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A Short History of the Controversies and Violence That Have Dogged ‘Charlie Hebdo’

The French newspaper that was the victim of a horrific terrorist attack has been sued, threatened, and even bombed for publishing drawings of Muhammad.

Stephane Charbonnier, a.k.a. Charb, the editor of Charlie Hebdo who was killed in today's attack, talks to reporters after the newspaper's officers were firebombed in 2011. Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Coyau

This morning, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, a trio of gunmen attacked the headquarters of the left-wing satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo . The masked men, who were armed with assault rifles and a rocket launcher, killed 12 people (including two policemen) and injured a dozen more; then they fled the scene. According to reports, they shouted "Allahu Akbar" and "The Prophet is now avenged." It's the fourth terrorist attack of this sort that the country has suffered in three weeks.


Charlie Hebdo has had a history of publishing controversial material, and has long been a target of hatred for radical Muslims, who have accused it of Islamophobia and racism for publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, which is forbidden under Islam. The publication has repeatedly been threatened and subjected to attacks.

Charlie Hebdo first made international headlines in February 2006, when it reprinted a series of cartoons—one of which showed Muhammed wearing a bomb as a headdress—that had appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, leading to deadly protests in the Middle East. The French president at the time, Jacques Chirac, called the newspaper's actions an "overt provocation," and several French Muslim groups sued the paper and editor Philippe Val for "public insults against a group of people because of their religious affiliation." (The charges were eventually dismissed.)

However, Islamist groups held a grudge against the paper—and other satirical publications who ran the cartoons—from that point on, with a 2008 audio message allegedly from Osama bin Laden calling the drawings part of a "new Crusade."

In November 2011 Charlie Hebdo ran another drawing of Muhammad on its cover, along with a joke that it had named him editor-in-chief. The next day, the paper's offices were burned down; the police concluded the fire was the result of an arson attack. The Charlie Hebdo website was also taken down by hackers and replaced with a message that said, "You keep abusing Islam's almighty Prophet with disgusting and disgraceful cartoons using excuses of freedom of speech." A Turkish hacking group called Akincilar claimed responsibility for the cyberattack, and in an interview with a French newspaper, one of its members said that it was a "protest against an insult to our values and beliefs" while denying the group had anything to do with the firebombing.

Charlie Hebdo's offices after the 2011 attack. Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Pierre-Yves Beaudouin

In September 2012 the newspaper again published cartoons of Muhammad (this time in the nude), and the French government shut down embassies and schools across the Middle East for fear of reprisals. A man was subsequently arrested by French authorities for allegedly calling for the beheading of editor Stephane Charbonnier, a.k.a. Charb. Charbonnier was also the subject of a threat in March2013, when al Qaeda's magazine Inspire put him on a "most wanted" list that included several other editors and cartoonists who had put drawings of Muhammad out into the world.

In the last few years, with tensions between Muslims and the rest of the French populace rising, Charlie Hebdo has continued pushing the envelope—one 2013 issue, titled "Life of Muhammad," reportedly led to a bookseller being threatened by young Muslim men when he displayed it in his window.

None of these controversies and sparks of violence, however, can compare to the attack today. As of this writing, the gunmen are still at large.