Defiant Paris becomes a city at war

The first thing that you notice on the streets of the Paris on this Saturday night was the absence of cars, the lack of motorcycles zipping down the center stripes between lines of backed-up traffic. There were no mobs of people waiting to push across the street as soon as they spotted a break in traffic because there were almost no pedestrians on the sidewalks.

It was Saturday night, and Paris was quiet. Paris was staying home. Just 24 hours after the worst terror attack in the history of France, it’s clear that at least for now, something has changed about this most lively and charming of cities.

Shopkeeper Zied Bonoudi was manning an empty store as he spoke about that change. The store, he explained, would usually be brimming with the sort of life Paris is famous for on a Saturday night. The sidewalks would be too crowded for a casual walk, the noise too much for a casual conversation. Instead, for blocks in all directions, the city was empty and quiet.

“This,” he says, “is all about the attentats,” the attacks on Friday night that left at least 129 dead, and another 352 wounded with 99 of those considered to be in grave condition.

This, he said, was different from the way Paris reacted just 10 months ago, when gunmen killed 12 at the offices of Charlie Hebdo on the first of what would be three days of mayhem that in the end would claim the lives of 17 victims and the three gunmen.

“Those attacks, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, might have been wrong, and the reasoning behind them might have been crazy, but there the attackers thought they had a reason that the people who were targeted were targeted. This is different. This is war.”

Zied, who noted that he is proud to be Muslim and ashamed that his religion is being used to justify horrible crimes, was using the same words that French President Francois Hollande spoke after the attack and again on Saturday, but Hollande added that in this war, France would respond.

“This was an act of war, waged by a terrorist army, a jihadist army, by Daash, against France,” he said in a televised address, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State. “France, because it was freely, cowardly attacked, will be merciless against the terrorists. France will triumph over barbarism.”

It was quickly clear, however, that France will not stand alone. On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised France, “We will help you fight against terror, which has done something so unimaginable to you. This was not only an attack on Paris, but on all of us.”

Merkel described the actions of the attackers as being born out of hatred, and the need to send a clear message by upholding and asserting the right to live by European values.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his deep condolences to Hollande and all the people of France, and noted “Russia strongly condemns this inhumane killing and is ready to provide any and all assistance to investigate these terrorist crimes.”

The message Saturday from the United States was more direct: Two U.S. F-15s conducted an airstrike that killed Abu Nabil, or Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi, the Iraqi leader of the Islamic State in Libya.

The Pentagon statement on the attack noted that it had been planned before the Friday night attacks in Paris. It added: “While not the first US strike against terrorists in Libya, this is the first U.S. strike against an ISIL leader in Libya and it demonstrates we will go after their leaders wherever they operate.”

Sascha Lehnartz, a columnist for the German newspaper Die Welt, on Saturday published a piece noting that more than just life in Paris changed with this attack.

“They succeeded in taking their crazy war to our doorsteps,” Lehnartz wrote. “This is about us. Our way of life. Our freedom. We will all have to fight for it.”

And the German news magazine Der Spiegel posted a headline on its website noting “Terrorists: They Will Lose This Battle.”

Even as Europeans prepared themselves to go on war footing, the news made it clear that the attack was hardly an all French attack.

Police arrested one of the people thought to be involved in the attack trying to drive back into Belgium, where three of the dead attackers are known to have lived. In addition, Belgian police “made several arrests” of those suspected of involvement in the terror plot, according to French media reports.

And word came that on Nov. 5, German police stopped a VW Golf in Bavaria in a random road check. Inside the car they discovered eight Kalashnikovs with ammunition, two hand grenades and 200 grams of TNT. A German politician on Saturday indicated it was likely that the driver, identified only at Vlatko V., was associated with the Paris attacks, though German police have not said that is the case.

The Paris attacks are known to have included three teams of attackers who attempted to kill and maim at six sites around Paris. The attackers included at least seven suicide bombers, wearing suicide belts authorities believe were manufactured in Syria.

Three of the suicide bombers detonated themselves near the Stade de France, where the French and German national soccer teams were playing a game in front of a packed house that included Hollande. All three managed to kill only themselves, but that was likely not their plan: One of the bombers reportedly had a ticket to the game and tried to enter the stadium while the game was going on. Security guards turned him away.

Elsewhere, it was carnage, and terror experts were quick to speculate that the attackers had to have had substantial support from others to pull off an attack so coordinated and deadly.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo told the news magazine Le Point that the attackers had struck at the very soul of the city. “The neighborhoods that have been affected, the locations that were targeted, are those we love, are the Paris that we love, the people’s Paris, the Paris that is very open-minded, this Paris which is happy to share the cultures of the world, because it is a Paris that is strong in its diversity, in the diversity of origins of its inhabitants.”

Her sense that these were not the highest profile spots, but some of the more beloved, indicates the attackers knew that better than first-time visitors. While the attacks included the soccer stadium, the deadliest attack came at a midsize concert hall that was featuring an American rock band, The Eagles of Death Metal. Other attacks came at a café known for its jazz performances, sidewalk cafes and neighborhood restaurants.

The Islamic State issued a statement noting: “France and those who follow her voice must know that they remain the main target of the Islamic State and that they will continue to smell the odor of death for having led the crusade, for having boasted of fighting Islam in France and striking Muslims in the caliphate with their planes.”

Meanwhile, on the quiet streets of Paris, a couple hundred gathered at the Place de la République to mourn. They put down flowers, candles and pieces of paper saying “Je suis Paris,” “Je suis France,” “We are not afraid,” and other sentiments at the foot of the monument at the center of the square.

The mourning took place under the careful watch of patrolling police, who reminded those out that gatherings are not allowed during the current state of emergency, and they should return home for their own safety.

In one of the empty cafes of Paris, a retired couple talked in low voices about what comes next. “Will we have to do all of our Christmas shopping online?” he wondered.

“Will the tourists still come?” she said in answer. “Will the shops be empty?”

“If they don’t, it might not be the worst thing to have our city to ourselves,” he ventured.

“But that’s not our Paris. So quiet and lonely, that’s too sad.”

Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews

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