epa04559462 A man holding the new edition of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo pays his respects in front of the improvised memorial on Rue Nicolas Appert, near the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, site of the 07 January attack in which 12 of the newspaper's staff were killed by two gunmen, in Paris, France, 14 January 2015. Charlie Hebdo, attacked by gunmen on 07 January, features cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in its edition, and it is published on 14 January. It will have a print run of three million, media reports said, up from an earlier announced run of one million; and far in excess of the weekly magazine's usual circulation of 60,000. EPA/IAN LANGSDON
A man pays his respects to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo killings in January © EPA

Since the Charlie Hebdo assaults, France has lived on high alert. The French government has deployed thousands of soldiers throughout the country.

Several months after those attacks, a man decapitated his employer and tried to blow up a gas plant in southern France in what prosecutors say was an attack inspired by Isis.

In August, a heavily armed Islamic radical was only just prevented from attacking a high-speed train between Amsterdam and Paris with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, apprehended with the help of two US soldiers.

France is bombing Isis targets in Syria and Iraq and has troops fighting extremists in Africa.

The events in Paris appeared to amount to the sum of western intelligence agencies’ fears. For years, western spymasters have worried over the possibility of a “Mumbai-style” attack, involving multiple terrorists and numerous targets in a crowded metropolitan area.

While counterterror agencies have worked hard to mitigate the threat of such an attack, the reality, as officials have long warned, is that it was almost inevitable.

“Even at this early stage it looks like a well-co-ordinated, substantial attack with multiple cells and multiple targets,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international studies at the think-tank RUSI. “This kind of thing will have required a lot of training and a lot of preparation.”

Though it is still unclear who is behind the atrocities, prominent Isis Twitter accounts began using the hashtag “#ParisIsBurning” in what appeared to be a planned and co-ordinated manner on Friday evening.

France has long been a prime target for the jihadi group. The French military is among the most active in striking Isis targets, and France is a far easier target for Isis to strike than other similarly regarded foes such as the US and UK. More than 1,500 French citizens have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight as mujahideen there, for Isis or other violent terror groups, and many have already returned.

“This seems at the least like an engorged version of the Charlie Hebdo attack,” said Mr Pantucci. “I don’t know how long it is going to drag on for, but it’s surely already going to be looked back on as one of the largest terror attacks in Europe since 9/11 — I can only think of the Madrid bombings [which killed 191 people in 2004] as a comparison in terms of this kind of marauding, high-casualty plot.”

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