France’s worst terrorist crisis in recent memory ended bloodily Friday, with the murders of another four innocent Parisians and the deaths in two separate police standoffs of the main suspects in the Charlie Hebdo slayings that left France mourning some of its most prominent cultural commentators.
By the time the sun set on the French capital, the death toll in the 55 hours of carnage that began Wednesday stood at 20 people, including the three suspects, and France was reeling from what the French media were calling the country’s 9/11.
Dead were 10 employees of a satirical newspaper that is France’s equivalent of a high-brow Mad magazine, three police officers, including a policewoman who was shot dead Thursday in the Paris suburb of Montrouge and a Muslim policeman who’d been executed Wednesday as he lay wounded on the sidewalk outside the Charlie Hebdo offices, and four shoppers who died Friday after they were taken hostage in a kosher grocery.
Revealed was an apparent terror cell comprised of at least three French jihadis: two brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, 32 and 34, whose al Qaida ideology had earned them positions on the U.S. no-fly list, and a man described as an associate, Amedy Coulibaly, 32, himself a known jihadi who converted to radical Islam after convictions for armed robbery and drug dealing and later returned to prison for trying to help break another prominent extremist out of jail.
A fourth person, Coulibaly’s reported girlfriend, Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, was being sought.
Still to be determined: What role international terrorist groups had played in the bloodshed and why French authorities had been unable to stop known jihadis from wreaking havoc on a known al Qaida target.
For Americans, the specter of Anwar al Awlaki, the American-born Islamist cleric who knew some of the 9/11 hijackers and was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011, once again rose over a terrorist incident. Before he died in a hail of police gunfire, Cherif Kouachi told a French interviewer that he had traveled to Yemen and met with Awlaki and that Awlaki had financed him.
“We’re telling you that we are the prophet’s defenders, peace and blessings be upon him, and that I, Cherif Kouachi, was sent by Yemen’s al Qaida,” Kouachi told BFMTV.
After Friday’s bloodshed, French President François Hollande addressed a shaken nation. He warned that France had not seen the last of terrorism, but he noted that France stood for an ideal greater than any individual.
“I call on you all for unity,” he said. “This is our best weapon.”
Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based al Qaida affiliate that U.S. officials have declared the most dangerous terrorist outfit in the world, claimed credit for directing the carnage in a statement sent to a McClatchy reporter by an Islamist known to have links to the group.
The statement said that the AQAP leadership “directed the operation and they have chosen their target carefully as a revenge for the honor of the prophet” – a reference to Charlie Hebdo’s satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that some Muslims find offensive.
The statement said that the attack was in line with al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden’s warning to “the West about the consequences of persistent blasphemy against Muslims’ sanctities.” It said that the claim of responsibility had been delayed to ensure the security of the operation’s “executors.”
The statement noted that the name of Charlie Hebdo’s late editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, had been among 10 people the group listed as targets in its online English-language magazine, Inspire. The operation was intended to send several messages, including that protecting those who defame the prophet carries a “dear price and the punishment will be severe,” it said.
“The crimes of Western countries, above them America, Britain and France, will backfire deep in their home,” the statement added.
U.S. and French officials already had suggested a link to AQAP, saying that Said Kouachi had visited Yemen in 2011 for training. But Cherif Kouachi’s assertion that he, too, had traveled to Yemen and had met with Awlaki raised questions about the effectiveness of French surveillance.
He said the trip had been “a long time ago,” before Awlaki was killed in 2011, and suggested he had evaded French authorities to make the trip. “I know the secret service, don’t worry about it. I know very well how I was able to do things well,” he said.
U.S. officials declined to comment on the authenticity of the AQAP statement. But the claim matched what the Kouachi brothers reportedly told witnesses, both at the Charlie Hebdo offices and later, when they abandoned their getaway car, telling a bystander “tell the media it’s al Qaida in Yemen.”
On Friday, Cherif Kouachi defended the Charlie Hebdo killings.
“We are not killers. We are defenders of the prophet,” he said. “If someone offends the prophet then there is no problem, we can kill him.”
But he separated those murders from the deaths of others. “We don’t kill women. We are not like you. You are the ones killing women and children in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. This isn’t us. We have an honor code in Islam,” he said.
Moments later the Kouachi brothers were dead in a hail of gunfire as police stormed the business where they had taken refuge in an industrial zone not far from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport. Their lone hostage escaped unharmed.
Across the city, a separate hostage standoff unfolded as police stormed a kosher grocery where Coulibaly, 32, had taken an estimated 15 hostages. He was killed in the raid. But before he died, he, too, spoke with BFMTV, hinting at collaboration with the Kouachis.
“We were just synched from the beginning,” he said. “When they started at Charlie Hebdo, I started to do the policemen.”
But unlike the Kouachis, Coulibaly said he was part of the Islamic State, the Islamist group that has seized control of chunks of Iraq and Syria. The claim confused the role of international terrorist groups in the events: the Islamic State is a bitter rival of al Qaida, and AQAP has sided with al Qaida in the dispute.
Shortly after the interview, police stormed the grocery. At least 10 people could be seen escaping from the grocers in the aftermath. But Coulibaly had already killed four hostages, something he’d said in his interview with BFMTV.
Still unaccounted for late Friday was Boumeddiene, Coulibaly’s girlfriend who police believe was with Coulibaly on Thursday when he allegedly shot a policewoman in Montrouge, a Paris suburb. It was unknown whether she had escaped unnoticed from the grocery or hadn’t been present.
Contributing to this story were McClatchy special correspondents Adam Baron in London and Mitchell Prothero in Irbil, Iraq, and national security correspondent Jonathan S. Landay in Washington.