The attack on Charlie Hebdo is not an outlier, but rather a visible example of the threat France has long faced.
To reduce yesterday’s appalling attacks in Paris to “France’s 9/11” is to diminish the decades-long struggle that nation has had against terrorism. Perhaps the most visible near-catastrophe occurred in 1994, when the Armed Islamic Group hijacked Air France Flight 8969 with the intention of crashing it into Paris. They were stopped by the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN), which is a French special operations group that is vaguely a cross between Delta Force and the FBI Hostage Rescue Team. GIGN stormed the plane while it was on the ground in Marseille and killed the hijackers. The Armed Islamic Group was not defeated however, spending much of the 1990s slaughtering civilians in Algeria, and killing 8 and injuring over 100 in France by way of a series of bombings. In the run-up to the World Cup in 1998, the AIG in Europe would seem to have been defanged by a broad, simultaneous international crackdown on its members.
Fifteen years ago, al-Qaeda attempted to bomb the Strasbourg Christmas market outside of the Strasbourg Cathedral. Their goal was to detonate pressure cooker bombs on New Years Eve 2000, when the crowds would be peak. (Pressure cooker bombs would later be demonstrated in their fullest horror during the Boston Marathon Bombing.) The plot was uncovered when terrorist suspects were arrested in Germany while in possession of maps of Strasbourg and video of the market. Abu Doha, who masterminded the attack, also drew up plans to bomb Los Angeles Airport; that attack was stopped when U.S. customs agents stopped a car filled with explosives before it crossed the border into Washington from Canada.
Al-Qaeda’s successful attack on the United States the following September overshadowed its derailed plot in France. There, the plan was to send a suicide bomber to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, and meanwhile detonate a car bomb in La Madeleine. The attack was foiled when one of its plotters was detained in Dubai while trying to re-enter Europe on a false French passport. He was returning from Afghanistan, where he and a co-conspirator received training. Under interrogation, he revealed information that French authorities would use on September 10, 2001, to open an investigation. Eleven days later, French authorities placed the terrorists under arrest. Discovered at one of their apartments were bomb-making chemicals, guns, and maps of the U.S. Embassy.
In 2010, an al-Qaeda plot to attack France, Germany, and England in coordinated, commando-style shootings was uncovered and stopped by spy agencies. In 2013, French authorities uncovered a plot between al-Qaeda and an Algerian butcher (literally, that was his job) to “conduct jihad” on either the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre. A week into 2015, the assault on Charlie Hebdo over a drawing. The problem is not new, though if one insists on calling it “France’s 9/11,” he or she should clarify with the addendum, “...so far, this year.”