France is in shock and mourning after two heavily armed men, dressed in black military fatigues, stormed the Parisian satirical news magazine Charlie Hebdo shortly before noon Wednesday, killing 12 people.
The 12 victims, including four cartoonists and journalists, were inside the second floor offices of the magazine. Two police officers were among those killed. Eleven other people were wounded.
Charlie Hebdo was apparently targeted for running a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
“France is in a state of shock,” French President François Hollande said at the scene.
Hollande called it “a terrorist attack, there is no doubt. We must show we are a country united.”
The gunmen knew when and where the paper held its editorial meeting, the Guardian said.
French news agency 20 Minutes reported witnesses seeing the masked men drive up outside Charlie Hebdo’s Parisian office in the northeastern district of the city, near the Bastille monument, at 11:25 a.m.
The men parked their black Citroen hatchback in the middle of the street, then forced a woman picking up her daughter at a daycare to key in the security code to the doors of the building containing Charlie Hebdo’s offices, Le Monde reported. She said the “menacing” looking men spoke perfect French.
The men stormed the news office with a variety of weapons including Kalashnikovs. As they entered the newsroom they were heard shouting, “Allahu akbar!” or “God is Great” in Arabic.
One witness on the street outside Charlie Hebdo’s offices told 20 Minutes that the gunmen turned and said, “Tell the media that this is Al Qaeda Yemen.”
Some witnesses said it took more than five minutes before police were able to respond to the shooting.
As the gunmen left the scene, street security cameras caught one assailant rushing over to a wounded police officer lying on the sidewalk and shooting him.
Another camera caught one of the gunmen apparently saying, “Hey! We avenged the Prophet Muhammad! We killed Charlie Hebdo,” according to a video shot from a nearby building and broadcast on French TV.
Dead in the newsroom lay four cartoonists, according to Le Monde, including Jean Cabu, Georges Wolinski, Bernard Verlhac (who uses the pen name Tignous) and Stéphane Charbonnier (whose alias is Charb), along with economics journalist Bernard Maris, 68. Charbonnier was also the editor of the magazine. His bodyguard was also killed.
“Inspire,” the propaganda magazine published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) included Charbonnier’s name on its hit list of those the Yemen-based group said had insulted Islam.
The magazine, often mocked as being the Cosmopolitan for terrorists and which famously carried an article entitled “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” often focused on targeting the West. Before the rise of the so-called Islamic State now occupying a large swath of Syria and Iraq, AQAP was regarded as the greatest threat to Western targets.
The list that included Charbonnier, the publisher of Charlie Hebdo, appeared in Inspire’s 10th edition, which went online in 2013.
Charbonnier had already been living under police protection after repeated death threats.
In November 2011, the magazine’s Paris office was fire-bombed soon after they published a magazine “guest-edited” by the Prophet Muhammad. They renamed the magazine “Charia Hebdo,” in a reference to Islam’s Sharia Law. “A hundred lashes if you don’t die laughing,” read the cover.
The gunmen’s escape was caught on camera. By late Wednesday afternoon the streets of Paris were flooded with nearly 3,000 police officers conducting a massive manhunt.
France was also on the highest possible terror alert. Schools and offices downtown Paris were closed and Hollande was expected to address the nation on TV.
Across France, dozens of vigils were planned in cities including Nantes, Paris, Marseilles and Lyons, to remember the victims.
Traditional and social media websites were alight with tributes to the dead journalists and many news and humanitarian organizations – even government entities such as the U.S. Embassy – expressed solidarity by tweeting, “Je Suis Charlie Hebdo,” or “I am Charlie Hebdo.”
Moments of silence were also held before French football games.
Condemnation from world leaders was swift.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a statement called the attacks “barbaric” and said Canada stands in solidarity with France and would not be intimidated.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” Harper said on Twitter.
Last fall, two separate terror incidents left two Canadian service men dead. Hamilton’s Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a single father, was killed by lone gunmen Michael Zehaf-Bibeau on Oct. 22 as he stood watch over Canada’s War Memorial in front of Parliament Hill and just two days earlier, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent was run over by suspected homegrown terrorist Martin Rouleau in Quebec. Vincent died shortly afterwards in hospital.
President Barack Obama called the shootings “cowardly evil attacks” on journalists and a free press. and vowed to help France pursue the terrorists.
“The fact that this was an attack on journalists, attack on our free press, also underscores the degree to which these terrorists fear freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” Obama said from the White House during a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice-President Joe Biden.
Kerry said every American stood with the people of France. “Not just in horror or in anger or outrage ... but we stand with you in solidarity. Both in confronting extremism and in the cause of the thing they fear so much – freedom.”
- With files from Associated Press, Bruce Campion-Smith