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Sleeper cell awakes France's worst fears in 3 days of terror

Editor Stephane Charbonnier, known as Charb, had a police bodyguard and was on an al-Qaida hit list.

Associated Press

Updated:January 11, 2015, 7:38 AM IST
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Sleeper cell awakes France's worst fears in 3 days of terror
Editor Stephane Charbonnier, known as Charb, had a police bodyguard and was on an al-Qaida hit list.

Paris: Blood-curdling, al-Qaida-inspired murder that tore at the heart of the nation which raised him wasn't ghoulish enough for Cherif Kouachi. His body, felled by elite soldiers' bullets and stun grenades, wasn't yet cold when he also came back from the dead.

Kouachi had picked up the phone when a reporter for news channel BFM rang the printing plant, his and his elder brother Said's final redoubt, where an army of soldiers, police officers, and helicopters cornered them after a 40-plus-hour manhunt through villages and woodlands of northern France.

BFM waited until after the brothers and another member of their terror cell, who killed four hostages in a kosher grocery in Paris, were dead before broadcasting its haunting audio. Sounding determined and so chillingly sure of himself and his extremist Islamic rhetoric, Kouachi's fluent French put words to France's worst nightmare: its own sons, heads filled with jihadi dreams of murder and martyrdom, coming home from foreign battlefields to wage war.

"We are the defenders of the Prophet," he said. "I, Cherif Kouachi, was sent by al-Qaida from Yemen."

Paris will never quite be the same after the carnage that started on Wednesday. Never again will fears of homegrown terrorists coming back battled-hardened by extremist training, indoctrination and fighting in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere to commit mass murder be just theories. As Prime Minister Manuel Valls would later say: "There will be a before and an after."

Heavily armed, dressed head-to-toe in black, the Kouachi brothers forced their way into the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo as the satirical magazine's staff gathered for an editorial meeting. Household names in a country which regards cartoons as serious literature and a gateway to reading for children, Charlie's artists had already been up to their usual mischief, tweeting moments earlier a cartoon of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State group, sending New Year wishes with the words "above all, good health!"

More than merely cheeky, the weekly's drawings are often grossly offensive. Proudly calling itself an "irresponsible newspaper," it put an erect male member on its front cover as long ago as 1974. But it had its place in French newsstands and hearts. It may not always have made them laugh, but its very existence demonstrated that freedom of speech was alive and kicking. Charlie Hebdo artist Jean Cabut, known simply as Cabu, also featured in and drew for a fondly remembered children's television program in the 1980s. His killing by the Kouachi brothers felt, to some, like the death of their childhoods, too.

Shouting "Allahu akbar!" - God is great in Arabic - the Kouachi brothers had, in their own words, come to avenge Charlie Hebdo's caricatures that have repeatedly poked fun at the Prophet Muhammad, some showing him butt-naked. Charlie's cartoonists knew this was incendiary stuff. A firebombing destroyed their offices in 2011. Editor Stephane Charbonnier, known as Charb, had a police bodyguard and was on an al-Qaida hit list. After the assassinations, distraught people around the world flooded social media with the phrase "I am Charlie." But that isn't, strictly speaking, true: not everyone has the courage to keep going to work in the face of such danger.

The gunmen headed straight for Charbonnier, killing him and his bodyguard first, said Christophe Crepin, a police union spokesman. Also sprayed with bullets and murdered were seven other journalists, among them leading cartoonists, a maintenance worker and a visitor.

A grisly photo showing trails of blood and papers strewn across the office floor testified to the cruelty that, in weeks and months ahead, will test how attached the French - non-Muslims and the estimated 5 million who follow the teachings of the Quran - are to their liberties and to each other.

Back outside, the gunmen rejoiced.

"Hey! We avenged the Prophet Muhammad. We killed Charlie Hebdo!" they were heard yelling on amateur video.

It also showed them coolly interrupting their getaway to kill another policeman, finishing him with a shot to the head as he writhed injured on a sidewalk. The officer was later identified as Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim. The phrase "Je Suis Ahmed" - I Am Ahmed - caught fire on social media.

Police unions were horrified to see weapons of war, semi-automatic rifles firing high-velocity rounds, used against officers who arrived on mountain bikes and in flimsy Renaults. Already, debate has begun on whether security services need bigger weapons and more resources to keep better track of hundreds of men and women who have traveled overseas for jihad. The challenge for France and other European democracies who know they could be the next targets is to boost security without compromising on liberty.

The Kouachi brothers exploited what is both democracies' weakness and strength: fundamental respect for citizens' rights, even for those suspected of terrorist links and sympathies. Cherif Kouachi, 32, was convicted on terrorism charges in 2008. Said, 34, is believed to have trained and fought with al-Qaida forces while in Yemen. Both were barred from travel to the United States, according to a senior U.S. official, because of such links. But Said had no criminal record, and the latest legal case against Cherif was ultimately thrown out.

Their competence with weapons, the way one kept guard while the other executed Merabet, the attack timed for the editorial meeting, made immediately clear the gunmen were trained, focused and working to a plan. That Said Kouachi left his ID card in their getaway car, leaving a trail police jumped on, was simply baffling.

That same afternoon, just hours after the attack, police identified the Kouachi brothers as suspects and later released their mugshots, both with small chin beards and close-cropped hair. The hunt was on.

The trail led SWAT teams backed by helicopters to the Picardie region north of Paris, through which troops marched a century earlier to the gory trenches of World War I. Back in Paris, under leaden, tearful skies, the mood was morose.

Everyone coped with the numbness of shock as they could. Absurd as it must have seemed, I walked the Champs-Elysees to work with my right arm thrust in the air, clutching a pen. Others left flowers, candles and, of course, drawings at makeshift shrines.

A midday national moment of silence, with people falling quiet mid-phone call, the gargantuan bell of Notre Dame Cathedral tolling like a mournful heartbeat, and strangers staring at each other on halted subway trains, brought the welcome respite of solidarity. The mutual sharing of shoulders to lean on bore out the enduring truth of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," the national motto of a famously squabble-fond country that Charles de Gaulle once complained is ungovernable.

But as lights on the Eiffel Tower were extinguished that night in tribute, the Kouachi brothers appeared, incredibly, to have slipped the dragnet, having robbed a gas station and later vanished into woodlands. That and the shooting death of a policewoman in southern Paris early that morning doomed the city to an uneasy sleep.

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