‘False Flags,’ Charlie Hebdo, and Martin Luther King

Roundup
tags: Martin Luther King, MLK, Charlie Hebdo



Philip Jenkins is the author of Images of Terror: What We Can and Can’t Know About Terrorism. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

Seeking to explain recent terror attacks in France, conspiracy theorists have resorted to very familiar culprits: the Jews did it, specifically the mystical supermen of Israel’s Mossad. Such a theory is stupid and scurrilous, as well as on so many grounds self-evidently incorrect. That said, the Paris terror spree does raise significant questions about how we assign responsibility for terror attacks and what we can and can’t know by looking at the foot soldiers who carry out the deeds. Nor are debates over false claims and attributions wholly foreign to American history.

The most likely reconstruction of the Charlie Hebdo attack places primary blame on the Yemen-based al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al-Qaeda wanted to carry out a spectacular in order to distract attention from the enormous successes enjoyed recently by its upstart rival, ISIS, in Iraq and Syria. Only thus, thought al-Qaeda leaders, could the group recapture some of its old momentum and credibility. Accordingly, two of the militants involved made a point of yelling their support for AQAP in the streets they had turned into a battleground. Their accomplice, though, who stormed a kosher market, was so far from understanding the wider agenda that he publicly proclaimed his own fealty… to the ISIS Caliphate. Oops.

In itself, the gulf between generals and foot soldiers is not hard to grasp. Even in regular armies, ordinary privates rarely have much sense of the broad strategic goals motivating their campaigns, although at least they can be sure about which nation they are actually serving. Such certainty is a luxury in terrorist conflicts, where individual cells and columns might find themselves contracting for a bewildering variety of paymasters. This degree of disconnect can be potentially useful for anyone seeking to manipulate a cause. A group can recruit uninformed militants as muscle to undertake a particular attack, which can serve wider goals utterly beyond the comprehension of those rank-and-file thugs. This might mean discrediting some other rival cause or else achieving a desired goal without suffering any direct stigma for committing the deed. Such pseudonymous actions thus offer deniability.

That brings us back, perhaps, to one of the most notorious crimes of 20th-century American history...




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