When a 2011 firebombing destroyed the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, editor Stephane Charbonnier said the publication would not shy away from taking jabs at radical Islam.
“If we can poke fun at everything in France, if we can talk about anything in France apart from Islam or the consequences of Islamism, that is annoying,” Charbonnier said at the time. “This is the first time we have been physically attacked, but we won’t let it get to us.”
True to his word, the magazine remained proudly provocative. And Charbonnier reportedly was among those killed on Wednesday when masked gunmen stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing at least a dozen people, including two police officers.
French authorities are still investigating, and it is not clear who was behind the attack, but the focus is on Muslim extremists.
Prior to Wednesday, France had been largely unscathed by terrorism over the past 15 years compared with other Western nations. The U.S. had the Sept. 11 attacks. Australians were targeted in a 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali. Spain had train bombings in 2004. Britain had train and bus bombings in 2005.
But France knew it was not immune and had been on guard for years. The country has Europe’s largest Muslim population, and parts of it are restive. The French military is involved in the campaign against radical Islamists in the Middle East. And the 2011 attack on Charlie Hebdo hinted at what was possible.
“This seems to be the terrorist attack that France was bracing for,” NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley reported from Paris. “The country was on the watch for something like this happening and President [Francois] Hollande said that the offices of Charlie Hebdo, this magazine, were actually protected.”
The 2011 firebombing came the day after the iconoclastic magazine jokingly named the Prophet Muhammad its “editor-in-chief” for an issue. The attack destroyed the office, but no one was hurt.
Many Muslims consider any depiction or mockery of Muhammad to be blasphemous. In a 2005 episode, Danish newspaper cartoons satirizing Islam provoked protests there and in several other countries, and some of the protests turned violent.
The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo pulled no punches. They included drawings of Muhammad naked and were accompanied by sexual commentary.
“I don’t feel as though I’m killing someone with a pen. I’m not putting lives at risk,” Charbonnier said in 2012. “When activists need a pretext to justify their violence, they always find it.”
France has an estimated 5 million Muslims, who account for about 8 percent of its population. By comparison, the U.S. Muslim population is about 3 million, or 1 percent of the population.
Muslims in the U.S. are, in general, considered to be much more integrated into U.S. society as compared with Muslims in France and many other parts of Europe. Muslims in many European countries say that discrimination sharply limits their opportunities.
Hundreds of French Muslims are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the self-proclaimed Islamic State. France and other Western countries have been concerned that such radicals might return to their home countries and carry out attacks.
Wednesday’s shooting raised a number of specific concerns.
The attackers appeared to be sophisticated and extremely well-organized. The magazine often has few staffers at the office, but the attackers arrived as a weekly editorial meeting was taking place and a large number of workers were present.
Based on cellphone video footage, security analysts said the assailants were well-trained and knew how to use their automatic rifles. The attackers also had a well-planned getaway and are still on the loose. If they hold French passports, they are able to move freely throughout Europe.
Greg Myre is the international editor of NPR.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregmyre1.