks in their home countries.
On December 21, a driver mowed down pedestrians in public areas of Dijon, shouting "Allahu Akbar" and injuring 11 people, according to the report. Investigators said the assailant was mentally ill, and that it was not a terror attack — though politicians questioned this conclusion. And the following day, on December 22, a third man drove a van into a crowded Christmas market in Nantes, killing one person and injuring nine. He later killed himself.
Though the attacks may be different in scope, Gumbel pointed to France's largely disaffected Muslim population — which he said lives mainly in run-down neighborhoods outside of the country's cities, and have faced unemployment and lack of education — as playing a role in radicalization in France. Successive governments in the country have poured money into education and housing, but have not been able to achieve what Gumbel called a sense of "social cohesiveness — the idea that we're all French."
"In practice there is a lot of inequality, and that's one of the things that's been festering and helped to spur radicalization of some parts of these communities," he said. "The money keeps going and the attempts to improve lives keep going, but the Interior Ministry has said it's concerned about the flow of fighters to Syria and Iraq. Clearly these are long term problems and are not going to be solved quickly."
Farah Pandith, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the first Special Representative to Muslim Communities in the US government, said that the attacks raise questions about how France's large Muslim population, and especially its young Muslims, is vulnerable to being recruited by groups like the Islamic State.
"France is a really important country when we think about what's happening with Muslim youth around the world, how they are getting recruited, and why they are moved to do horrific acts,"Pandith told VICE News today.
"One of the things that's important is when you think about what goes into their daily existence, the bad guys that are pushing upon them, saying you will never belong, if you want to be Muslim this is how you can do it. [They] are very clever and savvy about how they recruit online and offline,"Pandith said.
The country needs to look closely at how young Muslims view their own identity and their religion in order to figure out how to prevent them from becoming radicalized, she added.
Islamic State, which has not been implicated in today's attack, has been adept at encouraging attacks and recruiting help through social media, Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer and current director of special projects at the Soufan Group, told VICE News in December.
"They have basically crowd-sourced external operations," Skinner said. "It's remarkable that they can just go out and through Kik [a digital messaging service] or Twitter and reach out to vulnerable people. It's like spam. Ninety-nine percent of people it doesn't work on, but it doesn't matter, because it costs nothing and you only need one percent."
Skinner said that governments need to practice "community outreach, going into disaffected communities and reaching people who are already off the radar," to counteract this new form of terrorism.
Hollande is expected to give a speech on national television tonight about today's shooting, and Gumbel said the president would likely differentiate between the "terrorists" that carried out the attack today and the general Muslim population. Other French politicians have gained popularity in recent years on a growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.
"He's going to be careful not to alienate or blame disaffected Muslim communities in France for this," Gumbel said.
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