PARIS—A massive manhunt is underway in and around Paris for two gunmen, brothers Cherif Kouachi, 32, and Said Kouachi, 34, suspected of killing 12 people at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in one of the nation's deadliest episodes of terrorism. Arrest warrants were issued for the pair while another suspect, Hamyd Mourad, 18, turned himself in to police, reportedly after he saw his name circulating on social media.
The slaughter of journalists at Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday morning and the murder of police trying to stop or apprehend the killers has begun a new chapter in the war between Islamic extremists and the West—a war that escalated in dramatic and unexpected ways last year and looks to get worse and more unpredictable in the months to come.
On at least one jihadist website, the group calling itself the Islamic State, but more widely known as ISIS or Da’esh, appeared to claim responsibility for the shooting, which also injured 11 people, four of them seriously. But many jihadist groups have grievances against France because of its leadership in the war against them in Mali, its participation in the coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq, its laws imposing secularism in public offices and schools, and the ban on full-face veils, known as niqabs or burqas, on Muslim women. Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahari has named France many times as a prime target for retaliation on all these counts, and has deployed a special unit, the Khorasan Group, precisely to recruit European combatants in Syria and send them back to fight in the West.
The attack comes, moreover, at a moment when virulent anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise throughout Europe. In Dresden, Germany, anti-Islam rallies each week draw thousands of demonstrators. In Sweden, mosques have been burned. In Britain, parliament is considering laws that would require kindergarten teachers to monitor potential radicalization among their students. Europe has suffered terrorism many times before, and always righted itself, refusing to succumb to hysteria. But the risk of radical overreaction to radical terror looms as large today, or larger, that at any time in the past.
French President Francois Hollande called Wednesday's killings "cowardly murder" and declared Thursday a national day of mourning. After a long day of conflicting reports, Paris Public Prosecutor François Molins laid out the events as the police understood them:
At around 11:30 Wednesday morning, a Citroen C3 pulled up to the building near Place de la Bastille that housed the office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical, sometimes scurrilous weekly magazine famous for its caricatures and cartoons of politicians, public figures, religious leaders and, most famously or infamously in years past, the Prophet Mohammed.
Two black-clad, masked men carrying Kalashnikov-type automatic weapons asked two maintenance men at the front desk where, specifically, the Charlie Hebdo offices could be found. Then they opened fire and killed one of the men.
The shooters then went to Charlie Hebdo’s offices on the second floor, where a story conference was under way and the publication’s entire staff was gathered in one room. The attackers opened up with staccato bursts of fire, killing 10 people—including eight journalists (among them, the editor and the well-known cartoonists), a police officer assigned to guard the cartoonist and editor known as Charb, and a visitor.
"According to a witness, the shooters yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’ and affirmed they wanted to take revenge for the prophet,” the prosecutor told reporters.
The shooters left immediately, got back into the Citroen with what appears to have been a third accomplice, and drove off, but quickly came face to face with a police patrol car, which led to a first exchange of gunfire without injuries. Then they came up against a police patrol on mountain bicycles, which again led to more shooting, without injuries. And then on the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, the attackers initiated another firefight with a police patrol during which one of the officers, a member of the 11th arrondissement commissariat, was hit and then “coldly” slaughtered on the ground.
Videos taken of the attackers in the street outside the Charlie Hebdo offices showed men operating with the cool professionalism of trained soldiers, but there was no way of knowing if they had served in Western armies, even the French army—they were said to be native speakers—or if they had gained experience in the battlefields of Syria, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, or Afghanistan.
The suspects continued their getaway toward the north of Paris, ramming into a Volkswagen minivan on the Place du Colonel Fabien in the 19th arrondissement, injuring the driver. They tried to continue their getaway but had to quickly abandon their vehicle on the Rue de Meaux in the 19th. They carjacked a Renault Clio, took the car, and fled with it.
Police do not know whether the three suspects in the attack—the Kouachi brothers and Mourad—planned to hit other targets, or if there are other similar groups ready to strike. Late Wednesday night, French authorities reported that Mourad had surrendered to police, while the two brothers remained at large.
The same web site where ISIS appeared to claim the Charlie Hebdo massacre announced an attack on a Paris synagogue, but there was no confirmation of that whatsoever. The report appeared to be part of the psychological warfare at which jihadists have acquired remarkable skill in recent years.
Mid-afternoon saw a grim procession of ambulances, blue lights turning, sirens silent, shuffling along the bitterly cold Rue Nicolas Appert, where Charlie Hebdo’s offices stand, a scene described as carnage.
The Charlie Hebdo offices are in a four-story semi-modern white building with dark brown panels inserted between the windows, in a heretofore quiet, quite modern neighborhood a few minutes’ walk north of the Place de la Bastille. The scene was heavily cordoned off to traffic and anyone not with the police, press, or residents.
At the scene, Emmanuel Quemener of the Alliance police union likened the two shooters to a military commando team. “When you have two individuals masked and armed with submachine guns, heavy weapons, who enter and shoot at just about everything that moves, it is all effectively similar to a commando.” Describing the weapon they used, the Kalashnikov, he said, “They are extremely destructive. It does very, very large damage.”
Serge Moati, a Tunisian-born journalist, writer and director came to the scene to pay his respects, telling reporters, “Islam must not be caricatured by these bastards here, truly,” he said, speaking of the attackers, not the cartoonists they killed. “That’s very, very, very important.” When one reporter pointed out that, at that point, nothing was yet known of the attackers, Moati retorted, “Well, who would you like? An association of stamp collectors? Boules players? It’s obvious. Obviously it’s that. Who do you want it to be? I’m not a cop, but it seems obvious to me.”
At the scene in the early afternoon, Christophe Deloire, director general of Reporters Without Borders, said, “There has never been such a barbarous attack against the French press. It is the blackest day in the history of the French press with this attack, against a newspaper that pushed particularly far, that simply used its liberty of expression, that had already been threatened for that.”
“It’s pretty unimaginable, what happened. They [the attackers] showed a drive, a determination to intimidate…” Deloire said it was an act meant to restrain liberty of expression “but not Charlie Hebdo’s liberty of expression, liberty of expression in general, ours, and therefore our liberties, and that makes this the blackest day for the French press.”
“These are things that Reporters Without Borders is unfortunately used to seeing in countries like Pakistan, Somalia, Honduras, not on European territory.”