IRBIL, IRAQ — The gunmen who attacked the Paris editorial offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday appeared to be focused professionals who’d carefully prepared the assault.
Video showing two of the assailants suggests they were well trained, striking their target during its weekly editorial meeting, when most of the publication’s journalists would be gathered in one place.
Other evidence suggests they could be linked to a top French al Qaida operative, David Drugeon, who’s been the target at least twice of U.S. airstrikes in Syria over the last four months.
Witnesses inside the magazine’s offices told the French newspaper L’Humanité that both attackers spoke perfect French and claimed to be members of al Qaida.
Drugeon, who many experts believe was a French intelligence asset before defecting to al Qaida, is alleged to have masterminded a 2012 “lone wolf” attack on French soldiers and Jewish targets in the southern French city of Toulouse. That attack killed seven people before the perpetrator, a French citizen named Mohammed Merah, who French intelligence believes had been trained by Drugeon, was killed by a police sniper after a long, violent standoff with security forces.
Wednesday’s attack killed at least 10 journalists and two policemen, who’d apparently been assigned to guard the magazine because of previous threats made against the publication, including a firebombing in 2011.
The gunmen escaped and were still at large hours after the attack. French authorities said they were seeking three people in the attack.
Witnesses speaking to French television reporters described the attackers as calmly entering the editorial offices of the magazine during its weekly editorial meeting, shooting the victims before declaring “Allahu Akbar” and “We have avenged the prophet,” before quickly and calmly departing the scene before police could respond.
In three videos of the aftermath posted on the Internet by witnesses, two masked gunmen can be seen exiting the building with military efficiency, making coordinated and precise movements indicative of extensive experience and training. Commonly referred to by military professionals as “muscle memory,” the movements reflect the kind of repetitive training that allows someone to efficiently execute tactical movements and maintain fire discipline and accurate marksmanship under the stress of combat.
In one series of photographs, a French police vehicle can be seen with its windshield riddled with bullets in a fairly tight cluster, a pattern that would be nearly impossible for a casually trained beginner to produce with the assault rifles the gunmen were carrying. Though simple to use, the rifles, a variant of the Russian AK-47, tend to be difficult to control when fired on full automatic. But the impact pattern on the police vehicle indicates not just a familiarity with the weapon, but at least a competent degree of marksmanship.
Another video underscores the likelihood that the two were experienced fighters. In it, two gunmen exit the building to board a waiting hatchback sedan when they notice a policeman down the block attempting to engage them as they escape. Without hesitation, the two gunmen shoot the officer, then calmly close on the wounded man as he lies in the street before one of the shooters fires a round into his head from pointblank range.
Again, the calm manner in which the wounded man is murdered before the pair return to the car suggests combat experience or at least extensive training. Both men move quickly but in a very controlled manner. At one point, the lead gunman appears to use a common infantry hand signal to summon his accomplice to his side.
The pair then drive away from the scene, but not before one of the gunmen picks up an object – possibly a shoe – that had fallen from the car as the door opened.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent based in Irbil, Iraq. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mitchprothero
BY MITCHELL PROTHERO
McClatchy Foreign StaffJanuary 7, 2015