Tag Archives: Charlie Hebdo

Je Suis Charlie 2020

“Trump is a joke: why satire makes sense when politics doesn’t.” This was the title of a presentation at the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State on February 20, 2018. One of the cherished freedoms of democracy is satire. Since Saturday Night Live first aired on NBC in October 1975, all presidents from Ford to Trump, and other prominent public figures, have been targets of merciless satire. Censorship of satire is an affront to democracy. The murder of satirists is terrorism.

Five years ago, on Wednesday, January 7, 2015, the Paris office of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, was attacked by two Jihadi brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, armed with AK-47s. This was the day of the week when the editorial committee met. Of the dozen deaths, eight were Charlie Hebdo staff members, including the fearless editor Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb. He had declared he would “… prefer to die standing than live on his knees.” President Hollande condemned this terrorist attack as the most serious in France in more than forty years. Indeed, this event was referred to as France’s 9/11: it was like killing Voltaire.

Memorial at the Place de la Republique in Paris. Image credit: Author’s own

A measure of the singular nature of this event was the global response it triggered; not only heavily armed police security in Paris, but also a popular demonstration of millions throughout France, joined by world political leaders, expressing international solidarity against terrorism. The popular slogan, “Je Suis Charlie”, coined spontaneously at a French style magazine, echoed around the world.

At the start of a new decade, democracies are still threatened with acts of terrorist violence, aimed at coercing changes in public policy. These threats can emerge from the far right as well as from Islamists. The hate speech peddled by terrorist groups needs to be vigorously countered by the free press, including satirical publications.

As one of the most notable terrorist attacks in the Western world since 9/11, the attack on Charlie Hebdo has been insightful for affirming the basic principles of terrorism risk modeling. An overarching principle is that terrorist operations follow the path of least resistance. Charlie Hebdo was a prime target because of the global media publicity associated with the brutal assassination of the editorial committee. According to an ISIS doctrine, half of Jihad is media. Charlie Hebdo was also a soft target, having weak security compared with alternative political, economic or military targets.

Another important principle underlying terrorist operations is that too many terrorists spoil the plot. The surveillance profile of a plot is minimized by having as few operatives as possible. Brothers, like the Kouachis (and the Tsarnaev Boston marathon bombers), also have the advantage of a more compact counterintelligence footprint than terrorists from different families. 

Since the great majority of terrorist plots against Western democracies are interdicted by the security and law enforcement services, a counterfactual perspective on plots is essential for terrorism risk modeling. This perspective of reimagining history is universal, and applies to any peril, natural or man-made[1]. Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian master of military strategy, noted that perfecting the art of warfare entails knowing not only what has occurred, but also everything that could have occurred.

On January 7, 2015, the editorial committee of Charlie Hebdo planned to have lunch after their meeting at a local bistro, Les Canailles (Little Rascals). A large table was routinely reserved for them on Wednesdays. This bistro had open public access, unlike the Charlie Hebdo office, so it would have been easy for the two shooters to storm in firing their AK-47s. Through target substitution, this bistro might well have been attacked rather than the Charlie Hebdo office.

Counterfactual thinking such as this is not mere hindsight; it can provide valuable foresight into the future. The vulnerability of Parisian restaurants and cafés was evident. Months later, on Friday, November 13, 2015, six Parisian restaurants were attacked by ISIS terrorists, along with the Stade de France sports stadium and the Bataclan theater.  

Knowledge of history is a precious resource for terrorism risk modelers. Most attacks have either happened before – or might have happened before. For insurers as well as civic authorities and businesses, strategic surprise can be avoided by reimagining history.

[1] Woo G. (2019)  Downward counterfactual search for extreme events. Frontiers in Earth Science https:/doi.org/10.3389/feart.2019.00340

Paris in the Winter: Assessing Terrorism Risk after Charlie Hebdo

By Gordon Woo, catastrophe risk expert

My neighbor on the RER B train in Paris pressed the emergency button in the carriage. He spoke some words of alarm to me in French, pointing to a motionless passenger in the carriage. I left the train when the railway police came. A squad of heavily armed gendarmes marched along the platform and within minutes the Châtelet-les Halles station, the largest underground station in the world, was evacuated out of precaution due to the motionless passenger.

This was no ordinary event on the Paris subway, but then this was no ordinary day. “Je Suis Charlie” signs were everywhere. This was Saturday, January 10, the evening after two suspects were gunned down after the terrorist attack against the Charlie Hebdo offices on January 7, the most serious terrorist attack on French soil in more than forty years and the reason for my visit to Paris.

By Olivier Ortelpa from Paris, France (#jesuischarlie) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately, as a catastrophist, I knew my terrorism history when the emergency arose in my carriage. I always tell my audiences that understanding terrorism—and particularly frequency—is important for personal security, in addition to providing the basis for terrorism insurance risk modeling.

There is a common misconception that terrorism frequency is fundamentally unknowable. This would be true if terrorists could attack at will, which is the situation in countries where the security and intelligence services are ineffective or corrupt. However, this is not the case for many countries, including those in North America, Western Europe, and Australia. As revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, counter-terrorism surveillance is massive and indiscriminate; petabytes of internet traffic are swept up in search for the vaguest clues of terrorist conspiracy.

RMS has developed an innovative empirical method for calculating the frequency of significant (“macro-terror”) attacks, rather than relying solely on the subjective views of terrorism experts. This method is based on the fact that the great majority of significant terrorist plots are interdicted by western counter-terrorism forces. Of those that slip through the surveillance net, a proportion will fail through technical malfunction. This leaves just a few major plots where the terrorists can move towards their targets unhindered, and attack successfully.

Judicial courtroom data is available in the public domain for this frequency analysis. Genuine plots result in the arrest of terrorist suspects, indictment, and court conviction. If the evidence is insufficient to arrest, indict, and convict, then the suspects cannot be termed terrorists. Intelligence agencies may hear confidential chatter about possible conspiracies, or receive information via interrogation or from an informant, but this may be no more indicative of a terrorist plot than an Atlantic depression is of a European windstorm. As substantiation of this, there are no plots unknown to RMS in the book of Al Qaeda plots authored by Mitch Silber, director of intelligence analysis at the NYPD.

Since 9/11, there have been only four successful macro-terror plots against western nations: Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, Boston in 2013, and now Paris in 2015. Terrorism insurance is essentially insurance against failure of counter-terrorism. With just four failures in North America and Western Europe in the thirteen years since 9/11, the volatility in the frequency of terrorism attacks is lower than for natural hazards. Like earthquakes and windstorms, terrorism frequency can be understood and modeled. Unlike earthquakes and windstorms, terrorism frequency can be controlled.

My new report, “Understanding the Principles of Terrorism Risk Modeling from the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Attacks in Paris,” uses the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks as a case study to explain principles of terrorism modeling. And, I will speaking in a webinar hosted by RMS on Wednesday, January 28 at 8am ET on “Terrorism Threats and Risk in 2015 and Beyond.”