Charlie Hebdo attack: The gunmen burst into the offices, opened fire, and cried 'vengeance'

When they left 20 members of the Charlie Hebdo team were dead or severely wounded

It takes a special kind of brutality to murder a nation’s jesters. At 11.30am today Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff – a loose constellation of mostly freelance lampooners – had gathered to decide what might make their 40,000 readers chuckle this week. They were considering returning to one of their favourite subjects, the comical absurdities of extremist Islam.

Three gunmen, dressed in black combat fatigues and hoods, burst into the small offices at 10 Rue Nicolas-Appert, in the 11th arrondissement. Was the first reaction of the cartoonists and writers to think this must be a joke? The gunmen, according to one witness, “spoke perfect French”. They shouted something about al-Qaeda and the Prophet Mohamed.

A police protection officer rose to intervene, he was shot down. The three men opened fire with automatic weapons. They kept on firing for five minutes. When they left 20 members of the Charlie Hebdo team were dead or severely wounded. In no democratic country in the world has there ever been such slaughter of journalists in their own editorial offices.

Warning: Viewers may find this video distressing

The dead included the magazine’s de facto editor and chief cartoonist, Stéphane Charbonnier, 47, known as “Charb”. The other victims included one of the best-paid cartoonists in the world, Jean Cabut, 76, or “Cabu”. His affectionate chronicles of Parisian hypocrisy, “Les Nouveaux Beaufs”, have graced the inside back page of another satirical newspaper, Le Canard Enchainé for decades. No more.

 

Another cherished veteran of political-satirical cartooning in France (an area in which it is immensely strong), Georges Wolinski, 83, was also dead. As the three men returned to the street, they were caught on amateur video footage. In one clip, a gunman shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest). In another clip shown by the i-Tele news channel, another is heard shouting: “We have killed Charlie Hebdo. We have avenged the Prophet Mohamed.”

In November 2011, Charlie Hebdo published a special magazine “edited by the Prophet Mohamed”. It consisted mostly of cartoons in which the Prophet – who can never be pictured according to Koranic law – despaired of the brutality perpetrated in his name. The offices were fire-bombed that week.

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The three gunmen who came back to finish the job escaped in small black Citroën. Their route was almost immediately blocked by a police car, patrolling the area as part of a permanent protection for Charlie Hebdo.

Mobile phone pictures taken from surrounding buildings show two of the gunmen jumping out of the car and riddling the police vehicle with bullets. The police retreated. The gunmen escaped. In the next street, near the  Richard‑Lenoir Metro station, they shot another police officer. He lay on the pavement, wounded. Chilling footage shot by a passer-by shows a gunman strolling across the street to shoot him in the head.

The escape car was found in the 19th arrondissement, about a mile away. It appeared to have been involved in an accident. The gunmen are thought to have hijacked another car and crossed the Boulevard Périphérique, the motorway that surrounds Paris proper, separating it from its poor suburbs.

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A truck tows the car used by armed gunmen who stormed the Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo (Getty)

Heading that way they would have rapidly reached Seine-Saint-Denis, the area around the Stade de France. This is one of the most heavily Muslim-populated Parisian suburbs. A huge police and army operation is under way to try to pick up their trail. Heavily armed police raided an apartment in a tower block in Seine-Saint-Denis but no one was arrested.

Investigators studying the attack have been confronted with an attack of brutality and professionalism never before seen in France. The attackers are believed to have been carrying grenade launchers – which may have been unused – as well as automatic weapons.

They had evidently planned the attack with some care. The offices are usually occupied by no more than two or three secretarial and administrative staff. The only time the cartoonists and writers, who work mostly from home, come together is on Wednesday at 10am for their editorial meeting, which usually ends in a long Parisian lunch. An attack at just that time is unlikely to have been pure luck.

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French soldiers patrol in front of the Eiffel Tower following the attack (Getty)

But the attackers almost bungled their assault. Witnesses said that they initially tried to storm the building next door. When they realised their mistake, they found that they could not get into the Charlie Hebdo offices without a door code. At that moment, another cartoonist, Coco, happened to turn up with her young daughter. “I’d been to collect her from babysitting,” she said. “When I got to the front door, two hooded, armed men brutally threatened us. I tapped in the code. They went in and started shooting...”

Ten writers, cartoonists and secretarial staff died in the next five minutes. Another 20 were injured, some gravely. Other victims included the cartoonist Bernard Verlhac, 47 (known as Tignous) and a well-known French economist and television personality, Bernard Maris, 68, who wrote a weekly column for Charlie Hebdo.

The editor-in-chief, Gérard Biard, was in London. He said that the sense of threat after the fire-bombing in 2011 had evaporated. “We weren’t especially worried that we might still be a target,” he said.

An hour or so before the attack, the Charlie Hedbo team had put out a cartoon on Twitter. It showed the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi giving new year greetings in which he wishes the world “health above all things”.

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