It was all over in just 5 minutes. Five terrifying, violent, blood-stained minutes.
On Wednesday, 7 January 2015, at around 11:25 AM, three black clad and masked gunman stormed into the editorial room of the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo during a meeting. It was perfect timing because the key people of the newspaper, many of them prominent cartoonists, were all gathered together in one place. With calm, military precision, and speaking perfect unaccented French, they called the various victims by name before gunning them down in cold-blood.
Unlike botched and amateurish jihadist operations in the past, like Richard Reid the ‘shoe-bomber’ (2001) or Omar Farouq Abdul Muttalib, the ‘underwear bomber’ (2009), this one was well-planned. A former US lieutenant-colonel Tony Shaffer who worked with special forces in Afghanistan had this to say about the Charlie Hebdo gunman: ‘They were very professional, very organized. It was well-timed. You can’t pull off something like this without military training. Whoever they were, they were highly trained in military tactics.’
If murder and mayhem were their goals, they succeeded. Twelve people lay dead, another 11 wounded, including two policeman. The victims included:
• Stephane CARBONNIER (nicknamed ‘Charb’), 47, the editor of Charlie Hebdo;
• Bernard VERLHAC, 57, cartoonist;
• Jean Cabut (nicknamed ‘Cabu’), 76, lead cartoonist and legendary cultural figure in France;
• Bernard MARIS (‘Uncle Bernard’), 68, a kind, cultured left-wing economist;
• George WOLINSKI, 80, a cartoonist with a colourful life;
• Philippe HONORE, 73, who did ‘literary puzzles.’
• Michel RENAUD, who did not work at Charlie HEBDO but was at the editorial meeting as a guest editor.
After the carnage inside, the attackers wounded a police officer on the street. With a hand raised to indicate a plea for mercy, the officer asked ‘Do you want to kill me?’ to which the attacker replied, ‘Ok, chief’ and callously shot the officer at point-blank range. The officer, Ahmad Merabet, 42, was a Muslim.
Why was Charlie Hebdo Magazine attacked? It is a French satirical magazine that regularly lampooned politicians, famous people, and religion. It had no problem taking ‘sacred cows’ and mincing them into hamburgers. Political correctness was not even in their vocabulary - no small feat in postmodern Europe. While they stood on many toes over the years, it was their portrayal of Islam and its Prophet Muhammad that brought about this attack. In 2006, they reprinted the notorious cartoons of Muhammad written by the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard; these cartoons brought (belated) protests and riots across the Muslim world. In 2011, they published an edition called ‘Sharia Hebdo’ which was, in anyone’s definition, highly irreverent and provocative. The response to the magazine’s antics included fire-bombing, death threats to ‘Charb’ the editor, rebukes from France’s President Chirac, and lawsuits from Muslim groups - the magazine won, apparently in the name of free speech). ‘Charb’ even made it on the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Inspire Magazine (AQAP) hit-list for those who affront Islam and its Prophet. The editor remained defiant regarding the criticism and said the magazine would continue to publish as it saw fit. His stance caused him to pay the ultimate price and his police guard died with him in the hail of bullets.
Who are the alleged attackers. They include two Paris-born brothers of Algerian descent, Cherif Kouachi 32 and Said Kouachi 34. The 3rd accused is Hamyd Mourad, 18, who turned himself into authorities after he saw his name in social media. Cherif was imprisoned for 3 years but released after 18 months for funneling jihadists into Iraq. It is possible that both he and his brother were ‘jihad-making’ in Syria only a few months ago. Both men were on US ‘no-fly’ lists and are known to French police. There is a strong possibility that one or more of them were trained by AQAP in Yemen. During the assault on Charlie Hebdo, they were reputed to have said:
‘We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad!’
‘We have killed Charlie Hebdo’
‘Allah u Akbar’ (normally translated ‘God is great’ but more accurately ‘Allah is greater’).
France and the world were in shock. This was the worst terrorist attack on French soil since 1961, when France was at war in Algeria. A day of national mourning was held, only the 6th one in 45 years. Normally, they occur when a former French president dies; they were also held to commemorate 9-11 in 2001 and the death of the late Pope John Paul II in 2005. In so many ways, the Charlie Hebdo massacre was ‘France’s September 11th.’
The gunman did succeed in fomenting murder and mayhem. But if they thought they ‘killed’ Charlie Hebdo, destroyed freedom of speech, or caused the French Republic to cower in fear, they failed. As of this writing, the media reports that the Kouachi brothers were shot dead by the police, 56 hours after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
French President François Hollande called for national unity and it looks like he is getting it. Thousands of people rallied to show their shock and solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, with rallies in the streets of Paris, Marseille, Nice, Rennes, and Toulouse. France has been secular for over 200 years and will continue to be so. Furthermore, expect the French authorities to act strongly and swiftly.
The world has been greatly moved by this act of brazen terrorism. Rallies have been held in Brussels, Moscow, Tunis, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Rio de Janeiro, Lima, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. Many are using the hashtag ‘I am Charlie’ #JeSuisCharlie or holding up placards saying the same.
The sentiment is that ‘freedom of speech’ must be preserved and terrorism cannot win. British Prime Minister David Cameron summed it up simply: ‘Freedom will win.’
Our condolences to the friends and families of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Freedom of speech will get a much needed tonic in the days ahead. However, the greatest enemies of freedom of speech are not violent jihadists in Sydney or Paris; instead they are internal within the half-century year old cultural civil war in the western world. Here is where free speech has been eroded with alarming intensity.
More in the next blog.
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