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Charlie Hebdo attack roils an already on-edge France (+video)

France was tense over a spate of minor attacks before the holidays. Today's deadly assault on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo could inflame anti-Muslim sentiments further.

The terrorist attack at a Parisian satirical magazine is generating fresh fears of Europe's vulnerability to terrorism, amid a public backlash against Islam in pockets across the Continent.

Late in the morning Wednesday, masked gunmen entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo, in the heart of residential Paris, and opened fire, authorities say, killing at least 12 people, including two police officers. A half dozen are critically injured. The gunmen were carrying AK-47s, and one was caught on video shouting “Allahu Akbar” ("God is great") in the midst of the rampage.

It’s the deadliest attack by militants on French soil in many decades. President François Hollande said it was “undoubtedly a terrorist attack” and raised the country's terror alert status to its highest level.

Gunfire erupted in the streets, with two bullets hitting a nearby state employment agency. “It was complete panic,” said agency worker Zina Neziani, standing next to the office’s front window where the bullets pierced.

Police cordoned off the crime scene with metal gates as the throng of journalists grew larger. Some parents picked up their children from a nearby nursery school early. Residents of the high-rises around the weekly publication took to their cellphones, describing the scene from their balconies. 

Charlie Hebdo has been targeted before for satirizing radical Islam – just one of many subjects it has mocked. And this is not the first time their neighborhood has turned into a police scene. The newspaper was firebombed in 2011, after it published a "sharia" issue which named the prophet Muhammad "editor-in-chief." The cover featured a cartoon of the prophet that promised “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing!”

The magazine's last tweet before today's attack mocked Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, the proclaimed leader of the Islamic State.

Already on edge

No one has claimed responsibility for the act. But many in Paris are operating under the assumption that Muslim extremists are behind the massacre.

France and the rest of Europe are on edge over the threat of terrorism, especially as many European citizens have joined jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Just before Christmas, three separate attacks spooked the nation. In one, a man yelled “Allahu Akbar" before striking pedestrians in the eastern city of Dijon. And Prime Minister Manuel Valls said recently that France has "never before faced such a high threat linked to terrorism.”

France has Europe’s largest Muslim population and the largest number of citizens who have left to join groups like Islamic State. Authorities say that some 1,000 French have traveled to fight in Syria.

France has also feared retaliatory attacks for its military action against Islamic State strongholds and sympathizers in the Middle East and Africa, and Mr. Hollande today said recent attacks have been thwarted.

Threat of a backlash

Hassen Chalghoumi, imam of a mosque in Drancy, a Paris suburb, condemned the attack. “We are not in favor of their cartoons,” he says, standing a block from where the shootout occurred, “but we can respond word against word, not with hate.”

“I hope the French will come out united at the end of this,” he says.

But the attack comes in an atmosphere of what some fear is a rise of xenophobia in Europe, fueled in part by populist parties that blame immigration for their economic woes. In the German city of Dresden, a new movement that claims to be against the “Islamization” of Europe has rocked the country with increasingly large marches. Despite appeals from political and media leaders to reject them, 18,000 joined their latest march on Monday.

“It’s inevitable that Muslims will face a backlash. It’s not just, but it’s sure to happen,” says Franco Dellavecchia, an Italian who owns a restaurant nearby and was walking by the scene.

The streets of Paris were in a general state of frenzy after the attack, as authorities rushed to secure other possible targets and the gunmen, who escaped by car, remained at large. After press reports circulated that the US embassy closed its doors, US officials circulated a message dispelling the rumors. “Despite press reports, there are no plans to close or limit access to the U.S. Embassy in Paris or other diplomatic facilities in France. We are open for business as usual,” it read.

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