(ADDS REACTIONS, MORE BACKGROUND)
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
PARIS, FRANCE (BosNewsLife)-- Shouting "Allahu akbar" ("Allah is greatest") Islamist gunmen silenced those who dared to disagree, killing at least 12 people in an attack on the Paris headquarters of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
Masked men were seen storming the paper's offices Wednesday, January 7, bursting into an editorial meeting and opening fire with automatic rifles.
Ten members of the Charlie Hebdo staff died in what was France's worst act of terrorism in years, prosecutors said. Among the dead were four cartoonists, including co-founder Jean “Cabu” Cabut and editor-in-chief Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier.
Charbonnier, 47, had received death threats in the past and was living under police protection. Two police were also confirmed among the dead and four people were critically injured.
The gunmen, who were armed with a Kalashnikov and rocket launcher, "avenged the prophet and said "Allahu akbar" Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters.
Charlie Hebdo's caricatures of Islam's Prophet Mohammed included publishing Danish cartoons that sparked Middle East riots in 2005 to renaming an edition "Sharia Hebdo" and listing Islam's prophet as its supposed editor-in-chief.
"If they had mocked Jesus only, they would have been lauded and feted by the Western media and intelligentsia," commented author Robert Spencer on the Jihadwatch.org website. "Instead, they also mocked Mohammed, and were thus derided as “Islamophobic.”
"Now Islamic jihadis have murdered them, in accord with the death penalty for blasphemy in Islam," he added.
"Will [French President Francois] Hollande dismiss this as workplace violence, or even worse, will the Western elites sit back and say, “Well, they had it coming, they mocked Mohammed”? My money is on the latter," Spencer wrote.
Christian online news agency BosNewsLife said it would illustrate a news story with cartoons depicting the prophet, whose name is also spelled as Muhammad. "We think it's crucial to fight for press freedom at a time of growing Islamic extremism," said BosNewsLife in a statement.
Wednesday's attack on Charlie Hebdo occurred hours after the magazine used the twitter website to publish a cartoon of 'Islamic State' (IS) group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issuing a New Year's greeting, with the caption: "And especially, health!"
IS has forced hundreds of thousands of Christians and other groups to flee their homes in Syria and Iraq amid reported shootings, beheadings, crucifixions, rape and torture on a massive scale.
President Hollande said Wednesday's violence "was definitely a terrorist attack". Thousands of people went to the streets of Paris to search for the killers and protest against the attack on one of France's most vocal papers.
A major police operation was underway to try and find the gunmen who fled in a car which was later abandoned. They were later identified as Frenchmen Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, in their early 30s, and Hamyd Mourad, 18, with alleged links to a Yemeni terrorist network.
Seven other people were injured in the attack with several of them reported to be in critical condition.
The United States was among several Western countries condemning the violence. President Barack Obama called the assault on the office of Charlie Hebdo a "cowardly and evil attack" that underscores terrorists' "fear" of free speech. Speaking to reporters before a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama said the attack on the satirical weekly "underscores that these terrorists fear freedom of speech and freedom of the press."
The Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) agrees. Its French President Richard Odier and Director for International Relations, Shimon Samuels, expressed in a statement sent to BosNewsLife "Horror at today's atrocity, our sympathy to the families of its victims and prayers for the wounded."
Samuels noted that "In 2005, we shared the same courtroom with Charlie Hebdo's then-editor, Philippe Val, as we were both charged with defamation by a French Palestinian solidarity organisation." Odier added, "Today is a black day for freedom of expression, tolerance and respect in France as the very values of the Republic are under attack."
Samuels said, "Jihadi fanaticism and terrorism are the same reality for its victims, whether in France, Israel or beyond." Speaking from SWC's international headquarters in Los Angeles, the Center's founder Rabbis Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper urged an end to extremism.
"As we told President Hollande during our meeting at the Elysee Palace this past June, the only way such horrendous acts will cease in France is when the 6,000 Imans in France publicly condemn such acts as well as the ideology and theology behind them and when they deliver this message consistently in every mosque in France."