PARIS — Stéphane Charbonnier was perched, as was his habit every Wednesday morning, at a U-shaped wooden table on the second floor of the light-filled Parisian offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper he headed. An array of papers was spread before him.
It was about 11:30, and a dozen or so journalists, including the paper’s top cartoonists, had joined him for their regular weekly meeting to pore over the articles that would appear in the next issue. Their day had already been productive: Less than two hours earlier, the editors published their latest provocative cartoon on Twitter, a sketch of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State terrorist group, wishing his audience a Happy New Year, and “above all, good health!”
They did not know a scene of terror was unfolding at their doorstep, one that would grip the world’s attention and raise new fears across Europe about a clash of civilizations, between radical Islam and the West.
Corinne Rey, a cartoonist who goes by the pen name Coco, was tapping in a security code to enter the building, when two men in black commando garb, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, grabbed her and forced her to open the door.
“They wanted to get in and go up,” she later told the French magazine L’Humanité.
Pushed inside, Rey took refuge as the gunmen crossed the lobby to the welcome desk, where Frédéric Boisseau, a security guard at the building for 15 years, was sitting.
According to a witness quoted in the French news media, the attackers opened fire, killing Boisseau and spraying the area with so much gunfire that some people thought a scaffold was falling.
The men raced upstairs, guns at the ready, and searched out the editorial room, the witnesses said.
“Where is Charb? Where is Charb?” they shouted, using a widely known nickname for Charbonnier. Spotting their target, a trim, bespectacled man, the men aimed and fired.
Then they killed the newspaper’s stunned chief cartoonists where they sat frozen, and they massacred nearly everyone else in the room in a hail of gunfire.
“It lasted about five minutes,” Rey said, shaken and afraid. “They spoke perfect French and claimed to be from Al Qaeda.”
The French authorities have identified two brothers as the gunmen. The younger, Cherif Kouachi, 32, has been known to the French authorities as a possible terrorist for a decade.
He was detained in 2005 as he prepared to leave France for Syria, where he hoped to be trained to fight Americans. He has been living recently with the second suspect, his older brother Said, 34, in the home of a convert to Islam, and he has worked occasionally as a pizza delivery man or a shop assistant.
According to a US official, Said Kouachi had received some military training in Yemen in 2011. Both men appeared to have received training in the use of commando tactics and firearms and were prepared for their mission of killing the leadership of Charlie Hebdo.
Most of all, they seemed determined to kill Charbonnier, who was on an Al Qaeda list of “most wanted” Westerners. He had published cartoons that provoked radical Muslims with irreverent representations of the prophet Muhammad.
The two gunmen appeared on the Rue Nicolas-Appert, a Paris street near the newspaper’s offices, in a black Citroën C3 sedan about 11:20 a.m. Wednesday, and began looking for Charlie Hebdo’s offices.
At first, the men went to the wrong address, an annex next door, and demanded to know if it was the main office. After frightened witnesses there waved them off, they turned instead to the door where Rey was typing in the entry code.
At the same moment, a journalist for Premières Lignes Télévision, which produces investigative documentaries and has offices adjacent to Charlie Hebdo’s, went downstairs to smoke a cigarette. He saw the men entering the building, demanding to know where Charlie Hebdo’s offices were.
According to Julien Beaupé, a postproduction director who works with Premières Lignes, his colleague ran upstairs to give warning, and the staff members quickly locked doors and hid under desks. They frantically called the police and emergency services.
“We heard them shouting loudly ‘Allahu akbar, we’ll avenge the prophet,’ ” Beaupé recalled.
In the entry hall, he said, “It was a vision of horror — it was a total blood bath,” he said.