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Evidence in Paris attack suggests gunmen had combat experience

A bullet-ridden police car outside the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Jan. 7, 2015.

PANORAMIC/ZUMA PRESS/TNS

By MITCHELL PROTHERO | McClatchy Foreign Staff (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 7, 2015

The gunmen who attacked the editorial offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo Wednesday morning in Paris appeared to be focused professionals who had carefully prepared the assault.

The gunmen escaped and were still at large hours after the attack. French authorities said they were seeking three people in the attack.

Video of the attack indicates that the gunmen 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 may be linked to a top French al-Qaida operative, David Drugeon, who has 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 Humanité that the two attackers spoke perfect French and claimed to be members of al-Qaida.

Drugeon, who many experts believe was initially a French intelligence asset before defecting to al-Qaida, previously 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 a violent standoff with security forces.

Wednesday’s attack killed at least 10 journalists and two policemen who’d apparently been assigned to guard them because of previous threats made against the publication including a firebombing in 2011. The magazine, famed for satirical cartoons mocking a wide range of political and religious figures, had been threatened for its depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.

Initial reports claimed that four cartoonists, known under the pen names of Cabu, Wolinski, Charb and Tignous, were among the dead.

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 that 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 less accurate and difficult to control when fired on full automatic. But the impact pattern on the police vehicle indicated 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 appearing to attempt 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 hand signal commonly used in infantry engagements to tell other troops to join him.

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.

©2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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