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Safety & Security: Attack succeeds in spite of Charlie Hebdo’s security measures

Police investigators fill the street outside the Charlie Hebdo offices following the Jan. 15 attack.

Photo by Thierry Caro

Newsroom security. It’s not a subject regularly discussed during meetings of media organizations. In the wake of widely reported terrorist attacks earlier this year, perhaps the subject will become more common.

Cartoonist Corinne Rey had no idea what was in store for her the morning of Jan. 15 as she picked up her toddler from daycare. When she arrived at the entrance to the Paris headquarters of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo with her young daughter, Rey was approached by two black-clad men wearing masks and forced to type in the security code to the building after the attackers threatened the life of her child. This was actually the second security breach of the day.

Earlier, the attackers had mistakenly entered a different building where the paper’s archives were stored, thinking it was the publication’s main office. They did not harm anyone at that location.

Neither Rey nor her daughter were harmed outside the Charlie Hebdo main office, but after the terrorists entered the building, they killed nine Charlie Hebdo employees. Most of the victims were in a staff meeting on the second floor.

Editor Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier was among those killed in the attack even though he was under the protection of police bodyguard Brigadier Franck Brinsolaro who was assigned to protect the editor following previous death threats. According to news reports, Charbonnier was caught completely by surprise once the terrorists entered the building, and was killed by the attackers. Caretaker Frederic Boisseau was also killed by the attackers near the entrance reception area.

Outside, following the attack on the newspaper, policeman Ahmed Merabet was wounded and then executed by the terrorists after responding to the scene. His execution was caught on video by a witness.

At the end of the day, the terrorists killed 12 people, including two police officers, and wounded 11 others.

One suspect surrendered to authorities and the other two were later surrounded and killed. The terrorists were heard to claim that they were avenging the satirical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in Charlie Hebdo, which had received previous threats. In fact, a previous Charlie Hebdo office was firebombed in 2011, and its website was hacked.

The January 2015 attack at the the Charlie Hebdo office left Europe reeling, but another attack against those practicing freedom of expression was yet to come. On Feb. 14, a gunman shot at least 30 bullets into the window of a café in Copenhagen, Denmark during an event called “Art, Blasphemy and the Freedom of Expression.” It is believed that Swedish artist Lars Vilks, known for his depictions of Muhammad, was the main target. This attack resulted in the death of one civilian and the wounding of three police officers. Vilks had survived two previous assassination attempts and was also placed on the Al-Qaeda hit list.

These attacks against freedom of expression in Europe were carried out although security measures were already in place. First, the attackers in Paris easily gained access to the building housing the Charlie Hebdo archives, although they harmed no one at that address. Then they were able to coerce a woman to open the security door to the Charlie Hebdo main office. They killed a security guard assigned by the police to protect the staff. Then the gunmen worked their way up to the second floor where they gained access to the room where a meeting was being held.

In addition, the café attack in Copenhagen was carried out while policemen were on the scene.

The devastating results of such incidents must leave media organizations across the globe wondering what else could be done to prevent such attacks.

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