Charlie Hebdo gunmen still at large

President Francois Hollande has called the slayings at Charlie Hebdo magazine “a terrorist attack without a doubt” and said several other attacks have been thwarted in France “in recent weeks”.

France raised its security alert to the highest level and reinforced protective measures at houses of worship, stores, media offices and on transportation. Schools closed across Paris. Top government officials held an emergency meeting and Hollande was to address the nation in a planned televised address that evening.

Three masked gunmen shouting “Allahu akbar!” stormed the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper on Wednesday, killing 12 people, including its editor, before escaping in a car. It was France’s deadliest postwar terrorist attack.

Security forces were hunting for the gunmen who spoke flawless, unaccented French in the military-style noon-time attack on the weekly newspaper’s offices near Paris’ Bastille monument.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which also left four people critically wounded, and was praised by supporters of the militant Islamic State group.

Clad all in black with hoods and carrying machine guns, the attackers forced one of the cartoonists arriving at the office building with her young daughter to open the door with a security code.

Staff members were in an editorial meeting and the gunmen headed straight for the paper’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier – widely known by his pen name Charb – killing him and his police bodyguard first, said Christophe Crepin, a police union spokesperson. 

Calm attack
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.

Ten journalists were killed and two police officers, Crepin said, one of them assigned as Charb’s bodyguard and another who had arrived on the scene on a mountain bike. Among the dead was Bernard Maris, an economist who was among the newspaper’s contributors and appeared regularly on French radio.

Warning: This video clip of the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo headquarters may disturb sensitive viewers.

“Hey! We avenged the Prophet Muhammad! We killed Charlie Hebdo,” one of the men shouted in French, according to a video shot from a nearby building and broadcast on French TV. 

Other video footage showed two gunmen in black at a crossroads who appeared to fire down one of the streets. A cry of “Allahu akbar!” (Arabic for “God is great”) could be heard among the gunshots.

The video showed the killers moving deliberately and calmly, with one bending over to toss a fallen shoe back into the small black car before it sped off. The car was later found abandoned in northern Paris, police said.

Luc Poignant of the SBP police union said the attackers switched to another vehicle that had been stolen.

Al-Qaeda claim
Corinne Rey, the cartoonist who said she was forced to let the gunmen in, said the men spoke fluent French and claimed to be from al-Qaeda. In an interview with the newspaper l’Humanite, she said the shooting lasted perhaps five minutes.

Security analyst group Stratfor said the gunmen appeared to be well trained “from the way they handled their weapons, moved and shot. These attackers conducted a successful attack, using what they knew, instead of attempting to conduct an attack beyond their capability, failing as a result.”

Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group have repeatedly threatened to attack France. Minutes before the attack, Charlie Hebdo had tweeted a satirical cartoon of the Islamic State’s leader giving New Year’s wishes.

A cartoon released in this week’s issue and entitled “Still No Attacks in France” had a caricature of a jihadi fighter saying “Just wait – we have until the end of January to present our New Year’s wishes.” Charb was the artist.

‘Darkest day’
“This is the darkest day of the history of the French press,” said Christophe DeLoire of Reporters Without Borders.

In the winter 2014 edition of the al-Qaeda magazine Inspire, a so-called chief describing where to use a new bomb said: “Of course the first priority and the main focus should be on America, then the United Kingdom, then France and so on.”

In 2013, the magazine specifically threatened Charb and included an article titled “France the Imbecile Invader”.

An al-Qaeda tweeter who communicated on Wednesday with news agency AP said the group was not claiming responsibility, but called the attack “inspiring”.

Supporters of militant Islamic groups praised the move on social media. One self-described Tunisian loyalist of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group tweeted that the attack was well-deserved revenge against France.

Elsewhere on the internet, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie was trending as people expressed support for the weekly and for journalistic freedom.

Religion and politicians targeted

Charlie Hebdo has never pulled its punches when it comes to lambasting religion, especially radical Islam.

From publishing the Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad that sparked Middle East riots in 2005 to renaming an edition “Sharia Hebdo” and listing Islam’s prophet as its supposed editor-in-chief, the weekly has repeatedly caricatured Muslims and their beliefs.

Politically left-libertarian, it has gleefully fired barbs at other religions, such as the Catholic Church when it was mired in child sex abuse scandals several years ago, and devotes even more space to lampooning politicians on the right and left.

But its attacks on Muslims have caused the most controversy, including a court case on charges of racism and the firebombing of its offices in 2011 after the “Sharia Hebdo” edition. “Hebdo” is French slang for a weekly newspaper.

The weekly has also made fun of the Muslim veil for women and ridiculed Islamist extremists. In the edition publishing the Danish cartoons, its cover had a drawing of the Prophet in tears, saying: “It’s hard to be loved by jerks.”

The widespread assumption in Paris was that the gunmen were Muslim extremists punishing the publication for years of criticising their faith. Police said the weekly had received several threats in recent weeks and had permanent police protection.

At the scene, Paris imam Hassan Chalgoumi said of the attackers: “We must be firm with them, because they want terror, they want racism, they want to pit people against each other.”

The racism case went to court in 2007, but the plaintiffs – two leading French Muslim groups and the Saudi-backed Muslim World League – stood no chance against the weekly’s defence that France’s freedom of speech and separation of church and state guaranteed its right to criticise any religion.

Because of its relentless criticism of many public figures and institutions, Charlie Hebdo‘s often crude – many Muslims would also say cruel – caricatures are seen in France more as free speech rather than far-right anti-Muslim agitation.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was interior minister at the time of the 2007 trial, defended Charlie Hebdo as a newspaper “following an old French tradition, satire”.

Many of its cartoonists started in the 1960s on Hara-Kiri magazine, which openly proclaimed its aim to be “inane and nasty”. It was banned in 1970 after printing a mock death notice for General Charles de Gaulle, only to reappear months later under the name Charlie Hebdo.

Editor Stephane Charbonnier told Reuters in 2012 that nobody noticed when the paper ridiculed Catholic traditionalists. “But we are not allowed to make fun of Muslim hardliners. It’s the new rule … but we will not obey it,” he said. 

Danish media group JP/Politikens Hus, whose newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons in 2005 depicting the Prophet, has increased its security level because of the shooting.

Jyllands-Posten’s publishing of the cartoons sparked a wave of protests across the Muslim world in which at least 50 died. 

Global condemnation
Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the Union of French mosques, condemned the “hateful act” and urged Muslims and Christians “to intensify their actions to give more strength to this dialogue, to make a united front against extremism”.

Egypt’s leading Islamic authority has condemned the attack. Al-Azhar, a thousand-year-old seat of religious learning respected by Muslims around the world, referred to the attack as a criminal act on its Facebook page.

The Vatican condemned the shooting as “abominable”. “It is a double act of violence, abominable because it is both an attack against people as well as against freedom of the press,” said the Vatican’s deputy spokesperson, Father Ciro Benedettini.

He added that Pope Francis would likely issue a personal condemnation later in the day by sending a message to the archbishop of Paris.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon voiced outrage at the “despicable attack”, which he described as a “horrendous, unjustifiable and cold-blooded crime”. “This horrific attack is meant to divide,” said Ban. “We must not fall into that trap.” 

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, said the kingdom “strongly condemns and denounces this cowardly terrorist act that is rejected by true Islamic religion as well as the rest of the religions and beliefs”, according to Saudi state news agency SPA, which cited an official source.

Egypt’s leading Islamic authority, Al-Azhar, also condemned the attack, which killed at least 12 people including two police officers, the worst militant attack on French soil for decades.

Italy’s interior ministry called a meeting of experts on Wednesday to analyse militant threats after the gunmen stormed the publication’s offices. The so-called strategic anti-terrorism analysis committee, made up of experts from Italy’s police forces and intelligence services, met this afternoon “to examine with great attention the terrorist threat in light of the very grave attack in Paris today”, the ministry said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the deadly shooting an attack on freedom of speech and the press.

“This abominable act is not only an attack on the lives of French citizens and their security,” she said. “It is also an attack on freedom of speech and the press, core elements of our free democratic culture. In no way can this be justified.”

German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel called the attack an “unbelievably brutal crime”.

US President Barack Obama called the shooting a terrorist attack against its ally and has offered US assistance.

“We are in touch with French officials and I have directed my administration to provide any assistance needed to help bring these terrorists to justice,” said Obama. “France is America’s oldest ally, and has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the fight against terrorists who threaten our shared security and the world.”

The department of homeland security is closely monitoring events in Paris and is in contact with security officials there, a department official said, adding that it continually evaluates the level of protection at federal facilities. The official did not say whether that level had changed.

The Committee to Protect Journalists  condemned the attack, writing on its website: “This is a brazen assault on free expression in the heart of Europe,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “The scale of the violence is appalling. Journalists must now stand together to send the message that such murderous attempts to silence us will not stand.” – AP, Reuters, AFP

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