- Two gunmen attacked the offices of a satirical magazine in the French capital Paris on 7 January, killing a total of 12 people.
- The attack was seemingly in response to the earlier publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and appeared relatively well-planned and professionally executed.
- As of early the following day, the key suspects in the attack had been identified by French police but remained at large and subject to an intensive manhunt.
Just before midday on 7 January in the French capital Paris, two masked men entered the office building of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo armed with AK-series assault rifles and began shooting, while a third person remained outside. They killed 11 people – including four of the magazine’s well-known cartoonists and a police bodyguard – and wounded 11 others. Approximately 10 minutes after entering the office, they re-emerged and shot at police in the street before fleeing in a getaway car, driven by the third person. They then engaged police on two more occasions shortly after, the latter incident killing one police officer, before fleeing towards northern Paris where they hijacked a different vehicle near Porte de Pantin.
Several French media organisations cited a variety of police and government sources to identify the three men suspected of involvement in the attack, reportedly after an identification card was found in their getaway vehicle. Said Kouachi, 34, and his brother Cherif Kouachi, 32, are of Algerian background and reportedly from the 19th arrondissement of Paris. The third suspect, Hamyd Mourad, 18, reportedly has ties to the city of Reims but no current address. All the men are French nationals.
Following a day-long manhunt for the three suspects, at around 2200 local time security forces converged on an apartment complex in the Croix Rouge neighbourhood in Reims, 80 miles northeast of Paris, where police believed one or more of the attackers may be inside the building. However, none of the suspects were found at the location. Hours later, AFP reported that Mourad had turned himself into police in Charleville-Mézières, approximately 145 miles northeast of Paris. However, it was initially unclear whether he was involved in the attack, with several news outlets reporting early on 8 January that Mourad had an alibi at the time of the attack.
At around 0200 local time on 8 January, police released images of the Kouachi brothers and asked for the public’s assistance in securing their arrests. Later that morning, French officials told the media that a total of seven people had been arrested overnight, all either family or friends of the Kouachi brothers, although the brothers themselves remained at large.
According to French authorities, Cherif Kouachi was arrested in January 2005 while he was planning to travel to Iraq via Syria after he was recruited by now imprisoned self-taught radical preacher Farid Benyettou (known for his role in the “19th arrondissement” network in Paris). Prosecutors charged Benyettou with recruiting people to fight for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which would subsequently evolve into the Islamic State. It was unclear from the reports if Cherif was ever charged.
Three years later, in 2008, Cherif was again arrested and subsequently convicted on terrorism charges as part of a group of seven men who were using the remnants of the “19 arrondissement” network to help channel people to fight government and Western forces in Iraq. At his trial, Cherif stated that had been motivated by television images of Iraqi inmates being tortured and humiliated by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. He said that he “really believed in the idea” of fighting the US-led coalition in Iraq. Cherif served 18 months of his three-year sentence.
Unconfirmed reports by the French newspaper Le Point , which were then republished in mainstream English-language media, claimed that the two brothers had recently travelled to Syria but had returned to France at an unspecified point in mid-2014. If verified, the travel to Syria by one or possibly both brothers would fit a clear pattern expressed by Cherif of interest in Islamist militancy in the region.
However, a senior US counter-terrorism official told Associated Press on condition of anonymity that the men were linked to a Yemeni militant network. This underlines very similar statements made by at least one French security official who spoke to French media, as well as eyewitness accounts from the scene of the attack who claimed that the attackers said they were acting on behalf of “Al-Qaeda in Yemen” – a seeming reference to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Despite Cherif’s connections to networks supporting Islamist militants in Iraq and possibly Syria, the indication that the attackers may be linked to AQAP – Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and Saudi Arabia – may possibly explain why Charlie Hebdo was targeted. In the March 2013 issue of Inspire , an English-language magazine produced by AQAP – Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier (one of the 12 people killed in the Paris attack) was featured on a hit list under the caption “A Bullet a Day Keeps the Infidel Away”. This was in response to the publication of satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad by Charlie Hebdo , and several other cartoonists who had drawn similar images were also included on the list. According to widely cited eyewitness accounts, the two attackers reportedly stated “we have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” following the attack, seemingly underlining that it was a specific response to the cartoons.
Eyewitnesses also stated that the two attackers had specifically asked for Charbonnier and several other employees by name on entering the building. Given that Charlie Hebdo was holding its daily editorial meeting at the time, many of the people identified as targets were present in the building. However, it is unclear whether the attack was specifically planned to take place during the editorial meeting or whether the timing was coincidental. Supporting the latter conclusion, AFP reported that the attackers arrived first at a building where the magazine’s archives are stored. Once they realised their error, they reportedly moved a few doors down to the office headquarters.
The specifically targeted nature of the attack is seemingly more indicative of a directed plot, rather than a so-called “lone wolf” attack by self-radicalised individuals. Such attacks have been conducted across 2014 in Australia, Belgium, and Canada, targeting general groups such as Jewish people or the security forces rather than specific individuals. While the suspects may not have needed to travel abroad to receive such direction, the unconfirmed claims that the two brothers had recently spent time in Syria is telling, given that both the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra would almost certainly support the targeting of Charlie Hebdo . There also remains the possibility of co-ordination between the two Al-Qaeda affiliates in providing training to the attackers in Syria.
In the hours after the attack took place, several eyewitness videos of the attackers began circulating online and showed the two suspects moving in a seemingly well-trained and experienced manner in their engagements with police. The videos seem to indicate a familiarity and proficiency in the use of small-arms, and their movements suggest a level of training in fire and move techniques.
However, in other parts of some videos, the suspects engage police while standing in the middle of the street without any cover, possibly suggesting that if the attackers had in fact received training, it may have only been relatively basic. The video footage also clearly shows the suspects using military-style equipment, including AK-series assault rifles and what looks like vests designed to carry ammunition into combat.
The footage strongly suggests the attackers, who had their faces covered, had a clear escape plan in place, underlining the extent of planning behind the attack. After the two men exited the building, they were met by a third man in an escape vehicle and were quickly able to escape the scene, before switching to at least one other vehicle. The men were also wearing black overalls, possibly concealing civilian clothes underneath, in an attempt to blend in to the general population following the attack.
Such weapons proficiency and planning again lends credence to the assertion that some of the suspects had spent time in Syria, where they may have received some basic training and attack direction. The Islamic State has repeatedly threatened such attacks in the West and is likely to be actively facilitating such endeavours. While Jabhat al-Nusra is less overt in its threats to attack the West, it is known to have sheltered and worked directly in Syria with a group of core Al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan – referred to as the Khorasan unit or cell. The US targeted suspected Khorasan unit militants with airstrikes in Syria on several occasions in late 2014 (most recently in early November) in an attempt to stop alleged attack plots against Europe and the US. It remains more than plausible that if the suspects were linked to AQAP then they could have received training from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Khorasan cell while reportedly in Syria.
However, the possibility remains that even if one or both of the brothers had travelled to Syria, it does not necessarily mean they were directed to conduct the Charlie Hebdo attack. Such a target could have easily been selected using online propaganda. While the attack exhibited a clear degree of planning, it was not overly sophisticated and advanced training may not have been necessary to complete such an assault. Furthermore, while supporters of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have both praised the attack on social media, as of early on 8 January no group had claimed responsibility, perhaps indicating a lack of direct involvement by these groups.