Physical Security and the 7th of January Terrorist Attacks in Paris

Between January 7th and January 9th 2015, Paris and the Île-de-France region suffered five terrorist attacks. 17 people were killed (the three perpetrators included) and 22 others were wounded.

The first—and deadliest—of those attacks occurred on the 7th of January, when two gunmen (identified as belonging to Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch) assaulted the headquarters of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The attack was motivated by Charlie Hebdo’s satirical drawings and caricatures of the prophet Muhammad.

This blog focuses on the attacks on Charlie Hebdo itself, as seen through the eyes of physical security experts. While the other attacks during that period (The Fontenay-aux-Roses and Montrouge shootings, the hostage crisis in Dammartin-en-Goele, and the siege in the kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes) were just as shocking and heartbreaking, the Charlie Hebdo attack was particularly significant due to the repeated threats against the newspaper, the lack of physical security around a known target, and the political impact the attack had on France’s security strategy.

A known security risk

Charlie Hebdo was no stranger to controversy. Over the years, the magazine had published numerous anti-religious cartoons and articles, mocking and caricaturing all the major religions. Political figures were also frequently made fun of. The magazine was known as one of France’s crudest and most irreverent publications.

It’s unfortunately no surprise that the magazine’s content made them a target for several extremist groups—much like Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. After the first publication of Muhammad’s caricatures in 2006, Charlie Hebdo received frequent threats. Phone calls and insults were a regular issue. In November 2011, the magazine’s headquarters were destroyed after a Molotov cocktail fire-bombing. Its website was also hacked. In 2013, Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), the magazine’s director of publication, was included in Inspire’s (the Al-Qaeda magazine) “most-wanted” list.

The French government was aware of the threats and took steps to protect the journalists. Bodyguards and surveillance were assigned. Charb had, for a time, three bodyguards following him. In 2012, after attacks on U.S. embassies and riots in the Middle East due to the spread of an anti-Islamic film, riot police officers were even assigned to temporarily protect the magazine’s offices.

How, then, were two armed men able to enter the building with such ease on that fateful day?

Charlie Hebdo and building security

The building itself was located on a quiet street, sandwiched between other office buildings. Aside from being low-rise and far from modern, its most important feature was its number of access doors: a total of four, some of which were often left wide open so Charlie Hebdo (and neighboring businesses) could receive packages and deliveries more conveniently. The magazine’s name did not appear anywhere on the building itself, but the address could be looked up on the Yellow Pages until December 2014. Even the magazine’s “legal notices” section contained the address.

Further proof that physical security was insufficient: the building had been “scouted” by potential security on several occasions. In September 2014, men in a car drove by and uttered threats. A month before the attack, a neighbor ran into one of the men who would later be identified as one of the attackers. And just a day before the attack, two suspicious men were also spotted inside the building.

When the magazine staff first moved in in 2014, a security audit was performed. Due to the numerous entry points, the authorities recommended the installation of a video intercom, as well as an access control vestibule (mantrap) on the ground floor with two secured doors, and keypads to restrict entry. There were no plans to include bulletproof windows, or to make additional changes to the building’s cell or shell—at least none that were revealed to the public. From what we do know, it appears that budget was a critical factor in determining which security measures would be deployed.

The vestibule was never installed due to budgetary constraints. The video intercom did not work properly. The magazine’s receptionist later mentioned that she sometimes felt she was “opening the door for someone who could be armed.”

The perimeter security consisted of a police car that was stationed outside of the offices during work hours—until September 2014, when it was replaced by a police squad patrolling the building and the area roughly every half-hour.

Inside, the main security measures were two code-locked digipads, on both the ground floor and the second floor in front of the entrance to the magazine’s offices.

On the day of the attack, unfortunately, the attackers easily bypassed this security. The two gunmen were dropped off outside by a third man, armed with assault rifles and sporting bulletproof vests. They were prepared enough to know that Charlie Hebdo held its weekly editorial conference on Wednesday morning, ensuring that most of the cartoonists, writers and editors would be present.

They first entered a neighboring building by mistake—unsure of the headquarters’ exact location due to the lack of visible logo. Realizing their mistake, they retraced their steps and located the correct building.

They entered the building and asked where the magazine’s offices were before shooting Frederic Boisseau, a maintenance worker who was in the reception area. They then forced Corinne Rey, a cartoonist who was just returning to the building after picking up her daughter from daycare, to enter the code for the keypad entry leading to the newsroom, bypassing the magazine’s last layer of security. The men opened fire shortly after.

We do not want to suggest that better physical security would have drastically altered the day’s events. The attackers were determined, heavily armed and willing to die for their causes—as proven not only by their first attack, but also by the subsequent attacks that took place over the next 48 hours at other locations.

As physical security professionals, however, it is crucial for us to reflect on what happened and to try to learn from it. The recommendations of the security audit were made to mitigate a known risk; had the advice on controlling access to Charlie Hebdo’s building been followed more rigorously, perhaps loss of life would have been less.

(Photo credit: Thierry Caro, originally found on Wikipedia and shared under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

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