Gunmen struck the heart of Paris with a commando-style execution of a dozen people Wednesday at the offices of a satirical magazine that had caricatured the Muslim prophet Muhammad, angering the Islamic faithful with its taunting push against the boundaries of free speech.
The dead included the chief editor of the Charlie Hebdo weekly, Stephane Charbonnier, nine others at the magazine office and two policemen — one gunned down in the street by the masked attackers as their escape was captured on video broadcast by French television.
Attacks by outraged Islamic militants had been threatened for years, and the raid on the magazine offices in the shadow of the Bastille monument shattered the nervous calm and creeping complacency that had settled over the French capital in the absence of major terrorist attacks since Charlie Hebdo’s publication of controversial cartoons in 2011.
The shocking strike mobilized counter-terrorism forces in Europe and the United States and stirred massive outpourings of sympathy for the victims and solidarity with the people of France.
“#JeSuisCharlie” — I am Charlie — became a rallying cry among journalists and average citizens who took to social media by the tens of thousands to send messages expressing horror at the deaths and support for the magazine’s provocative lampooning of religious and political leaders.
A massive manhunt was underway, but police were unsure even of the number of gunmen. Some reports said the 11:40 a.m. attack was carried out by two hooded, black-clad assailants, while others claimed a third was involved. The attackers escaped by car after the slayings and hijacked another vehicle as they made their getaway, police said.
One police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said investigators believed they had identified three suspects: two French brothers ages 34 and 32, and an 18-year-old whose nationality was not immediately clear. There were conflicting reports on whether suspects had been apprehended.
The Associated Press said the suspects had been identified by police sources as Frenchmen Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, and Hamyd Mourad, 18.
Mourad was reported by Agence France-Presse to have turned himself in to police after learning he was being sought as a suspect.
“Hamyd Mourad handed himself in to police... on Wednesday at 11:00 pm (2200 GMT) after seeing his name circulating on social media. He has been arrested and taken into custody,” AFP quoted an unidentified source.
In addition to Charbonnier, seven other journalists were killed, including Bernard Maris, an economist and regular contributor to the magazine, and prominent cartoonists Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac. The other victims were the two policemen, a visitor and a maintenance man. Eleven people were wounded in the attack, at least four of them critically, state prosecutor Francois Molins said.
At nightfall, an estimated 35,000 Parisians flocked to historic Place de la Republique to light candles and brandish pens and copies of the magazine in defiance of the killers’ attack on free speech. Emotional outpourings across France and Europe drew thousands in protest of the violence, some bearing lights illuminating the message “Not Afraid.”
French President Francois Hollande addressed the nation Wednesday night, calling on the citizenry to unite against the militant forces aiming to divide the country and vowing that the fugitive attackers would be caught and punished.
“Freedom will always be stronger than barbarism,” Hollande said. “We must be aware that our best weapon is our unity, the unity of all of our citizens. Nothing can divide us.”
France Televisions showed video of two gunmen in black outside the magazine offices after the shootings, firing at random down a narrow cobblestone street flanked by apartment and office buildings. One of the gunmen was seen shooting a police officer, then approaching the writhing victim to fire a fatal shot at point-blank range.
Molins, identified the two slain police officers as Franck Brinsolaro and Ahmed Merabet.
Brinsolaro was a assigned to protect the editor, according to police union representatives. Merabet was killed outside the building on Boulevard Richard Lenoir as the gunmen fled.
“Hey! We avenged the prophet Muhammad! We killed Charlie Hebdo,” one of the gunmen could be heard shouting in French in the televised video.
Authorities raised the terror alert in Paris to its highest level after the attacks, reportedly the deadliest in France since World War II. Schools closed throughout the city and extraordinary security measures were taken to deter further attacks on transportation systems, retail centers, media offices and houses of worship.
Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Corinne Rey told the newspaper l’Humanite that she had been forced to let the gunmen in with her key code when she arrived at the building with her young daughter shortly before noon. The pair hid under a desk during the rampage that lasted about five minutes, the newspaper said.
Gerard Biard, a senior editor of the magazine who was in London at the time of the attack, expressed disbelief. “I don’t understand how people can attack a newspaper with heavy weapons. A newspaper is not a weapon of war,” Biard told the France Inter broadcaster.
President Obama condemned the attack and called Hollande to offer any help needed to bring the perpetrators 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,” the president said in a statement.
European leaders were also quick to condemn the attacks.
“We stand absolutely united with the French people against terrorism and against this threat to our values, free speech, the rule of law, democracy,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in London.
Merkel said they were meeting on what had become “truly a tragic day.”
In Moscow, a top Russian lawmaker said the Paris attack “demonstrates that it is not Russia which is a threat to Europe and its security.” The comment via Twitter by Alexei Pushkov, chief of the international relations committee of the upper house of parliament, alluded to the Kremlin’s strained relationship with the West in response to Russian aggression against Ukraine.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the attack emphasized “the necessity to continue active cooperation in the struggle against the threat of terrorism.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists called the attack on the magazine staff the worst it had seen.
“Around the world, journalists working in their own countries are targeted and killed because of what they publish or broadcast. An attack of this nature in Paris shows that the threat to journalists and free expression is global, with no safe haven,” said Executive Director Joel Simon.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the attack was “a horrendous, unjustifiable and coldblooded crime” and an “assault on a cornerstone of democracy.”
The reformist Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA issued a statement saying it “categorically condemns the barbaric attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France, and mourns with the families of the victims.”
“Nothing justifies this barbaric and inhumane attack,” said Nasim Rehmatullah, national vice president of the organization. “Islam and prophet Muhammad teach that life is sacrosanct and specifically forbids any worldly punishment for blasphemy. The culprits behind this atrocity have violated every Islamic tenet of compassion, justice and peace.”
U.S. counter-terrorism officials began searching databases and checking recorded intercepts for information related to the attack, a U.S. official said.
The Department of Homeland Security is closely monitoring the attack and will modify U.S. security measures as appropriate, an agency official said.
“We really don’t know who is responsible yet,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, after a Capitol Hill briefing.
There are a “number of candidates,” including the Islamic State extremist group that has recruited hundreds of French citizens into its ranks, as well as Al Qaeda-aligned militias based in North Africa and Yemen, Schiff said.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni franchise, last year published Charbonnier’s name on a wanted poster in its propaganda magazine Inspire. The page read “Wanted: dead or alive for crimes against Islam.”
Times staff writer Williams reported from Los Angeles, and special correspondents Willsher from Paris and Boyle from London. Staff writers Brian Bennett and Richard A. Serrano in Washington, Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow also contributed to this report.