Today, a French court found 14 individuals guilty of being complicit in the string of heinous murders in France in 2015. The murders, which began with the violent storming of the headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo before spiraling through numerous boroughs of Paris, left 17 people dead. Eleven defendants were tried in person, three in absentia. The verdict brings a close to the country’s largest terror investigation which has lasted for nearly six years.
The attacks, which are believed to have been a reaction to the publication of a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, left a deep scar in French life. When the trial began in September of this year, there was a sense that it would bring closure to the victims and help France close a difficult chapter of its struggle with violent extremism and acts of terror. But the trial, and the conviction of the perpetrators, have fallen flat.
As BBC Correspondent Hugh Schofield remarked in a report about the trial, “Weeks of exhaustive examination of evidence has left too many questions unanswered.” France may have applied the legal framework to these crimes, but it hasn’t brought the shining justice many had expected.
Most of the defendants, including the prosecution’s main target, Ali Riza Polat, who was found guilty of “complicity in terrorist crime” and sentenced to 30 years in jail, maintain that they had no knowledge of the attack plans. The Kouachi brothers, who carried out the attacks, were killed by French police in 2015. Hayat Boumeddiene, who helped plan the attacks and procure the weapons used, vanished days before the attack and is still on the loose. No one knows who ordered the attacks or how terror organizations — ISIS and al-Qaeda — might have recruited the attackers or fueled their intentions. As Schofield wrote, those who did stand on trial “came across as petty criminals. They either knew nothing or were [well-practiced] in the art of obfuscation.”
France has often been the target of extremists. In a spate of grisly attacks this October, four more French citizens were killed and a fifth wounded: On October 16, a Chechen refugee beheaded a middle-school teacher with a cleaver before being gunned down by police near Paris. Days later, three people were stabbed and killed by a Tunisian immigrant in Nice; one of them was partially beheaded. On October 31, a Greek Orthodox priest was shot and seriously wounded in Lyon.
The October attacks, which are still under investigation, have all been labeled as acts of terror by the French government.
Therein lies the cold hard truth of violent extremism. Even if a suspect is apprehended or the network exposed, the heart of the act is rarely pierced by legal battles and jail time. Perpetrators seem to evaporate like phantoms, only to reemerge somewhere else.
However cathartic the conclusion of the Charlie Hedbo trial may be, it has neither healed France’s wounds nor dealt a deathblow to organized terror within its borders. This begs the question: in the age of global terror networks, is the law our best weapon against extremism?