There are plenty of differences between France’s satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, which suffered an attack by extremists Jan. 7 that left 12 people dead, and our own popular answer to it in the United States, The Onion. Charlie Hebdo, for one, devoted more of the paper’s pages to gleefully lampooning Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.
The distinction wouldn’t seem to matter, however. Caricatures of the prophet on the front page of Charlie Hebdo presumably are as offensive to religious extremists as portraying Muhammad in a bear suit. The creators of the Comedy Central television show “South Park” were threatened for doing just that in 2010. The difference is in how France and the United States respond to such threats.
The Onion has published its share of gag news stories humorously criticizing fanatical Islamists. Staffers at the Chicago-based publication have even joked about what would happen if someone were so offended by its content that they attacked The Onion’s offices.
But while the U.S. has endured many of the same intelligence failures for which French authorities now are being scrutinized, attackers and brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi likely would have had a tougher time carrying out a similar attack in the U.S.
Chérif Kouachi previously had been arrested for terrorism ties but was released with time served after 18 months, and intelligence officials knew that his brother, Saïd Kouachi, had traveled to Yemen in 2011 to train in small-arms combat and other terror techniques.
Yemen is a greater counterterrorism priority for the U.S. than it is for the French. A visit there from one brother and a terrorism prosecution for the other likely would have resulted in both being closely watched by the FBI and intelligence officials if not jailed for materially supporting terrorism.
In fact, they were being watched. The brothers reportedly came to the attention of the U.S. as a possible terrorism threat years ago and already were on the U.S. no-fly list, a subset of the nation’s terrorism watch list that includes thousands of people monitored to varying degrees by U.S. authorities. Being on the no-fly list, in particular, prohibits an individual from boarding a commercial flight to enter or exit the United States.
Some 1.1 million names are on the government’s watch list, and tens of thousands of people are on the no-fly subset, 800 of whom are Americans, according to press accounts.
Meanwhile, “material support” for formally designated terrorist organizations is broadly defined under U.S. law and could have been enough for both brothers to be sent to prison here for 15 years or more if they were Americans or were in the United States.
Two other men, for instance, were convicted in California in September and may face life in prison for conspiring to receive training from al-Qaida and plotting to kill Americans. In Florida, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Saudi Arabia was sentenced to 15 years last month for conspiring to help finance al-Shabab in Somalia and recruit fighters for the conflict in Syria. A North Carolina man faces up to 15 years in prison after he pleaded guilty in October to supporting the Islamic State of Iraq online and attempting to join the group in Syria.
And a New York man was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2012 for, among other things, threatening the creators of “South Park” online after an episode showed Muhammad in a bear costume. The man’s website promoted violent jihad and hosted an al-Qaida magazine that called for the murder of a Seattle cartoonist.
The fact that neither of the Kouachi brothers were U.S. citizens makes it even more unlikely that they could have even entered the United States while being on the no-fly list and linked to known terrorists.
After Washington began shelling out billions of dollars following the 9/11 attacks to prevent another major assault in the U.S., the perpetrator more likely to succeed in a hypothetical attack on a publication such as The Onion would be a lone-wolf assailant who stayed quiet about his or her plans, had no major criminal record and hadn’t traveled to countries of interest to the United States.
Counterterrorism officials have long grappled with how to contain the threat of domestic lone wolves. Janet Napolitano, during her tenure as homeland security secretary, made the “If You See Something, Say Something” promotional campaign a top priority. But the concept was hobbled from the start by the fact that private security guards and local police were asked to report perfectly legal behavior – such as photographing a government building or drawing pictures inside a busy shopping mall – that could be evidence of attack planning.
The Department of Homeland Security also has doled out hundreds of millions of dollars since Sept. 11 to help set up more than 70 “fusion centers” designed to connect disparate pieces of intelligence and criminal information that together could reveal a pending attack. A congressional subcommittee led by then-Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahomainvestigated the centers in 2012 and questioned the value of intelligence they produced.
In a pivotal 2011 study, RAND Corp. terrorism expert Brian Jenkins concluded that pressure on al-Qaida had resulted in the extremist network promoting “do-it-yourself terrorism” as an alternative. But prevention is an imperfect answer, he wrote.
“Needless alarm, exaggerated portrayals of the terrorist threat, unrealistic expectations of a risk-free society and unreasonable demands for absolute protection will only encourage terrorists,” Jenkins wrote. “Panic is the wrong message to send to America’s terrorist foes. As long as America’s psychological vulnerability is on display, jihadists will find inspiration. More recruitment and more terrorism will follow.”
This story was edited by Fernando Diaz and copy edited by Nikki Frick.