In Paris tonight, crowds are holding up signs saying “Je suis Charlie”. They’re right. We are all Charlie – Nous somme tous Charlie.
The principles of this awful event don’t need to be discussed – it’s a clear case of radicals who share nothing of the West’s respect for freedom of expression using the barrel of a gun to place their veto.
What’s interesting to me is the apparent professionalism of the attack, and what that says for the future of Europe, where so many radicalized young Muslim men have European passports and are able to return relatively easily to the EU after having spent time abroad, learning the skills of war.
When I saw the video clips, it took me only a few moments to understand what had happened, while (of course) the media continues to get the details wrong, for example calling it a terrorist attack using “Kalashnikov submachine guns”.
Here’s what I surmise might’ve happened
A small group of French-nationality Muslims had a “semester abroad” in the school of war with one of the dozens of factions duking it out in Syria these past couple of years. In that cauldron of blood and violence, they learned how to use small arms and RPGs. They gained real-world combat experience.
Afterward, they returned to France on their French passports. They probably didn’t go to ISIS, as the norm there is to destroy western passports. Upon their return to the EU, they might’ve had exit stamps from Turkey or Cyprus in their passports, possibly not even that. If they had taken a boat from Greece to Syria, and back through Greece, whose seaside border is utterly porous, they might not even be on the records as having left the EU at all. In which case, their being ISIS alumni remains a possibility.
Tools of the attack – what can we learn?
They used AK-47 assault rifles, clearly in 7.62x39mm caliber. This is the older model, the kind that is lying around in warehouses throughout the world by the millions – the weapons might have been circulating in the underworld for decades. This makes tracking the men via their suppliers a very big challenge, probably futile.
Their other equipment speaks to equally antiquated origin. They carried spare mags in chest pouches, almost certainly 3-mag fabric pouches, a very old style we’ve seen since Vietnam, one which is still quite popular in Syria today. Their mags look like standard steel 30-rounders. This means that each of them brought about 120 rounds to the fight: not enough to weigh you down excessively or prevent you from running quickly, but more than enough to accomplish their goal and give them a reserve in case they got pinned down.
In other words, they weren’t overly-armed amateurs. They brought just enough firepower for the task at hand, so they could hit hard, move fast, and escape.
Outgunned and out-maneuvered
When the police bravely tried confronting them with their Sig SP2022 9mm pistols, they got hammered. They had little chance against the vastly superior firepower they were facing. These two soldier/terrorists formed into a rough skirmish line and moved aggressively up the street, seeking cover and working smoothly together as they cleared the opposition. Like they had done this many times before.
The one cop who is shown on the video being murdered was down because he was already hit, and was rolling away, attempting to raise his hands in surrender when one of the Islamic soldiers finished him off at nearly muzzle contact distance with his AK. This horrific image will become the icon of the attack. It shows a cold-heartedness, a ruthlessness that comes from the battlefield: no prisoners, no threats left alive.
During the engagement, you can see these terrorists/soldiers aiming their weapons carefully. The tightly-clustered holes through the windshield of the police car say that this was no spray-and-pray job.
You can also see their deliberate approach when they confronted the cop(s) up the street: they didn’t duck and shoot wildly, firing randomly from cover. No, instead they moved forward confidently, advancing towards contact, not trying to break it. Like professionals.
Again, this cool-headedness, the almost casual way one of them stopped to retrieve the sneaker, speaks volumes about their prior experience under fire. As cowboys say: “this ain’t their first rodeo”.
During combat, they called out “God is greater” during their volleys of fire, exactly as is done in Syria and Iraq. I am certain that while inside the target building, they made doubly sure of their primary kills – the cartoonists and the editor of the magazine. I expect that those people were shot many times, and finished off quite deliberately with a shot to the head each. We hear that some witnesses describe them as saying in French that they were doing this in vengeance for an affront to their God.
I expect that we will learn that these two attackers were not acting in a panic while inside the building – but instead, that their murderous attack was deliberately and enthusiastically carried out.
It’s obvious that they planned it carefully: this was not a spontaneous event by any means. One photo shows their vehicle parked up a one-way street, facing the wrong way, blocking all traffic flow with its open doors at a kink in the street, using a natural choke-point where even the sidewalk is blocked by traffic bollards.
That wasn’t a random choice: they needed to ensure that nobody drove into their AO, especially not the police, so they blocked the street at the best spot. This speaks of planning, prior recons of the area, maybe even dry runs. Perhaps CCTV footage from the past will come into play here, helping us to discover their identities.
They probably had accomplices who were helping by ensuring that their escape vehicle remained unmolested while they made the assault: there is talk about hand-signals to people in other vehicle(s). There is also the possibility that the attackers were given inside information about the timing and attendees to the staff meeting: I’d look carefully at every person with access to that building, including cleaning staff and anyone who was conveniently absent during the attack.
They also clearly knew about the exact timing and attendees of this staff meeting well in advance, planning their attack for precisely the moment when all of the cartoonists (who normally work at home) would be gathered together in one room with their editor, like fish in a barrel. Who was the source of their intel?
After almost casually clearing the street of any remaining police, they escaped, ditching the car after or (maybe before) switching into street clothes brought with them to better blend into society. This change of clothes says to me that they were planning on travelling in the open during at least part of their escape.
This is also why they concealed their identities during the attack, because they counted on being filmed – they knew that it was impossible to avoid CCTV or cell phone cams, so they dealt with it in a predictable way: balaclavas.
What’s surprising to me is that they might have still had their AKs with them after abandoning their vehicle, the black Citroën. I suggest this because, if there had been weapons inside of it, the police would’ve handled the vehicle much differently. There would be video of the guns being removed or bagged separately or the vehicle might’ve been screened off – in any event, the police would never have left guns in the car as it was being craned onto the flatbed.
This is why I believe that it’s logical to assume that they made off with their weapons in gym bags or backpacks, unless they had ditched them or handed them off to their accomplices at that first rally point, where they ditched the Citroën.
The AKs were probably folding stock guns, which would make them much more easily concealable in such a bag. The guns almost certainly came into their hands via the blackmarket. There was talk of an RPG: if true, this would confirm non-commercial sourcing.
Neither Amateurs nor Suicidal
The overall theme of the assault that comes through to me is professionalism, planning and a real determination to escape. This is not what a suicide attacker does – this is what a soldier does.
From where and how they parked the vehicle (at least twice), to the precise timing of the assault on the building, and through their apparent escape, this whole operation feels well-planned, and seems to have played out almost glitch-free. If their goal was to live to fight another day, then it was a goal at least temporarily achieved.
My gut says that they are probably hunkered down somewhere within a couple of hours’ driving time of Paris, still armed, still ready. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they got away in the back of a commercial vehicle, moving to some remote location where they’ve “gone to the mattresses” as the Mafia used to say.
Finally, I’d bet that if they did take that route, they’re probably prepared to remain hidden (with the help of accomplices) in some rural basement or forgotten loft for weeks to come.