Warning: Disturbing content
The deadly attack in Paris began as most do, with normality turning to mayhem without clear warning: A black Citroën C3 hatchback, an innocuous car in the French capital, pulled to a halt near the Rue Nicolas Appert offices of Charlie Hebdo around 10:20 a.m., local time.
Masked, black-clad men with machine guns climbed out.
Just two hours before, the satirical newspaper had tweeted a goading cartoon of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the ISIS terrorist group — meaning the day started as any other might at the biting, secularist weekly.
Security was always tight at Charlie Hebdo‘s offices. The paper had moved to its location near the Bastille monument in 2011 after its former office was firebombed the day after running a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad on its cover.
The gunmen reportedly went the wrong way inside the building, having to stop and ask where the newspaper offices are and then shooting at the people answering.
The opportunity to breach the security came when the gunmen saw a cartoonist, Corinne Rey, approach her newspaper’s office with her child; they confronted her and forced her to push the office’s security code.
“I just went to get my daughter from daycare. As I got to the front door of the building, two masked, armed gunmen brutally threatened us,” she told Paris newspaper L’Humanité. “They wanted to enter, go up. I typed in the code.”
Ms. Rey hid while the gunmen moved to the editorial offices on the second floor. They dressed and moved like commandos.
They spoke perfect French and said they were from Al-Qaeda, she said. Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks, had reportedly placed a bounty on the head of editor Stéphane Charbonnier last year for his perceived blasphemy.
Upstairs, the newspaper’s senior staff was in their weekly editorial meeting when the gunmen started targeting journalists, reportedly seeking out certain cartoonists by name.
Ten newspaper staff members were killed including Mr. Charbonnier, 47. Many others others were injured, some critically.
“It lasted five minutes,” Ms. Rey said.
Journalists at a neighbouring news outlet saw the gunmen enter and heard shots fired. Some ran to the roof. Police were alerted and citizens with phone cameras snuck pictures and video from behind windows and on balconies as the gunmen emerged, returning to their car apparently driven by a waiting accomplice.
Outside the carnage continued.
On a residential street nearby, Boulevard Richard Lenoir, the Citroën stopped again. A video shows two men stepping out and firing at a police officer with their Kalashnikov rifles. The officer is then seen lying on the sidewalk as the men approach, one covering the other in military style.
In the video, the injured officer raises a hand, either in defence or surrender, but the gunmen ignore his plea; one hops over him — firing pointblank at the officer’s head. Returning to the car one gunman makes a hand gesture, what looks like an upward finger, like a soccer player’s goal celebration, and the Citroën resumes its journey.
The downed officer has been identified as Ahmed Merabet, 42, a Muslim patrolman assigned to the district of the newspaper’s office.
Another police officer is among the dead, reported to be Mr. Charbonnier’s bodyguard, assigned to protect the journalist after prior threats against the editor — himself a cartoonist — who had been unyielding to his critics, saying freedom of expression demanded satirical reflection.
An arriving police car tried to block the road the Citroën was on and was peppered with gunfire. Photographs showed 15 bullet holes in the cruiser’s windshield.
The video revealed gunmen who appear to have training or practice, moving with precision and in coordination.
Various reports say the men called out “we have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “Allahu Akbar” during the attack.
Wandrille Lanos, a TV reporter who works across the road from Charlie Hebdo, was one of the first to enter the newspaper’s office after the attack. He said it had been a slaughter.
“As we progressed into the office, we saw that the number of casualties was very high. There was a lot of people dead on the floor, and there was blood everywhere,” he said.
The abandoned Citroën was recovered in northern Paris, on Rue de Meaux, and the gunmen apparently hijacked a different vehicle to further their escape.
Police seized the abandoned car and scoured it for clues to the identity of the gunmen and where they might be hiding or heading. A major police investigation continues. Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s Interior Minister, said three attackers were being sought.
Francois Hollande, France’s President, rushed to the newspaper’s offices, where he declared the killings a terrorist attack and offered condolences and assurances.
“An act of indescribable barbarity has just been committed today in Paris,” he said. “Measures have been taken to find those responsible, they will be hunted for as long as it takes to catch them and bring them to justice.”
In the evening, French police sources said three suspects had been identified. Two officials named them as Frenchmen Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, both in their early 30s, and 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad, whose nationality was not clear.
One of the officials said they were linked to a Yemeni terrorist network. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the investigation. Cherif Kouachi was convicted in 2008 of terrorism charges for helping funnel fighters to Iraq’s insurgency and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Early Thursday, a major police operation was underway in Reims, about 90 miles from Paris.
AFP, citing sources, reported that the 18-year-old suspect had surrendered to police at 11 p.m. local time Wednesday after “seeing his name circulating on social media.”
As news of the attack spread Wednesday, a vast, monumental gulf was revealed as thousands gathered in Paris — some symbolically holding aloft pens as a symbol of freedom of expression — to express sorrow and anger at the massacre whilst jihadists celebrated it with laudatory tweets and joyous praise for the fugitive gunmen.
Huge vigils formed in Paris and other cities, with public gatherings planned for cities around the world. A global social media campaign of solidarity — #JeSuisCharlie, or “I am Charlie” — quickly emerged.
Shocked and outraged cartoonists, for whom the attack struck particularly close, reacted with their weapon of choice — they issued a flood of forceful, pithy and darkly revealing cartoons.
It was an homage and response that Mr. Charbonnier would likely have embraced.
But jihadists and jihadi sympathizers viewed the attack starkly different, praising it through social media in what the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadists online, called “unanimous celebration.”
Mr. Hollande on national television Wednesday night said of the slain journalists: “They are today our heroes.”
Paris remained on its highest security alert, with police and military guards placed at tourist sites, media outlets, major stores and other potential targets.
National Post with files from Daily Telegraph and Associated Press
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- Andrew Coyne: How remarkable that a humour magazine, Charlie Hebdo, has led the fight against fanaticism
- Sword, meet pen: Cartoonists around the world react after terrorists murder French satirists