On January 7, 2015 two masked and heavily armed terrorists attacked the Paris offices of satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo (Weekly Charlie). Using two AK47 Kalashnikov assault rifles, a shotgun and an RPG rocket launcher, they left behind them a total of twelve dead and eleven wounded in what is the single worst terrorist atrocity in France since the Secret Army Organisation (OAS) bombed the Vitry-Le Francois train in 1961. While spraying bullets at the terrified staff they are reported to have shouted repeatedly ‘All-u-akbar!’ (‘God is great!’). The terrorists used one of the magazine’s employees, cartoonist Corinne ‘Coco’ Rey, to enter the security code unlocking the front door, purportedly threatening to kill her children if she didn’t obey without question. Rey survived, but many of her co-workers were less fortunate.
On entering the offices, they fired indiscriminately. Anybody and everybody in the office was fair game for them. In the space of approximately five to ten minutes they had fired around fifty rounds from their weapons and left a scene of utter devastation behind them. The first to die was maintenance worker Frederic Boisseau, shot in the lobby at the start of the attack. Cartoonists George Wolinski, Phillipe Honore, Bernard Verlhac and Stephane Charbonnier were also among the dead. Copy editor Mustapha Ourad was among those killed along with Bernard Maris (economist, editor and columnist), Elsa Cayat (psychoanalyst and columnist, the only woman to die, possibly because she was Jewish), Ahmed Merabet (a Muslim police officer), Michel Renaud (merely a guest at the meeting, not an employee), Franck Brinsolaro (a Protection Service police officer there to guard Stephane Charbonnier after previous threats and attacks), and another cartoonist, Jean Cabut.
After the assault the gunmen fled. Two suspects took hostages on an industrial estate in Dammartin-en-Goele where they took a hostage. Another took hostages at a kosher supermarket near the Porte de Vincennes in Paris. Police and special forces made simultaneous raids on the two locations and three terrorists were killed as a result while some hostages had already been killed or injured.. Four hostages at Vincennes were killed before the commandos stormed the location and fifth suspect is still on the run, now the most wanted fugitive in France. The lone gunman in Vincennes and the gunmen in Dammartin-en-Goele were reportedly in contact by cell-phone, hence the synchronised raids occurring within minutes of each other.
A total of seventeen people died at four locations between January 7 and January 9, plus three gunmen. At least twenty-one others have been injured. It’s safe to say that France hasn’t seen terrorism on this scale since the OAS fought it’s terror campaign in the 1960’s which included the Vitry train bombing and numerous attempts on the life of President Charles de Gaulle, who the OAS perceived as a traitor to France for surrendering the former French colony nowadays called Algeria. The OAS even tried a military coup in 1962 to unseat de Gaulle, a coup which failed, but nothing in France since their campaign has caused so much bloodshed and so gigantic a global response to a single terrorist act.
But why? What did the staff at Charlie Hebdo do to invite such devastating retribution? What could they possibly have produced that deserved such violence? They produced cartoons and writing that was perceived by the suspects to have insulted the Islamic prophet Mohammed. That’s definitely not to say that these gunmen represent all Muslims, any more than the IRA represent all Irish people or that terrorists of any stripe by default represent the countries or communities in whose name they claim to act. The staff at Charlie Hebdo had a long history of poking fun at all religions, not just Islam while poking fun at secular targets as well. It’s a satirical magazine expressly designed to insult, lampoon, frustrate and anger its targets.
Unfortunately, extremists and terrorists don’t view things in that way. To some terrorists anybody denigrating either their cause or their actions is an enemy, somebody to be intimidated into silence if possible and physically harmed if necessary. With its long history of lampooning Islam as much as anything and everything else, and having experienced threats, harassment and a firebombing already leaving the building guarded by armed police officers, the magazine was always an increasingly likely target for terrorist attack. The fact that its staff consummately refused to back down in the face of such a threat only provoked their attackers more. Again, that in no way justifies their actions, but that’s how they saw the situation rather than anybody else’s point of view.
France has long had a large Muslim population, currently over 5 million Muslims live and work in France. Paris alone is said to be home to over 1.7 million Muslims, many of whom are as appalled by the attack as anybody else. Some Muslims do feel excluded and rejected by French society. They feel like second class-citizens whose mere presence is resented by native French people, almost as though the native French regard them as some sort of enemy within. Tensions, both racial and religious, have been rising steadily within France over the increase in the Muslim population and the number of Muslims already resident in the country.
Charlie Hebdo made a point of lampooning Islam as much as any other target, hence their being marked for retaliation. The magazine’s chief cartoonist Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier was already listed on Al Q’Aida’s wanted list at the time of the shootings, such was their hatred for him. The magazine’s cartoons had repeatedly depicted Islam and Mohammed in a less-than-respectful way and this was the purported motive for the attack.
The attackers were brothers Said Kouachi and Chefir Kouachi, the sons of Algerian immigrants. The brothers were orphans. Cherif was part of the ‘Buttes-Chaumont network’ that helped would-be jihadists to fight in Iraq after the invasion in 2003. In January, 2005 Cherif had been arrested and imprisoned until October, 2006 for trying to leave for Syria to fight as jihadists. After his imprisonment he met Djamel Beghal, who’d served ten years since 2001 for planning to bomb the US Embassy in Paris. Cherif also had convictions for having assisted would-be jihadists to reach Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s fighters in Iraq and for having solicited young French Muslims to fight beside Zarqawi’s forces. His stated motive was the alleged treatment of Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison by Coalition forces in Baghdad. He was also implicated in a plan to free from prison Islamic militant Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, Belkacem having been responsible for bombings on the Paris Metro in 1995 that caused eight deaths.
Said had had terrorist training in Yemen and trained with Al Q’aida militants on the Arabian Peninsula. A senior Yemeni intelligence source had also stated that he was in contact with Al Q’aida radical preacher Anwar al Awlaki. Cherif Kouachi also claimed that a group loyal to Awlaki had funded his activities and thus the Kouachi brothers were under French surveillance, but this was stopped in Spring, 2014 and the resources directed elsewhere.
French police have also linked the murder of French police officer Clarissa Jean-Phillippe on January 8 to the Charlie hebdo attacks, their principal suspect Amedy Coulibaly being a member of the same jihadist network as the Kouachi brothers. The next day, Coulibaly, armed with two AK47 assault rifles, attacked the Hypercacher kosher supermarket in Vincennes, taking several hostages and maintaining contact with the Kouachi brothers via cell phone. Police stormed the supermarket simultaneously with another raid on the brothers’ hideout in Dammartin. The raids were timed simultaneously to avoid either the brothers or Coulibaly from notifying each other and thus risking the lives of more hostages. Fifteen hostages were rescued at the supermarket.
After the national manhunt that saw their discovery at Dammartin, the Kouachi brothers were run to earth and another raid was mounted by French anti-terrorist police and Special Forces. The office of Creation Tendance Decouverte was to become a shooting gallery. Taken over by the fleeing brothers at gunpoint, a number of hostages were at imminent risk of being murdered when police and commandos stormed the building. At approximately 4:30pm there were at least three loud explosions near the building while, around a half-hour later, a team landed on the building’s roof via helicopter. Before the team on the roof could tackle them inside the building the Kouachi brothers ran out into the street and opened fire on police. Both were shot by police officers, having previously expressed a fervent desire to die as martyrs for their cause.
The global response to the Paris terror attacks has been striking. Aside from other publications reprinting the cartoons that allegedly caused the attacks there have been ‘Unity marches’ all over France and beyond. Citizens from, so far, the Netherlands, Belgium, the USA, UK, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Spain and Poland have turned out in force. In Paris itself the total marching topped the three million mark and was attended by numerous national leaders. Other events have taken place in Argentina, Canada and Australia. National leaders have lined up to condemn the attacks. French president Francois Hollande, US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Canadian leader Stephen Harper, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Australian prime Minister Tony Abbott and British Prime Minister David Cameron, among others, have all condemned the attacks.
Condemnation has also come from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, Algeria and Qatar. Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, leading Sunni Muslim educational institution in the world, has also condemned the attacks. The Islamic Forum of Europe, the Muslim Council of Britain and The French Council of the Muslim Faith have also expressed their condemnation, making it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the attackers do not represent Islam as a religion or all Muslims as a community.
As for Charlie Hebdo itself, normally a magazine with a circulation of around sixty thousand issues a week, its remaining staff have announced their intention to run their next edition with one million copies printed. The slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’ (‘I am Charlie.’) has become a global phenomenon in a matter of days and several other publications have already pledged to reprint the offending cartoons to make a statement in favour of free speech and against censorship by force. Some famous names at Hollywood’s Golden Globe awards also showed their support, notably British actress Helen Mirren who wore a pencil-shaped badge on her evening gown as a mark of support for free speech and in sympathy with the victims and survivors of the Paris attacks.
Sadly, not every response has been as supportive or as constructive. One publication in Germany has already had its office firebombed for reprinting the cartoons. British Islamist Anjam Chaudary has stated that the words of Mohammed justify such attacks on those insulting prophets and that Mohammed should receive special protection from denigration in order to prevent further violence. A Saudi-Australian preacher, Junaid Thorne has stated: “If you want to enjoy freedom of speech with no limits, expect others to exercise freedom of action.” Militant group ISIS have also openly praised the attackers, as have Somalian militants Al Shahab. There are also reports of supportive rallies in Palestine and Afghanistan while Yaqub Qureishi, leader of India’s Bahujan Samaj Party, has offered the attackers a reward of eight million US Dollars, the same reward he offered to anybody prepared to kill the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard for his creation of controversial Islamic cartoons in a Danish publication in 2006.
This situation is, of course, still very much ongoing. There’s certainly going to be far more to be uncovered and a great deal more to be said before the Paris terror attacks can be consigned to history. It would be unwise to speculate too much, or to give in to tabloid-esque depictions of all Muslims as being supporters or practitioners of terror. It would also serve no constructive purpose to give these terrorists what they want, revenge attacks and the further polarisation between Western Islam and the West itself. Hatred tends to breed hatred as surely as violence so often breeds violence.