Shooters in Paris terror attack still free as ties to Syria fighting probed

A banner reading "I am Charlie" is displayed with candles during a gathering to pay respect for the victims of a terror attack against a satirical newspaper, in Paris, in Paris, Jan. 7, 2015.
A banner reading "I am Charlie" is displayed with candles during a gathering to pay respect for the victims of a terror attack against a satirical newspaper, in Paris, in Paris, Jan. 7, 2015. AP

The terror attack Wednesday that killed 12 people at the Paris offices of a satirical newspaper known for running cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad wasn’t a total surprise. Europe, France and even the newspaper have been preparing for such an attack for months.

Europe has been on high alert as anti-terror experts voiced alarm at the thousands of Europeans who’ve gone to Syria and Iraq to fight on behalf of the Islamic State and other terror organizations, and who security experts warned would return to their home countries trained and radicalized.

The attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices seemed to bear those worries out. French news outlets reported late Wednesday that police had identified three suspects; two were brothers of French-Algerian extraction who were reported to have returned from Syria this past summer.

The French website Le Point said the brothers were Said and Cherif Kouachi, 32 and 34, respectively, and that they had been pegged from an identity card left in their abandoned getaway car. The website said a third man, Hamyd Mourad, 18, had served as the getaway driver, though later news reports cast doubt on whether he’d played a role in the shootings.

Cherif Kouachi was convicted in 2008 of terrorism charges for helping funnel fighters to Iraq’s anti-U.S. insurgency and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

According to Le Point, authorities had tracked the assailants to Reims, a city about 80 miles northeast of Paris. Authorities reportedly conducted a search there, the result of which was unclear.

The Agence France Press news agency reported early Thursday that the driver had voluntarily turned himself into police in the city of Charleville-Mézières, about 50 miles northeast of Reims, and the newspaper Le Monde quoted unnamed police officials as saying he faced no charges.

There was no word on the whereabouts of the Kouachi brothers.

Those reports came after a day that saw the murders of the 10 newspaper staffers, including the publisher and his armed bodyguard, the wounding of five others, and the deaths of two police officers, including one whose execution by a shot to the head was recorded on video as he lay wounded on the ground before the shooters escaped in a black Citroen sedan.

The murders sent France into mourning, with tens of thousands of French pouring into the street in protest, many carrying placards proclaiming “I am Charlie.”

French news reports quoted cartoonist and eyewitness Corinne Rey as saying the gunmen “claimed to belong to al Qaida.” She said she hid under a desk during the five-minute attack and that as it ended, the attackers yelled, “We took vengeance for the prophet.”

It was the second terror attack on the newspaper offices in recent years. In 2011, the building was firebombed, and in recent weeks the publication had again been threatened, sparking an increase in security.

Mark Singleton, director of the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, said the fact that the attack was not unexpected and yet was so deadly was disturbing.

“This office was protected, if somewhat softly,” he said. “But against a professional, planned attack, one lesson from this tragedy is that protecting everyone is beyond the capacity of a state.”

Laurence Nardon, a security expert at the Paris think tank Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, said it appears that French security officials had thwarted a number of planned attacks in recent months.

“Tragically, this one got through,” she said.

Security experts who viewed videos of the attack said the attackers clearly were professionals, likely with combat experience.

“They appear very calm during the attack. They’ve clearly handled weapons before. They know exactly what they’re doing, from the moment they arrive until they flee,” said terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp, the research director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College.

Still, the attackers apparently were unfamiliar with their target, reportedly arriving first at the building where the newspaper’s archives are stored. Once they realized their error, the Agence France Press news agency reported, they moved a few doors down to the weekly’s headquarters.

Inside the newspaper’s offices, the attackers reportedly spoke fluent, unaccented French, as would be expected of French-Algerians. They used variants of Russian AK-47 assault rifles to carry out their attacks.

The toll was heavy: of the 10 slain Charlie Hebdo employees, four were French cultural icons, including Jean Cabut, known as Cabu, the creator of the cartoon character Le Beauf, an uncouth French know-it-all; Georges Wolinski, 80, whose cartoons often illustrated books on humorous topics; Bernard “Tignous” Velhac, and Stéphane Charbonnier, the publisher of Charlie Hebdo who produced cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad under the name Charb. It was Charbonnier who made the decision in 2007 to republish Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that had caused an uproar in much of the Islamic world and who defied warnings in 2012 to publish still more Muhammad drawings that many called pornographic.

Others among the murdered at the newspaper meeting included an economist, a travel writer and a janitor.

Spontaneous vigils broke out honoring the slain in Paris and other cities around France and elsewhere in Europe.

The attack coincided with the release of the newest novel by the controversial French author Michel Houellebecq. The novel, “Submission,” portrays a France in 2022 under strict Muslim control, where pork is no longer available at grocers and women cannot walk the streets uncovered. Charlie Hebdo’s cover, released Wednesday morning, was a caricature of “The predictions of Houellebecq,” in which he notes, “In 2015, I will lose my teeth,” and “In 2022, I will keep Ramadan.”

The cover, lampooning a work that in France has been described as a “Christmas gift” to the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and far-right Front National political party, was clear evidence that the newspaper lampoons all perspectives in France.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama denounced the attack and offered France help finding the perpetrators. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the attack was unjustifiable. “There is no legitimate act of journalism, however offensive some people might find it, that justifies an act of violence,” he said.

Across Europe, the commentary was similar. French President Francois Hollande said it was a terrorist act “of exceptional barbarism,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the attack an “abominable act” and said it was “not only an attack on the lives of French citizens and their security. It is also an attack on freedom of speech and the press, core elements of our free democratic culture. In no way can this be justified.”

“Nothing justifies terror,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said through his spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, according to the TASS news agency.

In September 2012, Charlie Hebdo published controversial cartoons of a naked Muhammad. Charbonnier told RTL radio at the time: “If you start by asking whether or not you have the right or not to draw Muhammad . . . then the next question is, can you put Muslims in the paper? And then, can you put human beings in the paper? In the end, you can’t put anything in, and the handful of extremists who are agitating around the world and in France will have won.”

The terrorist attack is being called the deadliest in French history, which had not seen a significant attack in Paris since a 1995 attack in the subway that killed eight. But the death toll was far smaller than some recent bombings elsewhere, including attacks on trains in Madrid that killed 191 in 2004 and the London transit bombings that killed 52 in 2005. The 2011 attack of anti-Islam radical Anders Breivik in Norway left 77 dead by gunfire.

The assault also reminded European terror experts of a thwarted attack in 2010 on the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, the original publishers of the Muhammad cartoons. Police recovered a cache of AK-47s and ammunition and arrested five planners before an assault on the newspaper.

Ranstorp of the Swedish National Defense College noted that this attack “was almost exactly what Europeans had been expecting. The question now is will this attack inspire others.”

Such fears around the continent have given rise to far-right political movements. The latest is the German Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (known as PEGIDA in Germany). The French security expert Nardon noted that the European mood even before this terror attack came could hardly have been worse for security going forward.

“The context is horrible,” she said. “It is true: There are Muslim radicals who do horrible things. The European population is terrified. Europe was dividing before this attack, and nothing can fuel that division more than such an attack.”

Related stories from McClatchy DC