JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Two brothers believed to be behind the January 7 attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were killed on Friday. Details are emerging about the hostages’ condition, but nothing has been confirmed.
Now joining us to give us a quick update on the suspected assailants and their past is our guest Juan Cole. Juan is a professor of history at the University of Michigan, and his most recent work is The New Arabs: How the Wired and Global Youth of the Middle East Is Transforming It.
Thanks so much for joining us, Juan.
JUAN COLE, PROF. HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN: Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So, Juan, I want to get a sense of who these assailants were. Can you just talk about these suspects and their background?
COLE: Well, there from a family of Algerian workers that immigrated to France. Their parents died when they were young, and so they’re orphans. And it’s well-established that most orphans are wonderful people, but if they’re not placed in a family, if they don’t have a regular upbringing, then it does do damage and they don’t have normal models for behavior. So they’re disproportionately open to being preyed on and recruited for criminal activities if–under certain circumstances, because they didn’t have a regular family life. And not only were they orphans, but they were of Algerian descent in France, so they were living in a slum. They dropped out of high school. They played around with pizza delivery. There are allegations that they were involved in smalltime drug smuggling. So they became criminals. One of them had aspirations to become a rapper. They were in a kind of urban underworld there in the outskirts of Paris.
And then in 2002 or so, they joined a mosque in Paris and seemed to straighten up. They gave up smoking, drinking. They became more sober. But then they were recruited by someone with al-Qaeda links, and they began being involved in transporting French young men of Muslim dissent to Syria, with the intention of having them slip over the border and fight against U.S. troops in Iraq. And Sharif Kuwashi was actually tried, arrested, tried, and convicted on charges of being involved in this activity and served 18 months in prison for it. When he got out, he was involved in trying to break out of jail a notorious terrorist who had been involved in a subway bombing at the Metro in 1995, who was from the Algerian affiliate of al-Qaeda, the armed Islamic group. There are allegations that these two fought in Syria, that one of the brothers, Said, was given some training by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. So they seemed to be not lone wolves. They seemed to be fairly closely hooked into a set of al-Qaeda networks and al-Qaeda affiliates, to have a history of, actually, combat on behalf of those groups abroad. And so it seems to me that whether they were ordered to commit these acts of terror or whether they volunteered, they’re certainly in a milieu where they were strategic.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Juan, you mentioned how they lived on the outskirts of Paris, sort of in slums, the banlieus. Do you–at this point, do you look at the root causes of this level of fanaticism really stretching back to poverty? What do you see as really the root cause for this level of fanaticism?
COLE: Well, it’s natural to consider that, but the social science doesn’t really suggest that poverty feeds into terrorism. Most people who become violent and who–violence is one thing; attacking innocents, noncombatants is the definition of terrorism–people who go in for that typically are slightly better educated, more middle-class than others in their milieu. These two happen to be, I think, very working-class and not well-educated. But I don’t think that their actions really have very much to do with poverty. They have to do with an injured sense of pride. They became a kind of Muslim nationalist. And so Sharif Kuwashi reported when he was arrested in 2008 that what radicalized him, what made him want to take direct action, was the images coming out of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. And sometimes there were atrocities against noncombatants in Iraq, and then the pictures of torture coming out of Abu Ghraib. So, at least as he represented himself, Sharif Kuwashi became enraged by these images. And I think people project their own egos onto these geopolitical issues. And he felt violated, just as the Iraqis were being violated. And so then he started recruiting people. And he was going to go fight in Iraq himself if he hadn’t been arrested by the French police.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let’s hit the pause button here, and in the second part let’s further discuss the U.S. role in sort of allying itself with religious fanaticism and helping spawn some of what we are seeing here in France. Juan Cole, thank you so much for joining us.
COLE: Thanks. Thanks to you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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