BERLIN: The terror attack Wednesday that killed 12 people at the Paris offices of a satirical newspaper known for running cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad wasn’t a total surprise. Europe, France and even the newspaper have been preparing for such an attack for months.
Europe has been on high alert as anti-terror experts voiced alarm at the thousands of Europeans who’ve gone to Syria and Iraq to fight on behalf of the Islamic State and other terror organizations, and who security experts warned would return to their home countries trained and radicalized.
The attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices seemed to bear those worries out. French news outlets reported late on Wednesday that police had identified the three suspects; two were brothers of French-Algerian extraction who returned from Syria this past summer.
The French website Le Point said the brothers were Said and Cherif Kouachi, 32 and 34, respectively, and that they had been pegged from an identity card left in their abandoned getaway car. The website said a third man, Hamyd Mourad, 18, had served as the getaway driver.
Cherif Kouachi was convicted in 2008 of terrorism charges for helping funnel fighters to Iraq’s anti-US insurgency and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
According to Le Point, authorities had tracked the two brothers to Reims, a city about 80 miles northeast of Paris.
Those reports came after a day that saw the murders of the 10 newspaper staffers, including the publisher and his armed bodyguard, the wounding of five others, and the deaths of two police officers, including one whose execution by a shot to the head was recorded on video as he lay wounded on the ground before the shooters escaped in a black Citroen sedan.
The murders sent France into mourning, with tens of thousands of French pouring into the street in protest, many carrying placards proclaiming “I am Charlie Hebdo.”
French news reports quoted cartoonist and eyewitness Corinne Rey as saying the gunmen “claimed to belong to al-Qaeda.” She said she hid under a desk during the five-minute attack and that as it ended, the attackers yelled, “We took vengeance for the prophet.”
It was the second terror attack on the newspaper offices in recent years. In 2011, the building was firebombed, and in recent weeks the publication had again been threatened, sparking an increase in security.
Mark Singleton, director of the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, said the fact that the attack was not unexpected and yet was so deadly it was disturbing.
“This office was protected, if somewhat softly,” he said. “But against a professional, planned attack, one lesson from this tragedy is that protecting everyone is beyond the capacity of a state,” he added.
Work of professionals
Laurence Nardon, a security expert at the Paris think tank Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, said it appears that French security officials had thwarted a number of planned attacks in recent months.
“Tragically, this one got through,” she said.
Security experts who viewed videos of the attack said the attackers clearly were professionals, likely with combat experience.
“They appear very calm during the attack. They’ve clearly handled weapons before. They know exactly what they’re doing, from the moment they arrive until they flee,” said terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp, the research director of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College.
Still, the attackers apparently were unfamiliar with their target, reportedly arriving first at the building where the newspaper’s archives are stored. Once they realized their error, the Agence France Press news agency reported, they moved a few doors down to the weekly’s headquarters.
Inside the newspaper’s offices, the attackers reportedly spoke fluent, unaccented French, as would be expected of French-Algerians. They used variants of Russian AK-47 assault rifles to carry out their attacks.
The toll was heavy: of the 10 slain Charlie Hebdo employees, four were French cultural icons, including Jean Cabut, known as Cabu, the creator of the cartoon character Le Beauf, an uncouth French know-it-all; Georges Wolinski, 80, whose cartoons often illustrated books on humorous topics; Bernard “Tignous” Velhac, and Stephane Charbonnier, the publisher of Charlie Hebdo who produced cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad under the name Charb. It was Charbonnier who made the decision in 2007 to republish Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that had caused an uproar in much of the Islamic world and who defied warnings in 2012 to publish still more Muhammad drawings that many called pornographic.
Others among the murdered at the newspaper meeting included an economist, a travel writer and a janitor.
Spontaneous vigils broke out honoring the slain in Paris and other cities around France and elsewhere in Europe.
The attack coincided with the release of the newest novel by the controversial French author Michel Houellebecq. The novel, Submission, portrays a France in 2022 under strict Muslim control, where pork is no longer available at grocers and women cannot walk the streets uncovered. Charlie Hebdo’s cover, released on Wednesday morning, was a caricature of “The predictions of Houellebecq,” in which he notes, “In 2015, I will lose my teeth,” and “In 2022, I will keep Ramadan.”
The cover, lampooning a work that in France has been described as a “Christmas gift” to the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and far-right Front National political party, was clear evidence that the newspaper lampoons all perspectives in France. TNS