Charlie Hebdo: Alternative Press Hard Hit by Terrorist Attack

The attack by two brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, of the satiric journal Charlie Hebdo in Paris, followed by a related hostage situation in a Paris kosher supermarket was nearly unbroken TV news from January 7 to 11. The killings have led to many discussions, spontaneous manifestations of support for freedom of expression and a government-organized march on Sunday, January 11, with over 40 heads of state − some of whose conversion to freedom of expression is of recent date.

Charlie Hebdo, created in 1969 was a direct expression of May 1968 and the student-led demands for a change of society and government, then led by Charles de Gaulle. Charlie Hebdo, named after Charles Schultz’s Charlie Brown of the Peanuts comic strip, was to be the opposite of what de Gaulle represented. De Gaulle was in power, a military general, a conservative Roman Catholic, and old enough not to have sex on his mind all the time.

There is a cartoon-satiric tradition in the French press, best expressed by Le Canard enchainé, created during the First World War to avoid government press censorship. By saying that it was satire,

Le Canard could publish reports of events that the serious but censored press could not. Some of the Charlie Hebdo writers came from Le Canard, and some cartoonists drew for both publications.

Charlie Hebdo sold from 25,000 to 40,000 issues per week. A cartoon took up the whole cover page so that many people saw it on newsstands, even if they did not buy it. Writers and cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo with ready wit and quips were often invited to radio and TV talk shows so they were known well beyond the regular readers of the magazine. Some of the cartoonists had published books of their drawings which also increased their visibility. Thus their death was felt by many as a loss of people they knew as well as by many others who knew little of Charlie Hebdo but who felt that shooting journalists was not a good thing.

Charlie Hebdo went on the newsstands early every Wednesday morning, and the editors, writers and potential authors would meet Wednesday morning to plan the next week’s issue. Thus all the editors, major writers, and some who might write an article were in the same room on Wednesday, January 7, when the killers came in, having already shot two persons in the hall. Stephen Charbonnier, the chief editor, who signed as “Charb” had already been placed on a “Wanted Dead or Alive for crimes against Islam” poster published in the English-language journal and the website of the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Thus Charlie Hebdo was under some police protection. A policeman in civilian clothes was near the editors and was killed with them. A second policeman from a near-by police station who arrived on the scene as the killers were leaving was also shot dead.

The killers were quickly identified, one brother having left his identity card in the car they had used when they abandoned it in favor of a different car whose driver they forced out. One brother had been in prison in 2005 for being part of a network to recruit men to go to Iraq to fight the US soldiers. The other brother had been trained in Yemen in the use of arms and both were on a “no fly” list of US security agencies.

They drove some 30 miles to a rural suburb of Paris where they held up a gas station for gas and food. The holdup thus indicated the broad area in which they were − relatively close to the main Paris airport. As they had a rocket launcher, seen but not used in the Charlie Hebdo attack, there was fear that they might attack the airport or a plane. Thus there was a huge deployment of police and military to the area. The roads were tightly controlled. The two brothers decided to wait or to fight from a small print shop in a rural town. An employee in the shop was hidden and informed the police as to what was going on by cell phone.

As soon as the attack on Charlie Hebdo was known via television, a friend of the Kouachi brothers, Amedy Coulibably, originally from Mali, went and killed a young policewoman in a Paris suburb and badly wounded a town employee who was standing with the policewoman, thus drawing some of the elite anti-terrorism Paris police in another direction. As soon as it was known that the police had surrounded the print shop with the two Kouachi brothers inside, Coulibaly went to a small kosher supermarket in Paris, killed four shoppers − all Jewish, including the son of the chief rabbi of Tunis who was in France to learn marketing − and held others in the store hostage − again dividing the French police trained to deal with hostage situations. Cheerif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly had been in prison together, became more militant there, and afterwards the wives of the two became close friends.

The two Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly were killed by the police in the subsequent police actions, some 17 dead in the three days. Prior to the police’s final actions, the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly had spoken separately via cell phones to TV stations indicating that their actions had been done on behalf of the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Intelligence services are now trying to investigate if the three were part of “sleeper cells” and ordered into action from abroad or did the three claim to be part of larger networks in order to gain in importance.

As the two Kouachi brothers left the Charlie Hebdo offices, they shouted “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad!” Obviously, this has led to wide-spread debates in France and elsewhere in Europe as to the place of Muslims in French society, to the relation between Islam and violence, to differences, if any, between radical and moderate Islam. These debates are not new, but they have been heightened by the shootings.

Likewise, the hostage taking and killing in the kosher market has led to a discussion of the place of Jews in French society and the capacity of Jews and Muslims to life side by side in France − a discussion again heightened by the public statement of the Israeli Prime Minister that Israel would always be a land of refuge for French Jews and that the four killed in the Kosher market would be buried in Israel.

There is also an ongoing debate, especially among the media, on the role of satire, of gratuitous offense to religion, of self-censorship, of the defense of free speech without approval of the content.

The events of the three days with nearly unbroken TV coverage have led to public debate but also to fears, strong emotions, possible backlash, and to political use of the events. On Saturday, January 10, there were many, largely spontaneous street meetings in all parts of France with “I am Charlie” signs copied from the Internet. On Sunday, there was a government-sponsored manifestation in Paris with a million and a half people including government leaders from abroad and many French political and media personalities. Another two million people attended manifestations in other French cities and even smaller towns.

The emphasis in this manifestations was placed on freedom of expression as a core value of the Enlightenment and on the value of “living together.” Symbolic care was taken to showing the integration of the Muslim community. One of the policemen killed was a Muslim, and the dead policewoman was of African origin. Care was also taken to show that Jews were safe in France and valued members of French society. There was some, but not much, direct political use of the events. The Prime Minister was widely quoted as saying, “It is a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.”

The events will have echoes elsewhere, especially in Europe, and follow up will have to be watched closely.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.