Despite huge Paris rally, fears of coming conflict

The crowd gather during the march in Paris, France, Jan. 11, 2015. Hundreds of thousands of people marched through Paris on Sunday in a massive show of unity and defiance in the face of terrorism that killed 17 people in France's bleakest moment in half a century.
The crowd gather during the march in Paris, France, Jan. 11, 2015. Hundreds of thousands of people marched through Paris on Sunday in a massive show of unity and defiance in the face of terrorism that killed 17 people in France's bleakest moment in half a century. AP

As many as two million people – including 50 world leaders – marched through the streets of Paris in an enormous outpouring of grief and defiance Sunday, sparked by three days of violence last week that claimed the lives of 17 people.

But as Europe once again gathered to mourn those killed by terrorism, there were growing concerns that not only would there be fresh attacks, but that Europe’s mood may be headed toward a backlash against its burgeoning Muslim population.

French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas led the parade of thousands who marched from the Place de la Republic, blocks from the offices of the satiric newspaper Charlie Hebdo where last week’s carnage began, through the Paris streets.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Alejandro Mayorkas, the deputy secretary of homeland security, were in Paris for meetings with French officials, but only the U.S. ambassador to France, Jane Hartley, joined the demonstration.

The marchers waved French flags and held aloft signs modeled off the “Je suis Charlie” motto that has been repeated again and again across the globe since the attacks. The meanings: “I am Charlie,” “I am Jewish,” “I am the police” and “I am Muslim.” Again and again, marchers noted that it was important to show unity and take a stand against terrorism.

But the signs of a more divisive message weren’t far. Marine le Pen, the leader of the French National Front, an anti-immigrant political party, who has used the attacks to call for France to reinstitute the death penalty and has said calls for unity are unrealistic, wasn’t invited to attend.

In Germany, the justice minister called on another anti-immigrant movement, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, known by the initials PEGIDA, to cancel its weekly anti-immigrant rally in Dresden on Monday for fear a turnout of thousands will inflame tensions. There was no sign the movement was willing to do so.

Observers say despite the rally in Paris, there were worrisome signs that Europe was headed for angrier and angrier confrontations.

“I have good friends, leftists, who are now saying there really seems to be something wrong with Muslims,” said Laurence Nardon, a security expert at a Paris think-tank, the French Institute of International Relations. “Will this become a matter of ‘us’ and ‘them’?”

In Germany, unknown assailants firebombed the offices of the Hamburg Morgenpost newspaper. The damage was minor, but extremist Muslims were being blamed; the newspaper ran a collection of Charlie Hebdo cartoons as a tribute to the five cartoonists murdered in last week’s attack.

In Belgium, the newspaper Le Soir was evacuated Sunday because of a bomb threat that mentioned its publication of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad.

There was still uncertainty surrounding how French authorities missed the Charlie Hebdo plot, which was carried out be two brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, who were well known Islamist radicals, and who else might have known of their plans.

Cherif Kouachi told a French TV interviewer before he was killed by French police on Friday that the brothers were part of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch of the terrorist movement founded by Osama bin Laden. He told the interviewer that he had met with American-born cleric Anwar al Awlaki during a visit there prior to Awlaki’s death in 2011 in a U.S. drone strike and that Awlaki had financed Kouachi.

But the extent of AQAP’s involvement in last week’s attack on Charlie Hebdo remains unresolved, a Yemeni official briefed on security matters told a McClatchy contributor in London.

“The important question: did AQAP plan or execute this?” remains unanswered, the official said, declining to be otherwise identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.

He said Yemeni officials have no doubt that both Kouachi brothers had visited Yemen, perhaps multiple times, but that it was still unknown whether they had met with Awlaki.

The official said Yemeni authorities’ main focus now is a looming war between Iran-aligned insurgents known as the Houthis and their Sunni Muslim opponents in Marib province east of the capital, Sanaa.

Meanwhile, a video posted on the Internet added new doubts about the origins of the violence. In it, the third gunman in last week’s attacks, Amedy Coulibaly, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. It was unclear when Coulibaly, who died Friday when police stormed the Paris grocery where he had killed four hostages, had recorded the video.

But its emergence two days after his death raised questions about who prepared the video for release, editing together scenes that had been filmed on at least three different occasions. The video showed Coulibaly in a leather jacket, camouflage body armor and in a white robe often called a thobe.

Coulibaly’s wife, Hatay Boumeddiene – the pair were married in a religious ceremony in 2009, according to news media reports – is believed likely to have fled to Islamic State-controlled parts of Syria. Turkish officials say her cell phone was last detected in a Turkish border town on Thursday.

Reports surfaced over the weekend that Coulibaly also planned to take fresh video at the kosher grocery where he took 15 hostages. A video interview posted by the German newspaper Bild with the brother of the manager of the store said Coulibaly “came in here with two Khalashnikovs and a Go-Pro camera.” He said Coulibaly tried to force his victims to look into the camera and say hello to the Islamic State.

The French newspaper Le Monde reported that a Go-Pro camera also was found among the items recovered from the getaway car the Kouachis had abandoned after their assault on the Charlie Hebdo officers. The newspaper noted that Mohammed Merah, who killed seven people in Toulouse in 2012, also used a Go-Pro to record his attacks.

In such an uncertain atmosphere, a fresh terror attack could spark an angry furor. And another terrorist attack seemed all but certain.

Eleven years ago in Madrid, two million people turned out to vow unity in the face of a series of train bombings that killed 191 and injured 2,000. Another 9 million Spaniards rallied in the rest of the country. A year later, the London transportation system was bombed by terrorists, killing 51 and injuring hundreds.

In the aftermath of the Madrid bombing, Spanish voters turned out their government in elections. Political change elsewhere in Europe could result from the most recent attacks.

“We need to carefully watch how these attacks play out on the political situation, here in France and across the rest of Europe,” said Nardon, the French security expert. In the immediate aftermath, there will be a show of strength. “But In the coming months, I’m worried about the state of our national unity,” she said.

McClatchy special correspondent Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, contributed to this report from London.

Related stories from McClatchy DC