Hooded gunmen clad in black burst into the office of a provocative French satirical magazine on Wednesdaymorning, January 7, killing 12 before escaping onto the streets of Paris, according to police. It was France’s deadliest attack in at least two decades.
The gunmen shouted “Allahu akbar!” (Arabic for “God is great!”), as they stormed the offices of the Charlie Hebdo weekly newspaper, which often features satirical stories and cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and has frequently drawn condemnation from Muslims.
With the massive manhunt on, French President François Hollande called the gunmen attack “a terrorist attack without a doubt,” in which journalists were “cowardly assassinated.” He also noted that several other attacks have been thwarted in France fairly recently.
French police officials identified three men as the suspects of the attack: Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, brothers who are in their 30s, and 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad. Agence France-Presse reported that Mourad surrendered and is now in custody. The two other suspects remain at large, as of press time.
On the same day after the attack, France raised its security alert to the highest level, reinforcing security at various public places and media offices around the capital city. Top government officials held an emergency meeting, with Hollande planning a national televised address.
In a televised briefing, Paris Prosecutor François Molins said “at least two” gunmen entered the offices of the newspaper, close to Place de la Bastille, at about 11:30 am on January 7, Paris time.
According to reports, the men first shot and killed a police officer stationed at the magazine, then walked up to the second floor newsroom where the staff was in an editorial meeting and opened fire.
Prosecutors confirmed a total of 12 deaths—four well-known founding cartoonists including Georges Wolinski and Berbard Verihac, better known as Tignous, editor Stephane Charbonnier, and two policemen. In addition to the deaths, eight were wounded, four in critical condition.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
A video shown on French television showed two masked men leaving the building and then trading fire with another police officer, who was also killed. An official of the SBP police union said the attackers left in a waiting car and later switched to another vehicle in a Paris suburb that had been stolen.
In public videos released by France Televisions, cries of “Allahu akbar!” and “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad!” could be heard among the gunshots.
Hours after their escape, two suspects resembling the Kouachi brothers were spotted in various villages north-east of Paris, and are said to have robbed a service station in the northern Aisne region. Anti-terrorism police converged on an area near Villers-Cotterets, where the gunmen were reported by French media to have stolen food and petrol and were “heavily armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.”
The suspects are said to have driven off in a Renault Clio car, apparently the same vehicle hijacked in Paris soon after the attack at Charlie Hebdo.
The highest security alert was imposed in the Picardy region, where officials have been frantically searching, monitoring main roads, and questioning door-to-door.
On the morning of Jan. 8, less than 24 hours after the Charlie Hebdo attack, a young female French police officer was gunned down while attending to a traffic accident in nearby Montrouge, a suburb less than 3 miles from the center of Paris. A street cleaner who confronted the attacker was also shot in the face, and is said to be in serious condition. The gunmen fled, reportedly wearing dark clothes and a bulletproof vest, and remains at large.
Employees in the nearby business district were warned to stay indoors after an “armed man” was spotted. It is not known if the two attacks are linked.
“We need to find the actors of this terrorist act,” President Hollande said publicly. “They must be arrested and brought before judges and condemned as quickly as possible. France is shocked today.”
The extremist militant Islamic State group, ISIS, has threatened to attack France before. Charlie Hebdo has been repeatedly threatened for its caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and other controversial sketches. In 2011, its offices were firebombed after a spoof issue featured a cartoon of the prophet making fun of Islamic law on its cover. Nearly a year later, the publication again published crude Muhammad caricatures, drawing criticisms from around the Muslim world.
The death of these journalists sparked a global wave of support for the criticized French publication and its views.
People tweeted “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” in support of the magazine. Rallies of solidarity were planned for the evening, including one at the historic Paris’ Place de la Republique square, as news of the bloodshed spread, heightening security concerns around the world.
President Hollande vowed on Twitter that “no barbaric act will ever extinguish freedom of the press.”
“We knew that we were threatened like other countries in the world,” he said. “We are threatened because we are a country of freedom.”
International leaders condemn terrorist attack
Leaders from all over the world expressed their outraged about the attack in Paris and extended their support to France in pursuing the terrorists.
Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s leading center of learning, called the attack “criminal,” saying that “Islam denounces any violence.”
The Arab League also condemned the attack, and Pope Francis called it “abominable.”
In a statement from the White House, President Barack Obama also expressed his sympathies to Parisians and the French government, one of America’s oldest allies.
“The fact that this was an attack on journalists…also underscores the degree to which these terrorists fear freedom of speech and freedom of the press. These kinds of attacks can happen anywhere in the world. For us to see the kind of cowardly, evil attacks that took place today, I think, reinforces once again why it’s so important for us to stand in solidarity with them, just as they stand in solidarity with us,” Obama said, promising to speak with President Hollande to help France track down the killers, and for the US to stay vigilant in the fight against terrorism.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country stood united with France. In a statement he made in the House of Commons, the Cameron said, “We stand squarely for free speech and democracy. These people will never be able to take us off those values.”
Condemning the attack as a “cynical crime,” Russian President Vladimir Putin also pledged cooperation in fighting terrorism.
(With reports from Inquirer, CNN, Associated Press, NPR, NBC News, Daily Mail, BBC News Europe, and USA Today)
(San Francisco January 9-15, 2015 Sec. A pg.1)