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The cold execution of French police officer Ahmed Merabet
The cold execution of French police officer Ahmed Merabet
Screenshot of an amateur video
Soren Seelow

PARIS — Like every Wednesday, they were all there, almost all. Gathered around sugar chouquettes and croissants at the large oval table that takes up the whole room, for the weekly editorial meeting — a fixed ritual since the founding of Charlie Hebdo.

To the left, Charb, the editor-in-chief. On this Wednesday, Jan. 7, cartoonists Cabu, Wolinski, Tignous, Honoré and Riss, editors Laurent Léger, Fabrice Nicolino and Philippe Lançon, economist Bernard Maris and columnists Sigolène Vinson and Elsa Cayat were seated around him.

The editorial meeting generally starts at 10.30 a.m. and rapidly livens up with a few salacious jokes. There’s only one taboo subject: the coffee machine, which always seems to be broken. On the walls, several “legendary” front pages of the satirical newspaper: the November 2011 one with “Charia Hebdo” (Sharia Hebdo), which had provoked the arson attack that destroyed the weekly’s former offices; another cover on French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen illustrated as a “turd” on the French flag; a caricature of the Pope denouncing pedophilia in the Church; a wincing Sarkozy…

The meeting ends when it ends, which means when it’s time to have a bite to eat at the Petites Canailles, a bistro around the corner on rue Amelot, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris.

This Wednesday, nobody would make it to lunch at the Petites Canailles. It was one hour into the meeting when two men in balaclavas burst in amid the pens and notebooks, silencing the merry hubbub. They were armed with assault rifles. One of the attackers said: “Charb?” He shot Charb, followed quickly with more rapid bursts of gunfire. According to the survivors, they shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) and “You’re going to pay because you insulted the Prophet.”

One of them put a gun to the head of Sigolène Vinson, and said: “You, we won’t kill you because we don’t kill women, but you’ll read the Koran.”

Seven editors and cartoonists died in just a matter of seconds: Cabu, Charb, Tignous, Wolinski, Bernard Maris, Honoré and the psychoanalyst and columnist Elsa Cayet, a woman. Mustapha Ourrad, the Algerian copy editor who obtained French citizenship a month earlier, was also assassinated. Franck Brinsolaro, one of the two police officers assigned to ensure Charb’s permanent protection since the 2011 attack, was also killed, as was Michel Renaud, the former chief of staff of the Clermont-Ferrand Mayor, invited by the newspaper to participate in the staff meeting.

A final tweet

At 11:28 a.m., a few minutes before the killing, the weekly had just published premonitory New Year greetings on Twitter: one cartoon by Honoré picturing al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, along with this comment: “And most importantly, good health!”

The cartoonist died shortly afterwards with his friends around the large oval table, the same one where the caricaturists scratch their last cartoons at the end of the day, where the final front page choices are made in a profusion of clever wordplays and cheap jokes.

The illustrator Corinne Rey, aka “Coco”, who survived, spoke afterward to the French daily L’Humanité: “They shot Wolinski, Cabu ... It lasted five minutes. I hid under a desk."

In their killing spree, a few minutes earlier, the attackers shot dead a maintenance staff employee of the building on the ground floor, Frédéric Boisseau, 42. Soon afterward, on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, a second injured police officer, Ahmed Merabet, was executed after attempting to stop the fleeing killers.

Twelve dead altogether, eleven injured, including four seriously. “An indescribable carnage,” according to a witness who entered the offices after the attack.

The emergency teams, who arrived on site, described “war wounds”. “I'd never seen anything like that in my career,” a trauma doctor said: “We’re trained for that but not to live it in reality.”

Christophe Deloire, the head of Reporters Sans Frontières, called it “the darkest day for the French press” — it was also the bloodiest terrorist attack to strike France in half a century.

Hunting for Charlie

The fog was hanging cold and heavy this Wednesday morning when two men, dressed in black and wearing bullet-proof vests, arrived, apparently poorly informed, at No. 6 of the rue Nicolas Appert, two numbers away from Charlie Hebdo’s offices. They took advantage of the arrival of the postal woman, who'd come to deliver a piece of registered mail, to rush through the door, recounted an employee of the audiovisual company Atelier des Archives, which is located in that neighboring building. They made the postal woman and an employee who came to pick up the package sit down.

Then they asked: “Where’s Charlie Hebdo?” They fired a shot, which went through the glass door of an office. An employee who was in that room came out into the hallway and exchanged a short glance with the two men.

Realizing they were in the wrong building, the assailants walked out, and went two doors down to No. 10, the address where the satirical newspaper had found refuge since July 1, 2014. Though precise about the day and time of Charlie’s editorial meeting, the attackers were however off slightly on the exact location of their offices.

According to the Paris public prosecutor’s office, they come across two janitors in the entrance hall of No. 10, and asked them where Charlie Hebdo is, before shooting one of the two. They took Coco hostage, after encountering her on the stairs. The illustrator tried to lead them astray, taking them to the third floor although the offices are on the second.

Following the 2011 attacks and the countless death threats received by the magazine, Charlie Hebdo removed all external reference to its premises. The fine plaque which decorated the entrance to its previous — firebombed — offices in the 20th arrondissement is now covered in soot and hangs inside the magazine’s offices. On the landing leading to the magazine, there is no mention of the publication’s name, with Les Editions Rotatives (Rotary Publishing) written there instead. The neighbors were asked not to disclose the magazine’s presence in the building.

According to an employee of Premières Lignes, a production company located opposite Charlie on the second floor, the two assailants threatened a worker they encountered in the third floor corridor. Always the same, obsessive question: “Where is Charlie?” When they finally found the right door, Coco who, at gunpoint, was forced to punch in the code on the armored door which leads to the magazine’s offices.

A final victim, and survivor

After the office massacre, the two attackers jump into a black Citroën C3 parked in front of the building. A witness tells police that he saw an accomplice arrive on the scene in the C3 and take off on a scooter. The two gunmen flee down a side street where they meet the first police officers; a bicycle patrol. Shots are fired by both sides, but no-one is injured.

The Premières Lignes employees had taken refuge on the roof of the building when the first shots were fired, and they filmed the exchange of gunfire. Between two bursts, it sounds like someone cries “Allahu Akbar.” The assailants then cross the path of a police car on rue Pelée and a second volley of shots ensues. On another amateur video, cries of “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad ... We have killed Charlie Hebdo!” can clearly be heard.

It is on Boulevard Richard Lenoir that the attackers encounter their last victim. The sequence of events is captured by a third amateur video. On it we can see two men with bulletproof vests and assault rifles get out of their black Citroën and run towards a police officer who has fallen to the ground, presumably hit by a bullet. “Do you want to kill us?” asks one of the shooters. “Nah, it’s all right mate,” replies the officer on the ground. The hooded man runs past him and shoots him in the head with the assault rifle, without breaking his stride. The victim, Ahmed Merabet, 42, was an officer at the 11th arrondissement police station.

Like two men trained for combat, the two killers calmly return to their vehicle showing no sign of panic. The scene resembles a video of a commando training session. One gets behind the wheel, the other takes a moment to pick up a sneaker which had fallen out of the car door, before entering on the passenger side.

Meanwhile, another famed Charlie Hebdo illustrator Willem learns of the tragedy while on a train. A lifelong aversion to weekly editorial meetings saved his life.

Worldcrunch translation by Patrick Randall and Sarah Collings

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