The killers arrived between 11.00am and 11.30am local time yesterday, when the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, known for its provocative cartoons mocking Islam, held its weekly editorial meeting.
Two black-clad men, wearing balaclavas and toting assault rifles, entered the lobby of number 10, rue Nicolas Appert and ordered the receptionist to take them to the editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, known as “Charb”.
They burst into the conference room and shot 10 people dead, one by one, including Charbonnier and the well- known cartoonists Cabu, Tignous and Wolinski.
The economist Bernard Maris, who was the biographer of John Maynard Keynes and a frequent radio commentator, was a guest at the editorial meeting. He too was shot dead. The attack claimed the lives of 12 French people, including two policemen. Some of the magazine's staff fled to the roof for safety.
“It’s a horrible, unbelievable scene,” said police officer Emmanuel Quemener of the Alliance police union, briefing journalists at the police line outside. “These are acts of war. Opening fire at close range with a Kalashnikov . . . It was extremely violent. The police know there are these kinds of weapons in the Paris region but I’ve never seen anyone killed with them at close range.”
The getaway car, a small, black Citroen, parked some 50m away with its doors open, waited for the killers in the Allé Verte, perpendicular to the rue Nicolas Appert.
The magazine’s previous headquarters, near the Porte de Bagnolet, was fire-bombed in November 2011, when it published a special issue titled “Sharia Hebdo” to mark the election of an Islamist government in Tunisia. Staff joked that it was edited by the Prophet Muhammad.
Two police fatalities
Twenty-four-seven French police protection, and Charbonnier’s permanent police bodyguard, proved totally inadequate. The bodyguard was one of the two police fatalities. An amateur video shot from a window shows the death of the second policeman, from the local 11th district commissariat, in the street outside. He lies wounded on the pavement, face down, tries to push himself up and looks over his shoulder at the approaching gunman, raising both hands in a pleading gesture. The gunman shoots him dead and the murderers proceed, with no great urgency, to their car.
A journalist working at a press agency near Charlie Hebdo said the assailants cried "Allahu Akbar", then "We have killed Charlie Hebdo", and "We have avenged the prophet." Another witness told me he heard them speaking Arabic.
One witness spoke of three killers, but the gunmen got in the front seat of the Citroen and it’s not certain there was a third man in the back. At a press conference, Paris prosecutor François Molins said they exchanged fire with police patrols three times as they fled.
The killers collided with another car at the Place du Colonel Fabien, injuring its driver. They then abandoned the Citroen in the rue de Meaux, in northeast Paris, where they also dropped a Kalashnikov charger. They stole a Renault Clio at gunpoint and the police lost track of them.
The police’s failure to apprehend the perpetrators of the most lethal terrorist attack on French territory in decades seems inexplicable. French authorities blocked all the exits from Paris and launched a city- wide manhunt. Members of the public with information were asked to call a freephone number.
Men and women who live and work in this normally quiet neighbourhood between the Bastille and the Place de la République said they were in shock, and worried about the future. “This sort of thing happens to people around the world every day, but we’re not used to it,” said Gérard (63), a photo engraver. “I heard shooting. I looked out the window and saw a black car with two guys in it, from behind. A police car came towards it from the other direction but it reversed under a rain of bullets.”
Police said the gunmen carried out the operation with military precision. A group of Jewish students from the nearby École Progress private lycée came to stare at the scene of the crime from behind the police line. All were aged between 17 and 19.
A war against radical Islam
is at war with itself,” said one young man. “This is a war against radical Islam.”
“Leave France. Go to Israel. That’s what I intend to do,” said a young woman. “We’re not safe here. Even if there’s war in Israel we’ll be safer there than here.”
An older man, who appeared to be a North African Arab, stood nearby, listening and scowling.
Around the corner in the rue Saint-Sabin, Myriam Bensadoun (59), an employee at the local creche, told me: “This is a war of religion, between Catholics and Muslims. For sure.”
She listened to shooting for at least 10 minutes. “Then I heard screams. People were running in every direction. There were no sirens yet. There was an eerie kind of silence. The sirens came 15 or 20 minutes later.”
“There are good Muslims and bad Muslims,” said Sofiane (28), who works in a homeless shelter. “I’m a Muslim – it shows, doesn’t it? My wife is French. My children are French. I came here from Morocco when I was 14. For years, everyone has been trying to sully the image of Islam. True Islam is about peace and helping people . . . We’re targeted . . . Islam is the most targeted religion in the world.”
Several French leaders alluded to war in reacting to the massacre. “It is in these days of war that a people show their determination to save what is most precious to them,” said the French centrist politician François Bayrou. Jean-Christophe Lagarde, the president of the centrist UDI, said the slain policemen must be considered “martyrs of the republic”.
The killings at Charlie Hebdo underline the chasm between legitimist and extremist Islam. In Cairo, Al Azhar, the leading authority of Sunni Islam, "strongly" condemned "this terrorist attack". Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Grand Mosque in Paris and the president of Council of French Muslims, called it "a deafening declaration of war".