- - Wednesday, January 7, 2015

PARIS — A bloody day in the heart of the City of Light left some of France’s best-known journalists dead and police tracking down the native Islamist terrorists suspected of carrying out the murders to avenge what they said were insults to the founder of their faith. One suspect surrendered and two others were missing.

The well-coordinated early-morning attack on the editorial offices of the Charlie Hebdo targeted the editor of the bitingly satiric weekly, Stephane Charbonnier, nine colleagues and a security guard, all murdered in cold blood by masked assailants who reportedly called out the names of their victims as they were shot. Another police officer was killed as the attackers made a wild escape through the crowded streets of Paris.

One police official said the men — identified in French press reports as brothers Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, both in their early 30s, and 18-year-old accomplice Hamyd Mourad — had links to a Yemeni terrorist network, although that was not confirmed. Witnesses of the attackers’ escape through Paris said one claimed allegiance to al Qaeda’s operation in Yemen.

A massive manhunt led to a confrontation hours later in the nearby city of Reims, where a major police operation was underway early Thursday morning, but confusion reigned about what exactly had happened.

According to Agence France-Presse, Mr. Mourad surrendered to authorities with the two brothers still on the loose, though there was no official confirmation of that early Thursday. On Wednesday evening, other news agencies had said one suspect was killed and two others taken into custody.

But the Associated Press said Thursday morning that France was on a manhunt looking for the two missing gunmen. The news outlet quoted the prime minister saying he feared a new attack.

SEE ALSO: Paris newspaper shooting exposes rift in Muslim-Europe relationships

Later on Wednesday, there was another shooting that left a police officer wounded, but the AP said it was not clear if that shooting was related to Charlie Hebdo attack.

The brazen, brutal assault shook the nation and brought in expressions of support and solidarity from President Obama and leaders around the world. Top French Muslim officials also condemned the attacks, saying they did not represent mainstream Islamic values.

France raised its terror alert to maximum, and President Francois Hollande vowed to pursue the perpetrators “as long as necessary.”

But the attack, the deadliest terrorist assault here since World War II, threatened to exacerbate a number of open wounds on the continent, including the difficulty of assimilating rising Muslim minorities into secular political systems, the rise of anti-immigrant political movements across the European Union and the fear that Islamist violence on the rise in northern Africa and the Middle East will soon spill over to Europe.

Before the arrests were announced, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve described how the three black-clad attackers who stormed the offices of weekly Charlie Hebdo during a midday editorial meeting were heard shouting “Allahu akbar” and gunned down Mr. Charbonnier — an outspoken defender of press freedoms widely known by his pen name, Charb — killing him and his colleagues, including several other nationally famous cartoonists and contributors.

Clad all in black with hoods and carrying assault rifles, the attackers forced one of the cartoonists arriving at the office building with her young daughter to open the door with a security code, according to The Associated Press.

SEE ALSO: New Yorkers rally in support of French terror victims

The staff was in an editorial meeting, and the gunmen headed straight for Mr. Charbonnier, killing him and his police bodyguard first, said Christophe Crepin, a police union spokesman. Minutes later, two men strolled out to a black car waiting below, calmly firing on a police officer, with one gunman shooting him in the head as he writhed on the ground, according to video and a man who watched in fear from his home across the street.

All told, eight journalists, two police officers, a maintenance worker and a guest were killed, said Paris prosecutor Francois Molins, giving a breakdown of the 12 dead. Among those killed were Bernard Maris, an economist and contributor to the newspaper who was heard regularly on French radio, and nationally known cartoonists Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac, better known as Tignous.

President Obama and other world leaders were quick to condemn the attack and to offer assistance in tracking down the killers, with Mr. Obama speaking with French President Hollande by phone. British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also expressed solidarity with their EU ally.

“We stand squarely for free speech and democracy. These people will never be able to take us off those values,” Mr. Cameron said in the House of Commons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also condemned the attack as a “cynical crime” and pledged cooperation in fighting terrorism, the AP reported.

International aid

Justice Department officials said they are working with their French counterparts to figure out who might have organized the attacks.

A statement from the FBI said that the agency was working with French authorities to comb through databases of suspects “that may lead to the identification, apprehension, and ultimately prosecution of those responsible for this heinous crime.”

France raised its security to the highest level, shoring up security at houses of worship, stores, media outlets and on public transportation, as well as closing schools across Paris after the gunmen fled in a waiting vehicle before switching cars.

Mr. Hollande described the killings as “a terrorist attack without a doubt” and as an “act of exceptional barbarism,” adding that other terrorist attacks had been frustrated in France “in recent weeks.”

The offices of the satirical paper, which was well known for its controversial covers and illustrations poking fun at Islam and other religions, were firebombed in 2011 after it featured a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad on its cover. Almost a year later, Muslims around the world denounced the publication for printing more cartoons of Muhammad.

The attack was thought to be revenge for the paper’s irreverent illustrations. A video filmed from a nearby building showed one of the men shouting: “We avenged the Prophet Muhammad! We killed Charlie Hebdo” and crying “Allahu akbar” — Arabic for “God is great.”

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have previously threatened to attack France, and just minutes before the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices, the magazine had tweeted a satirical cartoon of the Islamic State leader expressing New Year’s wishes. Another cartoon released in the latest issue featured a jihadi fighter saying: “Just wait — we have until the end of January to present our New Year’s wishes.”

According to Corinne Rey, the cartoonist who said she was forced to let the gunmen in, the men spoke fluent French and claimed to be from al Qaeda, according to French newspaper L’Humanite.

In the aftermath, co-workers of the slain were in shock.

“I’ve lost all my friends today. They were good people, the best of all of us,” Charlie Hebdo’s former editor in chief, Philippe Val, told ITV. “They were assassinated. It’s a horrible slaughterhouse. Terror should not stop the joy of life, the freedom of expression and — I’m going to say something dumb — democracy.”

“This is the darkest day of the history of the French press,” added Christophe DeLoire of Reporters Without Borders.

Public outcry has been immense, with Muslim organizations vehemently condemning the attack. Protesters in solidarity with those slain gathered at Place de la Republique in central Paris in a movement called Je Suis Charlie (“I am Charlie”) — which has also become a trending Twitter hashtag.

French Muslims worried what it meant for their community. Anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise in Europe, with protests spreading in Germany against a perceived “creeping Islamization” and increasing support for anti-Islam political parties in the European Union. Muslim groups emphasized the attackers did not represent Islam and for restraint on all sides.

“In a global political context, the tensions fueled by the delusions of terrorist groups provides a false picture of Islam,” said a statement by the French Council of the Muslim Faith. “We call on all who are attached to the values of the Republic and democracy and invite you to avoid any provocations that will add oil to the fire.”

Even so, some say the danger is not exaggerated.

“I think the threat is quite big in France, because it has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe that has, in many ways, struggled with integration, and so that means the biggest potential recruiting pool for jihadists,” said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, who researches terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private higher education institution.

“It is difficult to know how well organized jihadist groups in France are, but part of the French foreign fighter contingent that went to Syria even created its own group: Firqat al-Ghuraba,” he added. “At the moment it’s difficult to say whether it’s [Islamic State-inspired] or al Qaeda is responsible. On the one hand the attack fits with [Islamic State] spokesman Adnani’s calls to target the French in particular.”

But he noted that al Qaeda also had Charlie Hebdo’s editor on a “Wanted List” in 2013, and “if the attack is al Qaeda, it can certainly help to bolster al Qaeda’s credibility as a jihadist force.”

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, with an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of the country’s 66 million people, and tensions have been rising in the country. Some commentators and far-right parties, such as Marie Le Pen’s National Front, have expressed fears that the French will lose their identity and culture, particularly as immigration continues.

Controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq’s recent book, “Submission,” about a moderate Muslim being elected president and turning France into a conservative Islamic country where universities have to teach the Quran, plays on these fears. Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue had featured a story about the novel.

Still, analysts said media and lawmakers should “not overreact” to the attacks.

“We should be careful to honor the victims and not glorify the attackers so as to minimize the risk of copycat attacks,” said Benoit Gomis, international security analyst and associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House think tank. “And there often is a risk of copycat attacks in these cases.”

Meanwhile, some living in Paris expressed disbelief and concern as police mobilized to try to find the killers.

“I was definitely shocked,” said Bernadette Hutson, 22, of Paris. “One of my co-workers’ daughters was at the school right by there. It is bizarre to have these people still roaming around Paris.”

Phillip Swarts contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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