Black-clad gunmen shouting “Allahu Akbar!” stormed the Paris offices of a satirical publication known for lampooning Islam Wednesday, killing 12 and injuring as many as 15 before escaping, French officials said.
As many as three Kalashnikov-toting shooters were being sought following the 11:30 a.m. attack at Charlie Hebdo, the publication known for challenging Muslim terrorists with a 2011 caricature of Prophet Muhammed on its cover and which recently tweeted a cartoon of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Two policemen and several journalists – including the cartoonist behind the weekly publication’s provocative images, were among the dead.
“We’ve avenged the honor of the prophet!” the killers shouted, according to witnesses who spoke to Sky News. Other witnesses said the men shouted “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great.” The gunmen spoke French without any accent, according to Le Monde.
“We’ve avenged the honor of the prophet!”
– Gunmen who stormed Paris satirical newspaper
As the killers fled, they shot at arriving policemen. Video, believed to be cellphone footage, quickly emerged of the men getting out of a car and shooting a prone police officer in the head in cold blood as he begged for his life on the sidewalk, then getting back in and fleeing.
French President Francois Hollande branded the attack an act of terrorism and claimed that several other potential terror attacks had been thwarted “in recent weeks.” Hollande added that the publication had been threatened in the past and was already under police protection and surveillance.
“This is a terrorist attack, there is no doubt about it,” Hollande told reporters.
Officials said the men walked into the ground floor of the publication’s offices and began shooting before making their way up to the first floor. Cartoonist Corine Rey, aka “Coco,” told the weekly Humanité that she let the men inside the building of Charlie Hebdo after being ordered at gunpoint.
“They spoke perfect French,” said Rey, who said the rampage lased about five minutes. “They said they were Al Qaeda.”
Witnesses said the attack was carried out with military precision, with the gunmen demanding the names of those they encountered, indicating that they had specific targets in mind.
“It was a real butchery,” Rocco Contento, a spokesman for the Unité police union, told The Guardian.
Benoit Bringer, a journalist from the agency Premieres Lignes Tele, whose offices are next door, told the Telegraph he took refuge on the building’s roof.
“Three policemen arrived by push bike, but they left naturally as the attackers were armed,” he said.
The publication’s offices are in the trendy 11th arrondissement of Paris, which includes posh restaurants and retail shops. It is one of the most densely populated districts in all of Europe and is home to a large, mostly Algerian, Muslim community. Schools in the area were closed and newspaper offices, shopping centers, museums and stations were placed under police protection.
Charlie Hebdo first gained notoriety in 2006, when it reprinted a dozen cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that appeared in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, in defiance of Islam’s forbidding of any image attempting to portray its most important prophet. Its offices were firebombed in 2011 after a spoof issue featuring a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad on its cover. Nearly a year later, the magazine published crude Muhammad caricatures, drawing denunciations around the Muslim world. One of the dead in Wednesday’s attack was satirical cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier, the publication’s editorial director and the artist behind the caricatures that offended jihadists. He was the subject of a fatwah, and there is a Facebook page called “Execute Stephane Charbonnier.”
Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre, spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor,told The Associated Press another cartoonist known by the pen name Cabu was killed. A police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, said one of the two police officers killed was one assigned as Charbonnier’s bodyguard after prior death threats against him.
Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who has faced death threats after several newspapers published his images of Muhammad, recently presented Charlie Hebdo with his “Gold Dog” prize, said the attack, in spite of security for Charlie Hebdo staffers, shows it is “impossible to guard [them] when it comes to attackers armed to the teeth.”
“The publication [of the Muhammed cartoons] happened a few years back in time and one could imagine that it would have been forgotten, but it is not,” he told Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. “There are obviously people who take their time and wait for the right moment.”
President Obama condemned the attack and vowed to help France bring the killers to justice.
“France is America’s oldest ally, and has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the fight against terrorists who threaten our shared security and the world,” Obama said in a statement. “Time and again, the French people have stood up for the universal values that generations of our people have defended. France, and the great city of Paris where this outrageous attack took place, offer the world a timeless example that will endure well beyond the hateful vision of these killers. We are in touch with French officials and I have directed my Administration to provide any assistance needed to help bring these terrorists to justice.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron also condemned the attack and vowed solidarity with France.
“The murders in Paris are sickening,” Cameron said. “We stand with the French people in the fight against terror and defending the freedom of the press.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.