A sophisticated, calculated attack carried out by masked gunmen who tried to silence the voice of a satirical French magazine instead prompted thousands to take to the streets of Paris Wednesday night with a message of their own: “Not Afraid.”
But the stoic rallies followed what had been a fearful day — the type that France, like many Western countries, has been bracing for since a coalition of nations began an air offensive against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
There have been other attacks since the emergence of the Islamic State heightened the terrorist threat worldwide, but none with the precision of this operation.
Two heavily armed, hooded assailants dressed in black and carrying Kalashnikovs knew their targets: they wanted the French cartoonists who had drawn images they deemed offensive to Islam and the magazine’s editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, who had refused to back down over the years despite repeated death threats.
They found them all gathered Wednesday at the magazine’s weekly editorial meeting.
Corrine Rey, one of the magazine’s surviving artists, told the French publication L’Humanité that she had been forced to open the door for the attackers and hid under her desk during the assault. She said the men spoke perfect French. Other witnesses reported that they shouted “Allahu akbar!” as they entered the building.
Also among the dead were cartoonists Jean Cabut, 76, who was the magazine’s lead artist, Georges Wolinski, 80, Bernard Verlhac, a 57-year-old member of the group Cartoonists for Peace, who went by the moniker Tignous, and Philippe Honoré, 73. Economics journalist Bernard Maris, 68, was also killed, as was a copy editor, columnist, building maintenance worker and two police officers.
The chilling death of one officer was caught on a security camera that captured the gunmen fleeing the scene, but stopping to turn back to the wounded cop as he lay on the sidewalk and delivering the fatal shot.
Late Wednesday, French police issued the names of two suspects wanted in the shooting, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, 32 and 34. There were reports that a third suspect was in custody after turning himself in.
There were few details about their background, connections and motives but Cherif Kouachi had reportedly spent time in prison in 2008 on terrorism related charges for helping to funnel fighters to Iraq.
Heavily armed police moved into the city of Reims, in France’s Champagne country east of Paris, late in the evening apparently searching for the suspects.
Video from BFM-TV showed police dressed in white apparently taking samples inside an apartment. It was not immediately clear who lived there.
While speculation about outside links to the suspects was wide-ranging in the wake of the assault, focus narrowed quickly on Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) after a report emerged that one of the gunmen said: “Tell the media we are Al Qaeda in Yemen.”
AQAP, the Yemen-based group whose leader is a close ally with Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, was regarded as the greatest threat to the West before they were eclipsed by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
“Inspire,” AQAP’s propaganda magazine had included Charbonnier’s name on its hit list of those the Yemen-based group said had insulted Islam.
In a past interview with Le Monde, Charbonnier said he would rather “die standing than live on his knees.”
Although France remaining on high alert, vigils and rallies were held in cities across the country, including Nantes, Paris, Marseilles and Lyons.
At the Bastille, the site of the French Revolution and not far from the magazine’s offices, the atmosphere was dignified, quiet and emotional.
There were no political speeches, just spontaneous cries of “Je suis Charlie!” Many held up pens to honour the dead cartoonists. Others held copies of the magazine featuring the controversial cartoons.
“We are proposing that Charlie Hebdo be adopted as a citizen of honour by the city of Paris,” said Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. “What we saw today was an attack on the values of our republic, Paris is a peaceful place. These cartoonists, writers and artists used their pens with a lot of humour to address sometimes awkward subjects and as such performed an essential function.”
A granddaughter of cartoonist Georges Wolinski was in the crowd at the Place de la Republique. “Despite the pain in our family I wanted to come here,” said the 19-year-old student. “We want to demonstrate that the young people are showing solidarity.”
The cartoonists and their images were well-known in France.
Agnes Quandalle, a retired teacher, said she had been following the cartoons since the 1960’s and 70’s when they were published in a previous magazine. “Their work has been recognized for many years. It feels as if those behind the attack want to kill us all,” she said.
A Paris police spokesman said the crowds numbered nearly 35,000.
Thursday was declared a national day of mourning in France.