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

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.


In April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Despite multiple claims through the years, we can confidently say that the assassin was a petty criminal and armed robber named James Earl Ray, who fled the country before being arrested in London. Ray’s motives have been much debated, but a congressional investigation in the 1970s assembled extensive (if confusing) evidence that cliques of Southern racists and white supremacists had conspired to kill King, using Ray as a low-level subcontractor.

That might be true, but it is not what Ray himself admitted. In 2001, British authorities released information about the arrest and detention of Ray, material that has been largely ignored in the United States. During his British stay, he offered none of the lengthy defenses and denials of the shooting that he would later maintain. Rather, he talked freely about the King murder, and he even suggested the culprits who might have arranged the killing. Instead of white supremacists, though, Ray’s main candidates for the principals in the conspiracy were the Black Muslims, the Nation of Islam followers of Elijah Muhammad.

Let me say immediately that the fact that Ray said this does not of itself constitute weighty evidence for the existence of any conspiracy, let alone its nature. Ray, who died in 1998, was anything but a reliable witness. He was at best a contractor in the killing, and even the Ray family’s legal representatives spoke scathingly of the general intelligence of Ray and his circle. And the fact that Ray made such remarks does not even mean that he necessarily believed them. Perhaps he was making mischief.

Odd as it may sound in retrospect, though, the Black Muslim theory is not ridiculous, and it is quite as plausible as the white supremacist angle. We need to think back to a time when the U.S. had been racked by escalating race riots for several summers. Even responsible observers were forecasting outright race war, with cities partitioned between armed black and white militias. Radical black separatists stood to gain from a sensational act that would polarize and divide the races still further. Enlisting a white man to kill Martin Luther King would be a lethally effective form of dissimulation, and it was also wholly deniable. Elijah Muhammad had a track record of involvement in violence, and he is widely held responsible for ordering the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965.

If the London evidence had been better publicized in the 1970s, it would presumably have been more thoroughly investigated, and that might possibly have pointed to interesting connections. Lacking such an investigation, however, we really can add little to what is already known about King’s death: no reasonable person would build a new conspiracy theory solely on the shifting sands of James Earl Ray’s often-changing testimony. I am certainly not claiming any grand breakthrough in the case.

But from the point of view of terror investigations, the Ray affair contradicts so many of our regular assumptions. When individuals X and Y launch an attack, the media will direct all their efforts to determining what made them do it, and how they became so fanatically devoted to their cause. The problem is that the people pulling the triggers do not necessarily know much about the wider causes for which they are fighting. And what they do know might be totally wrong.

Philip Jenkins is the author of Images of Terror: What We Can and Can’t Know About Terrorism [1]. 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.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "‘False Flags,’ Charlie Hebdo, and Martin Luther King"

#1 Comment By Ludovic On January 16, 2015 @ 6:41 am

“I am not among those who see conspiracies everywhere…but the version of events [in Paris] that has been reported has some darkness and inconsistencies…I fear now it will become increasingly difficult to establish responsibility.”–Giorgio Agamben


#2 Comment By Derek Leaberry On January 16, 2015 @ 9:15 am

Like Jack Ruby, with James Earl Ray one is forced to ask- why him? Neither seemed the type to get so worked up over politics. And how was a barely literate white peckerwood like Ray able to flee to Britain? Mr. Jenkins brings up good points. I would only add that Rev. King’s fortunes were in decline by 1968 because he had succeeded so well earlier in the decade. Black politics had moved on in a more radical, rebellious direction and people like Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael were more in vogue. Would they really want to eliminate Rev. King?

#3 Comment By Pete R. On January 16, 2015 @ 10:10 am

That’s funny, I thought I was reading the American Conservative site. How did I get on World Net Daily?

This article is complete nonsense. The NOI did not advocate race war, and indeed, nothing remotely like that resulted from MLK’s murder, or could have. The group was under heavy police surveillance and infiltration throughout the ’50’s and ’60’s, just as MLK was, and a NOI scheme to assassinate MLK would certainly have been exposed by elements of the police and FBI (such as Hoover himself) who opposed all organizations advocating social progress for African-Americans, though perhaps after the fact, with the intention of discrediting NOI and spreading (even more) division among civil rights movement sympathizers in that time.

Further, the contention at the end of this article, that people who carry out terrorist crimes and assassinations under hire or instruction often don’t know who’s really behind them, is utterly contradicted by the account of James Earl Ray’s alleged comments while under detention in the UK.

As for a supposed case that the Mossad might have somehow been behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it might be interesting to know just exactly how that would have to be “self-evidently incorrect” in the murky realm of unsupported speculations like the one Prof. Jenkins pitches concerning MLK and NOI. But even if someone did try to pin it on Mossad, that would not necessarily be the same as blaming it on “the Jews,” unless Jenkins agrees that his own effort here is one to suggest placing blame the MLK slaying on “the blacks.”

#4 Comment By Philip Giraldi On January 16, 2015 @ 11:59 am

It seems to me that Mossad would be very interested in arranging for a major terrorist attack in France if it could possibly be carried out without any blowback on Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu was pleased to learn of 9/11 because, by his reckoning, it fully engaged Washington in Israel’s brand of war against Islamic terrorism. Getting France fully on board, which is in fact happening, would be regarded as a definite plus. As a side benefit, focusing on Muslims as terrorists shifts the media narrative away from Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

#5 Comment By Colm J On January 16, 2015 @ 1:10 pm

Like most media folk who dismiss “conspiracy theories” out of hand, Mr Jenkins offers not one whit of proof to refute them. If, as he seems to acknowledge, we don’t know yet who was behind the events in Paris, how on earth can he rule out any potential culprits? No serious student of history would deny that black operations of all kinds are part and parcel of the historical culture, not just of Mossad, but of the intelligence agencies of most major powers.

#6 Comment By c matt On January 16, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

Cui bono?

#7 Comment By Winston On January 16, 2015 @ 3:30 pm


Martin Luther King assassinated by US Govt: King Family civil trial verdict

#8 Comment By Winston On January 16, 2015 @ 3:33 pm

Main question is why these people were not surveiled?

Said he was under surveillance since he was 14.


EXCLUSIVE: Jihadist condemned Belgium’s intelligence agency as ‘the dumbest in the world’ and bragged of ‘going through Brussels airport like a knife through butter’ just days before terror shoot-out

British alphabet soup agencies/immigration couldn’t stop a boy using picture that was nothing like him?

She also demanded to know why airport officials had not stopped him, given that his passport had expired and he had stolen his 15-year-old brother’s. She said: ‘They look nothing like each other.’

Don’t follow in my ‘brainwashed’ son’s footsteps: Mother of teenager killed in Syria urges others not to follow his lead
All of a sudden all these raids on these groups. Looks rather orchestrated .

European police arrest over 2 dozen in anti-terror sweeps

#9 Comment By Rob Stove On January 16, 2015 @ 5:47 pm

Professor Jenkins has provoked much thought with this article. One would expect nothing less than that from the man who wrote The Great and Holy War.

The question which nags at me is, not how bright Ray was – all historians admit that, compared with Ray, the proverbial box of rocks was a veritable Goethe – but how bright Elijah Muhammad was. Or at least, how non-autistic Elijah Muhammad was.

Bright enough to ensure Malcolm X’s 1965 murder and “plausible deniability” appertaining thereto? Sure. But was EM capable of taking a long view beyond identity politics? Could he realize, for instance, what Derek Leaberry says above and what all historians concede: namely, that by 1968 MLK was – in terms of national politics – a back-number?

Me, I’m not convinced that EM could. For black supremacists, it made little if any more sense to shoot MLK in 1968 (as opposed to, say, 1965) than it would have made to shoot George C. Wallace in 1976 (as opposed to 1972, when, of course, Wallace really had been shot and wounded, under circumstances still puzzling).

On the other hand, even a politically washed-up MLK was just as potent a figure in the demonology of Byron De La Beckwith types – “all those guys with green teeth”, in David Duke’s expressive verdict – as the MLK of 1958-1965 manifestly had been. So I wouldn’t be too keen to discard the white-supremacist explanation quite yet.

#10 Comment By Neal On January 17, 2015 @ 12:25 pm

I guess the problem with conspiracy theories isn’t so much the “who did what and why” part. The problem I have is this: so what? What did the CIA gain by killing JFK? What did the black panthers gain by killing MLK? What did whomever gain by doing 9/11? Etc.

Otherwise… what is the point of the speculation? The dead are still dead. The world pretty much always went on as it would have anyway. George Bush would have found a way to invade Iraq. The Cold War would still have ended as it did. The CIA is still evil. African-Americans would still be struggling even if MLK were still alive today.

It seems that those who propose these theories ought to explain why it matters if we don’t know the so-called real people behind the event.

The currents of human history are far to swift to be changed by some silly conspiracy. Manipulative people take advantage of whatever excuse is at hand to justify their actions.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 17, 2015 @ 4:26 pm

I suspect that there’s not much in the way of r. Ming. And should that have been the case, it is unlikely that they would hire a white guy to do the act.

The problem with conspiracy theories is that there is just enough space to make the contentions possible, evidence or not.

I am not even sure I buy the contentions that the French actors had any tangible connections to the groups that they announced. Hollering out some name isn’t a sign of anything beyond solidarity with that group, and even that may be a stretch.

But unless there is tangible proof otherwise, all the hollering in the world or remarks made by the elusive and Mr. Ray don’t make truth.

Usually when a group so engages, they do so for the purpose of making a statement and they are not shy about taking credit for the act and some explanation why.

That some intelligent expert sais this or that minus the salient arguments to make the case is merely the speculations of that expert or those he or she works for or with.

I am not denying that conspiracies and plots are not real. History is replete with conspiracies. But these examples and conclusions presented, it’s a fairly shallow thin reed.

#12 Comment By Kurt Gayle On January 19, 2015 @ 8:58 pm

Philip Jenkins second-headlined:

“Knowing who carried out an act of terror doesn’t always tell us who was ultimately behind it.”

Jenkins wrote: “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…Accordingly, two of the militants involved made a point of yelling their support for AQAP in the streets they had turned into a battleground.”

This “yelling their support” story originated with “20 Minutes” (Paris) which reported that Mr. Cédric Le Béchec, a 33-year-old estate agent, told “20 Minutes” that before launching the assault, the attackers allegedly approached another man in the street and allegedly said to the other man, “Tell the media that this is al-Qaeda in the Yemen.”


By mid-afternoon this Cédric-LeBéchec-said-that-whoever-said-that-one-of-the-attackers-said posting on “20 Minutes” had gone viral on the world media. For example, The Telegraph (UK)’s Holly Watt had already posted an article entitled “Terrorists shouted they were from al-Qaeda in the Yemen before Charlie Hebdo attack” by 2:36PM GMT that afternoon.

Not only is the “20 Minutes” AQAP story shaky, but the much-later AQAP claim that they were involved in the Charlie Hebdo attack is even shakier. Security services around the world know that over the past half-century every major political killing, bombing, kidnapping, and hijacking has spawned dozens of claims of sponsorship from various groups wanting “a piece of the responsibility” in order to enhance recruitment and fund-raising.

The false-flag possibilities of “Paris, Jan 7″ are endless.

#13 Comment By Colm J On January 20, 2015 @ 1:27 pm

Neal: “Otherwise… what is the point of the speculation? The dead are still dead.”

One can very easily turn that argument around, and ask what is the point of the endless corporate media and western political obsession with events such as 9/11, the London bombings of 7/7, the recent events in Paris, and so on – especially when more civilians are often killed in a single day in western instigated wars.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 21, 2015 @ 7:13 pm

” . . . and western political obsession with events such as 9/11, the London bombings of 7/7, the recent events in Paris, and so on . . .”

I have no issues with keeping events in their proper frame. But 9/11 not only was the witness of several major financial buildings impacting millions of livelihoods, in one crack some 2000 human beings lost their lives. The only thing to celebrate about that event is that thousands escaped. It also demonstrated just how vulnerable life can be in a ‘free’ society. While less successful the multiple attacks aimed at NY and Washington DC not only took additional lives — it also shook the country to it’s core. It is no less significant than remembering Pearl Harbor.

Now, has that scenario been overplayed, I think so. Have we as a nation been hoodwinked by those acts to engage in strategically unwise acts, I think so. I will not speak to the impact of events on Londoners or the UK as a whole nor the that of Parisians or the French.

Yu are correct that in a single day, we loose more live than the total from those events. But the context of that loss matters. (Speaking of conspiracies.)

I just don’t think there is much veracity in the connections made on the King matter. And I am unconvinced of the connection with the those in France. My problem, experience. 9/11 was to have such connection when none existed, despite the rhetoric. Even the analysis to the Afghan Taliban was twisted completely out of context. Now one would think that those who got the matter so fowled would be taking a back seat. But with every criminal (terrorist act) they are at it again. Linking by language that which is not supported by the evidence. The fight to respond to the evidence has been continually lost to the media and so called experts, but those of who take our education in analysis seriously, should continue to press for realistic assessments as opposed to what trips emotions.

Regardless of the consequences.