Last Sunday, a 24-year-old Algerian national, Sid Ahmed Ghlam, was arrested in Paris. He is a suspect in the murder of a Parisian woman.
Now, however, we’re learning that Ghlam was apparently planning a major terrorist attack in the French capital. Here’s what we know so far.
Ghlam was caught after he accidentally shot himself and then called for an ambulance. Finding him lying on the road, police followed a trail of blood to a nearby car. There, as Le Monde reports, they found “an arsenal: a Kalashnikov, a handgun, body armor, ammunition, and a flashing light.” Searching his apartment, police found more weapons, documents in Arabic referring to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and evidence linking Ghlam to a known terrorist in Syria. The Paris magistrate alleges that this terrorist had directed Ghlam to “target particularly a church.” France’s interior minister asserted: “Documents were also found that establish without any ambiguity that this individual was planning an attack on one or two churches.” According to Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Ghlam intended to attack a Catholic church. Other reports suggest Ghlam was in possession of blue police-car lights and police undercover-identifier armbands.
Although the investigation is not complete, we know enough for a preliminary analysis.
For a start, as with the Charlie Hebdo attack, Ghlam’s reported possession of planning documents, assault rifles, body armor, and police equipment all point to operational direction from another person or persons. Acquiring that material in France without detection wouldn’t be easy. It would require operational security, logistical networks, and advance planning. Correspondingly, investigators will closely scrutinize Ghlam’s apparent week-long visit to Turkey in February. After all, Turkey has long been the primary jihadist staging point for land entry into Syria. Perhaps Ghlam met a handler in Turkey? Or perhaps he briefly entered Syria to meet someone there?
Regardless, this plot proves the growing complexity of inspired/homegrown jihadism. As I’ve noted before, while some terrorists find inspiration online and then act unilaterally, others use the Web to get direction from terrorist operations officers abroad (read point two here). Yet inspired terrorists are only one element of the contemporary threat. Cells of terrorists actively trained and directed by al-Qaeda and IS also plot attacks.
Still, this plot isn’t important simply for what it tells us about terrorist tactics. It also points to the degree to which Salafi-jihadist groups are now actively targeting Christians. Whether it’s the Islamic State in Libya and Iraq, or Boko Haram in Nigeria, or al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen (see point one), a wide array of Salafi-jihadist groups are increasingly targeting Christians for violent attacks.
Well, largely because of pure hatred. On a mission to purify the world of all other faiths, the jihadists want to rip apart the very notion of free worship. But the current attacks are also part of a broader strategy. In Libya, IS’s videoed beheadings of Ethiopian and Egyptian Christians are designed to attract recruits and escalate sectarian tensions in already unstable nations. Boko Haram and al-Shabaab murder Christians out of that same desire to spark sectarian war. In Europe, the jihadists believe that by attacking churches they will drive communities into conflict and push Muslims to identify with the terrorists.
We must be alert to this reality.
Ultimately, it’s grossly simplistic to label Salafi jihadists as a bunch of malcontented wackos (though many are). Whatever their particular interests, these terrorists believe they’re on an ordained mission to conquer the world. We must take them at their word.