The profile of the killers is a disturbingly familiar one. Young men, French-born of North African ancestry, with a history of troubles with the police drawn to jihadi terrorism and further radicalised by fighting abroad.
In many respects the shootings in Paris parallel earlier shooting deaths by French nationals acting in the name of jihadi Islamism.
Last May, 29-year-old Algerian-French dual national Mehdi Nemmouche shot dead four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels. Nemmouche is thought to have been radicalised while in prison, joining jihadi militants fighting in Syria on his release in 2012.
In March 2012, 23-year-old Mohamed Merah, born in France of Algerian parents and with a history of petty criminality and association with jihadi groups, undertook a series of attacks in the south of France. He shot dead three Jewish children, a rabbi and three French soldiers with a pistol. He is also believed to have become radicalised in prison and later visited terror groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East.
These attacks are distinctly different in their mode and primary intention from other so- called lone wolf attacks we’ve seen around the world. The Lindt Chocolate Cafe siege in Sydney on December 15 saw Man Haron Monis taking hostages at gunpoint in a desperate bid to gain media attention for himself and Islamic State. Similar motivations appear to lie behind the shootings at the Canadian National War Memorial in Ottawa on October 22, and the killing two days earlier in Montreal of a soldier by Muslim convert Martin Coutre- Rouleau, who used his car to run down two soldiers.
There are several disturbing new elements in the Paris shootings. Firstly, they were of a scale never seen before.
Secondly, although Merah and Nemmouche also shot their victims in cold blood the level of “professionalism” displayed by these gunmen is of a different order. Although they made mistakes (going first to the wrong address) and had faced initial obstacles (three times being confronted by police), they overcome them and then without any display of panic succeeded in making good their escape.
The two gunmen brothers, 34-year-old French-Algerian Said Kouachi and 32-year-old Cherif Kouachi, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles (and possibly a shotgun and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher), and declaring themselves to belong to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), entered the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, stormed into an editorial meeting with 15 staff and called out their victims by name before executing them with single shots to the head. They also shot dead two policemen.
In March 2013 AQAP used its English magazine, Inspire, to call for the assignation of Charb.
The Kouachi brothers were well known to police. Cherif Kouachi was sentenced to three years in prison in 2008 on terrorism charges for assisting in sending fighters to Iraq in 2005; he served 18 months.
Like Merah and Nemmouche, the brothers appear to have been acting autonomously as “lone wolf” terrorists. (They were assisted by 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad who later surrendered to police.) But, while the attacks of 2014 and 2012 were dismissed as small- scale isolated incidents, Wednesday’s attack is too audacious to dismiss in the same way.
It might have been a lone wolf attack but it displayed the professionalism of network terrorism and appears designed to bolster the reputation of al-Qaeda in the face of the rising brand of Islamic State.
What the attacks have in common is a theme of alienated young men being drawn to act by the allure of a redemptive narrative — fixated by the promise of going from “zero to hero”. If this is indeed the work of AQAP, but achieved through inspiration rather than instruction and central planning, it may well be a sign of things to come as both al-Qaeda and IS compete to weaponise their support networks around the world. Lone wolf attacks have long been of concern because they are so hard to interrupt. On Wednesday we saw that they can also be devastatingly effective.
Professor Greg Barton is the Herb Feith Research Professor for the School of Social Sciences in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University.
This article has appeared in the Herald Sun.