Paris terror attack: Did gunmen have military training?
The gunmen who attacked the Paris editorial offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday appeared to be focused professionals who'd carefully prepared the assault.
Video showing two of the assailants suggests they were well-trained, striking their target during its weekly editorial meeting, when most of the publication's journalists would be gathered in one place.
One of the men identified by the French authorities as a suspected assailant, Cherif Kouachi, a 32-year-old French citizen, was given a three-year sentence in 2008 for associating with a terrorist group because he was planning to go to Iraq to fight US forces. Kouachi was arrested in 2005, and his attorneys said at the time that he had had second thoughts and was relieved he was stopped before leaving France, according to a report in the New York Times.
His brother, Said Kouachi, 34, was also identified as a suspect in Wednesday's attack, along with an 18-year-old, Hamyd Mourad. Reports citing French judicial officials said early Thursday that Mourad had turned himself in at a police station in Charleville-Mezieres, some 225 km northeast of Paris near the Belgian border.
Officials said the attack, involving military-style rifles and vests designed to carry ammunition, offered the appearance of some planning.
"The way these men moved and executed these terrorist attacks shows that they have not been amateurs," an Arab intelligence official said. "It was like a commando operation."
A US official briefed on the intelligence surrounding the attack offered a similar assessment. "So often, the homegrown extremists have been kind of bumbling idiots," the official said, referring to planned attacks on New York City's Times Square and other locations. Those returning from Syria "know what they're doing. They have been through it before and can operate under pressure and operate very lethally."
THREAT OF FOREIGN FIGHTERS
Professor Peter Leahy, Australia's former Chief of Army who now heads the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra, said the Paris attack underscores the threat posed by foreign fighters whose training and experience abroad enables them to kill calmly and methodically.
"There is a real issue that, particularly for people who have a mindset already… that killing is the right thing to do," Professor Leahy told Fairfax Media. "Once they are trained and then they go into combat … a lot of people [then] realise: 'I can do it.' You're not going to be a blithering wreck in the corner."
He said training and experience gave a person "a sense of discipline, a sense of calmness, a sense of being prepared for what's going to come".
"Obviously combat is stressful, it's noisy, it's demanding, it's stressful, it's frightening. People aren't naturally killers."
Others were not convinced that the Paris attackers had professional training. While the attack, as seen on video clips, seemed well orchestrated, the shooters at one point cross each other's paths as they advance up the street — a type of movement that professional military personnel are trained to avoid, as it would limit the ability of the shooters to maximize firepower.
"From what I've seen, their shooting stance and movement indicates they are not well trained," Dan Rassachak, a Marine with expertise in close-combat skills, said in an e-mail.
LINK TO DRUGEON
Other evidence suggests they could be linked to a top French al Qaida operative, David Drugeon, who's been the target at least twice of US airstrikes in Syria over the last four months.
Witnesses inside the magazine's offices told the French newspaper L'Humanite that both attackers spoke perfect French and claimed to be members of al Qaeda.
Drugeon, who many experts believe was a French intelligence asset before defecting to al Qaeda, is alleged to have masterminded a 2012 "lone wolf" attack on French soldiers and Jewish targets in the southern French city of Toulouse. That attack killed seven people before the perpetrator, a French citizen named Mohammed Merah, who French intelligence believes had been trained by Drugeon, was killed by a police sniper after a long, violent standoff with security forces.
Wednesday's attack killed at least 10 journalists and two policemen, who'd apparently been assigned to guard the magazine because of previous threats made against the publication, including a firebombing in 2011.
The gunmen escaped and were still at large hours after the attack. French authorities said they were seeking three people in the attack.
'WE AVENGED THE PROPHET'
Witnesses speaking to French television reporters described the attackers as calmly entering the editorial offices of the magazine during its weekly editorial meeting, shooting the victims before declaring "Allahu Akbar" and "We have avenged the prophet," before quickly and calmly departing the scene before police could respond.
In three videos of the aftermath posted on the Internet by witnesses, two masked gunmen can be seen exiting the building with military efficiency, making coordinated and precise movements indicative of extensive experience and training. Commonly referred to by military professionals as "muscle memory," the movements reflect the kind of repetitive training that allows someone to efficiently execute tactical movements and maintain fire discipline and accurate marksmanship under the stress of combat.
In one series of photographs, a French police vehicle can be seen with its windshield riddled with bullets in a fairly tight cluster, a pattern that would be nearly impossible for a casually trained beginner to produce with the assault rifles the gunmen were carrying. Though simple to use, the rifles, a variant of the Russian AK-47, tend to be difficult to control when fired on full automatic. But the impact pattern on the police vehicle indicates not just a familiarity with the weapon, but at least a competent degree of marksmanship.
Another video underscores the likelihood that the two were experienced fighters. In it, two gunmen exit the building to board a waiting hatchback sedan when they notice a policeman down the block attempting to engage them as they escape. Without hesitation, the two gunmen shoot the officer, then calmly close on the wounded man as he lies in the street before one of the shooters fires a round into his head from pointblank range.
Again, the calm manner in which the wounded man is murdered before the pair return to the car suggests combat experience or at least extensive training. Both men move quickly but in a very controlled manner. At one point, the lead gunman appears to use a common infantry hand signal to summon his accomplice to his side.
The pair then drive away from the scene, but not before one of the gunmen picks up an object - possibly a shoe - that had fallen from the car as the door opened.
-SMH, McClatchy, Washington Post