(Noopur Tiwari is Independent Journalist and Producer, NDTV)
Witnesses described the men as "calm and determined". They were three. Hooded and masked in black, they stormed into the Charlie Hebdo building after forcing an employee to dial the security code of the entrance at 11.30 am Paris.
An editorial meeting was taking place. They decimated the core team of the weekly satire journal killing 12 people in all, including seven journalists. The assailants were spotted in north of Paris where they abandoned a car. They were also caught on camera shooting a policeman on a pavement. A police car was left riddled with bullet holes.
At the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, where I was reporting from, huge crowds were gathered for several hours as victims were still being treated on location in vans parked along the streets. Later in the evening, thousands poured out on to the streets in cities across France to express solidarity with the assassinated journalists.
I was at the Place de la Republique where more than 30,000 people poured in after they finished office hours. Many were there with their children. A young couple told me "We are here to show that the terrorists haven't won. We stand for freedom of expression".
Another young man said the terrorists are only a "minority" in France and they are by no means Muslim. Some stood in silence holding lit candles while others climbed on top of the giant statue, shouting "We are all Charlie!". The slogan "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) had started circulating on social media and was picked up by protestors all over France. A luminous slogan "Not Afraid" was seen shining in the middle of the sea of crowds in Paris.
In a new year cartoon earlier this month, Charb, the cartoonist and director of the journal, who was killed in this attack, had drawn an armed terrorist, with the title asking "No terror attack in France yet?". The terrorist in the cartoon was shown responding, "We have until the end of the month to convey our wishes". Tragically, the cartoon's prophecy came true.
Founded in 1970, Charlie Hebdo has been courting controversy for many years and has been under constant threat from extremists. In 2012, its offices were burnt down after it named one of its issue "Charia (sharia) Hebdo" and showed the Prophet under the title "100 lashes if you don't die laughing". This came after a controversial film "The Innocence of Muslims" was released online and led to violent protests the world over.
But Wednesday's attack, the bloodiest terror attack the country has seen, left all of France reeling. The journal's office had special security cover and Charb was always accompanied by a bodyguard. The bodyguard was killed too in the attacks.
Part of the French satire tradition, Charlie Hebdo was a left leaning journal and has always been anti-clerical in its tone. Its vitriolic humour targeted all religions. Four of the cartoonists killed in the attacks were household names in France: Charb, Cabu, Wolinski and Tignous.
In 2005, Charlie Hebdo had reprinted the controversial Danish cartoons, first published by Jyllands Posten - one showed the Prophet with a bomb on his head. Again, in 2011, the cover page of Charlie Hebdo showed the Prophet on a wheelchair, being pushed by a Jewish man. Both were saying "We shouldn't be making fun of each other". The cartoons got even bolder on the inside pages.
Charb had declared at that time, "If we start asking ourselves whether we have the right to sketch Mohammad or not, whether it's dangerous to do so or not, we'd end up asking whether we can represent Muslims at all in our paper, whether we can represent any humans in our paper. In the end we'd represent no one and the handful of extremists who are making a fuss around the world and in France...would have won." French Muslim leaders had aired concerns over the insulting nature of these cartoons and the reactions they might provoke.
President Francois Hollande announced Thursday as a day of national mourning in France. The Notre Dame Cathedral will chime its bells to remember the victims of the terror attack. France's national security alert has been raised to the highest level with heightened patrols for media offices, schools, tourist and religious sites.
France has been actively rallying for action against the ISIS or Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In September, 2014, the extremist group had declared that it would target all the countries who were part of a US-led coalition, especially the "dirty French".
France is also directly involved in the war against Islamic extremists in the Sahel region in Africa. In recent months it has also been grappling with a problem of "home-grown jihadis' as hundreds of radicalised youth have been leaving from France to fight alongside extremists in Syria and Iraq.
These attacks are likely to push France to introspection as rising racism against its own Muslim citizens is believed to be pushing many into the hands of extremists. There are fears that this terror attack will further stigmatise French Muslim communities.
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