The hooded gunmen who killed at least 12 people in an attack on a satirical magazine in France appear to have been “professionally trained” – possibly in camps in the Middle East, terrorism experts say.
Three suspected Islamists reportedly stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) earlier on Wednesday, killing 10 of the magazine’s staff – including the editor and three cartoonists – and two police officers.
The assailants would have been organized and “well-prepared” in carrying out France’s worst terror attack in decades, marking them out from other recent “lone-wolf” attackers, experts say.
“They were clearly trained in the use of firearms” said Matthew Henman, a senior analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre. “That kind of experience places them above the average lone-wolf jihadists.”
Henman told Al Arabiya News it was too early to say where the attackers would have trained – with direct battle experience, Middle East training camps or shooting ranges in France all remaining a possibility.
Alisa Lockwood, Head of Europe Analysis at IHS Country Risk, agreed that many aspects of Wednesday’s attack suggest that the gunmen were “professionally trained.”
“The shooters conducted the operation so quickly – within about 10 minutes according to reports – appeared to target specific individuals … had prepared a getaway car; and were well-armed,” she said.
“[That] is evidence of a level of coordination and prior organization not seen in recent attacks in France.”
Lockwood pointed to three violent attacks in France during December, including one in which a Muslim convert stabbed three police officers in Joue-les-Tours. The Charlie Hebdo attack is markedly different to those, she said.
“Certainly this is much more sophisticated than the spate of seemingly Islamist-inspired attacks by individuals in December, which were very amateurish,” she said.
“The closest parallel to the latest incident is with the fatal shootings in March 2012, in which three soldiers and four civilians were killed at various locations,” added Lockwood.
“However, these were committed by a lone individual on a rampage, making this again quite different from the Charlie Hebdo attack.”
Prophet Mohammad cartoons
Many media outlets have linked Wednesday’s attack with Charlie Hebdo’s publication of several cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, something many Muslims find offensive.
In November 2011, the magazine’s offices were fire-bombed after it published an edition temporarily renamed “Charia Hebdo,” featuring a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad on the cover threatening readers with “a hundred lashes if you don’t die laughing.”
Henman said the fact that several of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists appear to have been specifically targeted in this week’s attack “strongly points to a highly motivated attack with regard to the cartoons.”
Peter Lehr, lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the Scotland-based University of St Andrews, said the attack on the magazine did not come as a surprise.
“It was already a target due to the Prophet Mohammad cartoons,” he said. “There was a certain threat level already.”
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the Paris killings. But according to one eyewitness, one of the attackers reportedly shouted “Tell the media that this is Al Qaeda in Yemen” – referring to a group more commonly known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Henman said it was possible that this group was behind the attack, but cautioned that the eyewitness claim had not yet been substantiated.
“If a single group is behind this, I would expect a claim of responsibility in the next 24 hours,” he said.
Another terrorism expert said it was possible – but by no means a certainty – that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or those influenced by it, were behind the attack.
“The jury is out as to who is actually responsible for this,” said Professor Lee Marsden, head of the School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies at the University of East Anglia.
“This sort of incident is more likely to be an action of Al Qaeda rather than ISIS,” he added, pointing to the different strategies employed by so-called militants belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Lehr said Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would be “quite capable” of organizing such an attack.
Despite previous large-scale terror attacks such as 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings in London, Al Qaeda-influenced groups are now focusing “easy-to-conduct” attacks such as the one in Paris, Lehr added.
“You don’t [need] any background in explosives,” he said. “They’re saying: ‘If you have a gun, shoot people. If you have a knife, stab people.’”