PARIS — Masked gunmen burst into the Paris offices of a French satirical newspaper on Wednesday and killed 12 people, including top journalists and two police officers, before fleeing in a car. The gunmen were still at large at dusk, as an extensive police dragnet spread across a traumatized city.
Among the dead were four prominent cartoonists who have repeatedly lampooned Islamic terrorists and the Prophet Muhammad, leading to speculation that the attack on the newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, was the work of Islamic militants acting alone or in concert with extremist groups.
A police guard assigned to protect the newspaper was among the first victims. A second police officer, who responded to reports of the shooting, was killed on the sidewalk outside the office by the fleeing suspects, the Paris police said. The shooting of the second police officer was captured in a widely-seen video.
President François Hollande immediately declared that the attack was an act of terrorism and an assault on freedom of the press. He ratcheted up France’s nationwide terror alert to its highest level, and met with his cabinet in an emergency session. He said France was already on high alert after several planned terrorist attacks were thwarted in recent weeks.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but several websites and Twitter accounts associated with extremist groups applauded the violence, calling it revenge for the newspaper’s satirical treatment of Islam and its prophet.
Additional security was put in place at houses of worship, news media offices and transportation centers in Paris, and many schools were locked down as the search for the gunmen continued.
The radio station France Info quoted a witness as saying that he saw the attack from a nearby building in the heart of the French capital, not far from the Place des Vosges.
“About half an hour ago, two black-hooded men entered the building with Kalashnikovs,” the witness, Benoît Bringer, told the station. “A few minutes later, we heard lots of shots.” He added that the men were then seen fleeing the building.
Xavier Castaing, a police spokesman, said that three armed, masked men forced their way into the offices, firing indiscriminately at people in the lobby and wounding many. He said that they were carrying AK-47 rifles, and that the attack lasted several minutes before the assailants fled by car.
News reports said the gunmen shot at the police outside the building as they escaped. Several journalists sought safety on the roof of the building during the attack.
In 2011, the Charlie Hebdo office was badly damaged by a firebomb after it published a spoof issue “guest edited” by the Prophet Muhammad to salute the victory of an Islamist party in Tunisian elections. It had announced plans to publish a special issue renamed “Charia Hebdo,” a play on the word in French for Shariah law.
A lawyer for the newspaper said that a number of prominent editors and cartoonists had been killed on Wednesday, including Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, and Jean Cabut, who signs his work Cabu. He said that the cartoonists Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac were also among the victims.
The police said that they had discovered an abandoned car in the 19th Arrondissement, a relatively poor, heavily populated area of Paris. They said they believed it was used by the gunmen.
Clockwise from top left, the cartoonists Jean Cabut, known as Cabu; Bernard Verlhac, who drew under the name Tingous; Georges Wolinski; and Stéphane Charbonnier, better known as Charb. Credit Stephane De Sakutin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
One journalist at the Charlie Hebdo office, who asked that her name not be used, texted a friend after the shooting: “I’m alive. There is death all around me. Yes, I am there. The jihadists spared me.”
A senior United States counterterrorism official said on Wednesday that the American authorities were following the developments in Paris closely, but that they had not yet identified any individuals or groups who might be responsible for the attack.
The American official noted that, according to social media reports, the attackers did refer to the Prophet Muhammad, saying he was “avenged.”
The cover of the current issue of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
President Obama issued a statement condemning the attack.
“Time and again, the French people have stood up for the universal values that generations of our people have defended,” he said. “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.”
In a letter addressed to Mr. Hollande, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany offered condolences, saying, “In this difficult hour, we stand close at the side of our French friends.”
President François Hollande of France said the shooting at the headquarters of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was “a terrorist attack.”
Publish Date January 7, 2015. Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.
“This horrible act is not only an attack on the lives of French citizens and the domestic security of France,” Ms. Merkel said. “It also stands as an attack on the freedom of expression and the press, a core element of our free, democratic culture that can in no way be justified.”
The cover of the newspaper on Wednesday featured a caricature of Michel Houellebecq, a controversial novelist whose sixth novel, “Submission,” imagines a France one day run by Muslims, in which women forsake Western dress and polygamy is introduced. On the cover, Mr. Houellebecq is depicted as a wizard and smoking a cigarette. “In 2022, I will do Ramadan,” he is shown saying.
The book’s publication, ahead of presidential elections in 2017, comes as the increasingly influential far-right National Front has helped spur a loud and often acrimonious debate about immigration. The attack comes as nearly 1,000 French citizens have gone or planned to join jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria last year, further fueling concerns about radical Islam encroaching into France.
Speaking in both English and French, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed solidarity with France against an attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people.
Video by Reuters on Publish Date January 7, 2015. Photo by Kevin Wolf/Associated Press.
Last month, Prime Minister Manuel Valls ordered hundreds of additional military personnel onto the streets to reinforce a routine deployment of security forces after a string of attacks across France raised alarm about Islamic militancy.
In Dijon and Nantes, a total of 23 people were wounded when men drove vehicles into crowds, with one of the drivers shouting a Muslim rallying cry. The authorities depicted both drivers as mentally unstable.
The attacks stoked concerns that militants were ramping up attacks against French citizens in retaliation for the French government’s support for the United States-led air campaign against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. The attacks came after violence attributed to lone-wolf attackers in London in 2013, in Canada in October, and in Sydney, Australia, last month.
Charlie Hebdo is part of a venerable tradition in France, deploying satire and insolence to take on politicians and the police, bankers and religions of all kinds, including this week a mock debate about whether Jesus existed or not.
The weekly was born in controversy in 1970 with the ban of a publication called Hara-Kiri after it mocked the death of former President Charles de Gaulle. That prompted its journalists to set up a new weekly, Charlie Hebdo, a reference to its reprint of Charlie Brown cartoons from the United States.
The publication, which has a weekly circulation of about 30,000, suffered through periods in the 1980s when it ceased publication. Like other frail journals in the French newspaper industry, it recently issued appeals to its readers for financial aid with a declaration on its site, “Charlie Is in Danger.”
Michael J. Morell, the former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency and now a consultant to CBS News, said it was unclear whether the gunmen acted on their own or were directed by organized groups.
“This is the worst terrorist attack in Europe since the attacks in London in July of 2005,” Mr. Morell said. “The motive here is absolutely clear: trying to shut down a media organization that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad. So, no doubt in my mind that this is terrorism.”
He added, “What we have to figure out here is the perpetrators and whether they were self-radicalized or whether they were individuals who fought in Syria and Iraq and came back, or whether they were actually directed by ISIS or Al Qaeda.”