RPT: REVIEW - France Relives Deadly 2015 Terrorist Attacks As Charlie Hebdo Massacre Trial Underway

MOSCOW (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 04th September, 2020) Five years on, France is finally trying the suspects linked to the three-day-long reign of terror back in January 2015 that started with the massacre at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, however, now, in 2020, the Islamist threat still is still haunting the country and terrorism may be gaining strength while the whole world is busy battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

This Wednesday, the court started looking into what role the 14 defendants may have played in organizing the killing spree which left 17 people dead and over a dozen injured in Paris and the Saint-Denis suburb and gripped the whole nation and the globe.

On January 7, 2015, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi carried out the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, leaving twelve dead and over a dozen injured. Amedy Coulibaly, an associate of the Kouachi brothers, shot dead a police officer in Paris' southeastern suburb of Montrouge on January 8 and a day later, on January 9, he took hostage and killed another four people in the Hyper Casher store. All three attackers were killed following the nationwide lengthy manhunt.

The January 2015 attacks marked the start of the deadly wave of Islamist violence across the country that left scores of people dead.

The alleged accomplices who will go on trial which is due to last until November this year are believed to have provided the trio of self-proclaimed Islamists with weapons, money and other support.

Meanwhile, three of the defendants are presumed dead and will be tried in absentia. They are Coulibaly's partner Hayat Boumeddiene, the central figure of the investigation, and the Belhoucine brothers, Mohamed and Mehdi, who are believed to have fled to territories controlled by Islamic State (IS terrorist group, banned in Russia) before the attacks. Some reports claim that at least two of them were eliminated in bombing campaigns against IS.

Ahead of the trial, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin revealed that more than 8,000 people were on a national warning list of Islamist radicalization, admitting that the terrorist threat "remains extremely high in the country." The minister noted that 61 terrorist attacks had been thwarted in France since 2013, 32 of which were in the past three years alone.

The figures are terrifying indeed, Francois-Bernard Huyghe, a researcher specializing in terrorism at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) told Sputnik. He recalled that some 500 people who have been condemned on terrorism-related charges are currently in French jails. Many of those who were apprehended in 2012-2013 will soon be released.

"We have a problem. Those people converted other detainees ... [Those] people [are] in jail for a non-religious, non-political reasons [such as] for stealing or anything [and they are] converted into radical islam and probably jihadism," he said.

Radicalization in the European jails has become a worrying trend over the recent years and French prisons are not an exception. For example, Coulibaly was revealed to have planned the attacks with Cherif Kouachi, whom he met while serving his jail term in Fleury-Merogis Prison back in the 2000s.

French foreign fighters who went to join Islamic State when there was a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, continue to remain the problem in the country. Some of them were killed in the fighting, but some returned or may return one day.

"Unfortunately, we have a great number of potential jihadists or terrorists. [We] know that the rate of doing the same crime again is very very high," Huyghe said.

Following the attacks of 2015, France has launched the so-called deradicalization programs for returning jihadists. The measures included isolating extremists within jails and opening centers which were dedicated to reintegrating former extremists into society. However, Huyghe believes that such programs do not work at all.

"I've met a lot of terrorists, but I never met in my life deradicalized terrorists because I think that a concept itself of deradicalization is stupid. Radicalization means that you go to the roots of your belief. if you are an Islamist, you want to be the most straightest interpreter of the Koran," he said.

NEW PROVOCATION FROM CHARLIE HEBDO?

A day before the trial opened Charlie Hebdo, which has repeatedly triggered a controversy with satirical attacks on religious and political leaders, republished the cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad that prompted the deadly attack back in 2015. The magazine's editors explained that not republishing the cartoons would equal to "political or journalistic cowardice."

"Do we want to live in a country that claims to be a great democracy, free and modern, which, at the same time, does not affirm its most profound convictions?" they stated.

Yet, the opinions over the cartoons which indeed tested the limits of what the society would accept for the sake of free speech, divided - while some saw it as an act of free speech, other perceived it as a reckless provocation.

Egypt's Al-Azhar University, a leading institution of Islamic theologians, condemned the move, saying that "re-publishing these offensive cartoons entrenches hate speech ... and is an unjustified provocation of the feelings of nearly 2 billion Muslims around the world."

Al-Azhar reiterated its position of the "strong condemnation" of the attacks against the newspaper's employees, saying that Islam rejects all forms of violence. However, it urged the international community to seek equal outrage to far-right crimes against Islam's sacred symbols.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron refused to comment on the republication of the controversial cartoons.

"There is in France freedom to blaspheme, which is attached to the freedom of conscience. I am here to protect all these freedoms," he said.

While the move of Charlie Hebdo editors is definitely provocative, the repetition of the January 2015 massacre is highly unlikely, Huyghe said, admitting that from the technical point of view, the possibility of the shooting itself is difficult.

"I don't expect organized people with Kalashnikov to go and shoot again the journalists of Charlie Hebdo ... because the police are not stupid and those people are protected," he said.

According to Huyghe, the terrorist attacks committed in the last 3-4 years could be characterized as "amateurish."

"I expect acts of lone military attacks but they won't stop and many people are still furious with Charlie Hebdo," he said.

After the 2016 attacks in Nice which saw over 80 people dead as a result of car-ramming, there have been lone wolf attacks in the country. The deadliest incident since Nice was the 2018 Strasbourg attack which saw 5 dead and 11 injured. There have been two deadly attacks in 2020 - in Villejuif, Paris suburb (1 dead) and Romans-sur-Isere commune (2 dead).

The trial is due to become a historic event for the whole of France and will probably be put in history books. However, while the French people still condemn the killings and find no excuses for terrorism, the general mentality has changed in the country five years after the deadly attacks, Huyghe admitted.

"We are not in 2015 when millions of people went into the streets following [the attacks] shouting 'we are Charlie'... I don't expect that today," he said, adding that he does not expect million-people marches in the country. And it is not due to the COVID-19 restrictions.

'I am Charlie' (French: 'Je suis Charlie') was the slogan and logo which was initially used to express solidarity with those who were killed at the Charlie Hebdo shooting. It later became a rallying cry for freedom of speech and the world's resistance to armed threats. Millions of people in France and later across the globe took part in marches under the slogan.

"Of course, you will not meet people who say: 'I totally approve Coulibaly', but people start explaining that 'yes, it is a product of our society and the product of the way we treat our Muslims, it's their fault but not totally their fault'. I would say there is more political correctness," he said.

Also, media is also becoming softer and tolerant in presenting such information since "the fear of being accused of islamophobia is thought that terrifies people," Huyghe added.

France has a massive Muslim community, which, according to the 2017 estimates of the Pew research center stood at 5.7 million people (8.8 percent of the population). The research also revealed that by 2050, the percent of the Muslim population in France may rise to 8.6 million.

TERRORISM GAINING STRENGTH WHEN WORLD BATTLING COVID?

As the whole world is using all its efforts to battle the COVID-19 pandemic which left nearly 25 million infected and nearly 900,000 dead, other problems, like global terrorism, seem to be shifting to the background. Yet, they do not go anywhere, and the pandemic may be exploited for the terrorists to gain strength, the UN has recently warned.

According to Vladimir Voronkov, Head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, the COVID-19 crisis underscored the challenges which are involved in combatting terrorism.

"This pandemic environment raises several strategic and practical challenges for counter-terrorism," he said.

Also, since the beginning of 2020, the threat has grown in conflict zones in Iraq and Syria.

"We have a big risk and maybe you didn't see something and home media didn't speak much about it because of the COVID [pandemic that is occupying all the tv time]. Every - I would say - four months or something like that we have a guy [who would] take a knife and goes in the street shouting Allah Akbar," Huyghe said.

While Islamic State has lost its importance, the terrorist threat remains high, according to Huyghe.

"This doesn't mean that [terrorism] decided to retire. There is still Al Qaeda [terrorist group, banned in Russia]. There is a very very strong terrorist activity in African or sub-Saharan countries," he said, recalling the recent incident in Niger when members of French NGO were killed by jihadis on a motorcycle.

In early August, gunmen on motorcycles shot dead a group of eight people six humanitarian workers of French origin and two Nigeriens, a driver and a guide in the Koure giraffe park in southwestern Niger. The murder was reportedly most likely committed on the grounds of origin rather than professional affiliation.

"So yes, they're very active, there are a lot of people [fighting for jihad] outside Europe," Huyghe said.

Many of the jihadists are changing the strategy and tactics - instead of mass killings, they seek to conquer the European cities. And sometimes they succeed. In France and across Europe, there have appeared so-called no-go zones where radicals establish their own laws.

"We call them literally 'lost territories of the republic.' They are the places where police don't go anymore and [where] a practical rule [is exercised by] sharia, by guns. I'm some areas police and firemen do not practically go anymore because they would be thrown stones at. In these territories French law [does not exist]," Huyghe said.