22 November 2015

Fingerprints Confirm That Belgian Mastermind of Paris Terrorist Attacks Died in Saint-Denis Police Raid

November 19, 2015

Top Suspect in Paris Attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Confirmed Dead

PARIS — Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Islamic State militant suspected of orchestrating the Paris terrorist attacks, died in a police raid in the northern Paris suburb of St.-Denis early Wednesday, the French authorities announced on Thursday. 

The confirmation of Mr. Abaaoud’s death followed fingerprint analysis, the Paris prosecutor, François Molins, said in a statement. Mr. Abaaoud’s body was heavily riddled with wounds from gunfire and a grenade detonated during the raid. “We do not know at this stage whether Abaaoud blew himself up or not,” Mr. Molins’s office said.

At least one other person died in the raid: a woman who opened fire on police and then detonated a suicide vest, whom two French intelligence officials have identified as Hasna Aitboulahcen, 26, a cousin of Mr. Abaaoud.

Mr. Abaaoud’s death ended one chapter of the intense criminal investigation that began on Friday night, after three teams of terrorists, in a series of closely coordinated attacks, killed 129 people. But a manhunt continued in Belgium for Salah Abdeslam, 26, a French citizen who is thought to have fled to Brussels after taking part in the attacks.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 27-year-old Belgian, was killed in a Wednesday raid in the Paris suburb of St.-Denis. He is believed to have orchestrated Friday’s attacks in Paris.

The Belgian authorities on Thursday arrested nine people — seven of them as part of an investigation into Bilal Hadfi, 20, who detonated his explosive vest outside the Stade de France on Friday — in a series of raids. Homes were searched in the neighborhoods of Laeken, Uccle, Jette and Molenbeek. Molenbeek was the base of Mr. Abdeslam; his brother Ibrahim, who was one of the seven attackers who died; and Mr. Abaaoud.

French intelligence officials have concluded that Mr. Abaaoud was involved in at least four of six terrorist plots in France that have been foiled since the spring, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced at a news conference.

Mr. Abaaoud, a Belgian citizen who was 27 or 28, went to Syria last year to fight with the Islamic State, but it was not until Monday that French authorities learned — through a foreign intelligence service — that he had returned to Europe, via Greece, Mr. Cazeneuve said.

Mr. Cazeneuve said that investigators were looking into Mr. Abaaoud’s ties to three men: one who was arrested in France after returning from Turkey in June; a “jihadist” who was arrested in Istanbul in July before boarding a Prague-bound flight with a fake Swedish passport; and a would-be jihadist who was arrested in August and told French officials that he had been “trained and assigned by Abaaoud to perpetrate a violent act in France or in another European country.”

Mr. Abaaoud had already been linked to a foiled terrorist plot in January in Verviers, eastern Belgium, in which two of his associates died; an April plot to attack a church in the southern Paris suburb of Villejuif; and an August attackaboard a high-speed train heading to Paris, in which a heavily armed man opened fire before being overpowered by other passengers.

Mr. Cazeneuve said “it is urgent for Europe to come together” to better share intelligence and prevent further attacks. He said that justice ministers from European Union member states would gather in Brussels on Friday for an emergency meeting on the matter.

“We now know that Abaaoud, the brain behind these attacks — one of the brains, because we must be particularly cautious, and we know what the threats are — was among the dead,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament.

Mr. Valls praised the “exceptional work” of the French police and intelligence services, prompting applause from lawmakers who were gathered to discuss a government-backed bill to overhaul France’s state of emergency law.

But many questions remained unanswered: how Mr. Abaaoud had planned and organized the attacks; whether the Islamic State was planning additional assaults outside its stronghold in Syria and Iraq; and the identities of at least two other attackers.

Mr. Abaaoud was born in Morocco and grew up in modest but by no means impoverished circumstances in Molenbeek, the gritty Brussels district that has emerged as a center of jihadist activity. His father, Omar, owned a clothing store, and the family lived nearby in a spacious if shabby corner home on the Rue de l’Avenir — Future Street — near the local police station.

Despite his subsequent protests over the mistreatment of Muslims in Europe, he enjoyed privileges available to few immigrants, including admission to an exclusive Catholic school, the Collège St.-Pierre d’Uccle, in an upscale residential district of Brussels.

He was given a place as a first-year student in the secondary school but stayed only a year. A school official said he had apparently flunked out. Others say he was dismissed for poor behavior.

He then drifted into a group in Molenbeek who engaged in various petty crimes. Among his friends were Ibrahim and Salah Abdeslam, two brothers who lived just a few blocks from Mr. Abaaoud in Molenbeek. Ibrahim Abdeslam died in the attacks on Friday night, while Salah is the target of an international manhunt.

It is not clear when and how Mr. Abaaoud became radicalized, but in 2010 he spent time in prison, a notorious breeding ground of Islamic militancy in Europe. To the dismay of his family, which had not seen him show any religious zeal, Mr. Abaaoud suddenly moved to Syria in the beginning of 2014, according to experts on jihadist activity who track Belgian militants.

Soon after his arrival in Syria, where he stayed for a time in a grand villa in Aleppo used to house French-speaking jihadists, he explained his choice in a video: “All my life I have seen the blood of Muslims flow. I pray that God breaks the backs of those who oppose him” and “that he exterminates them,” he said.

This year, the French magazine Paris Match found a film that showed Mr. Abaaoud grinning and making jokes as he dragged corpses behind a pickup truck to a mass grave, a showing that had already brought him to the attention of the counterterrorism authorities. He also persuaded his younger brother, Younes, who was still in Molenbeek and only 13, to join him in Syria in 2014. Younes left Belgium for Syria on his own, without being stopped by the authorities.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud returned from Syria some time last year — via Greece, it now appears. In July, he was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison in connection with the Verviers plot, which was aimed at killing security officers.

On Thursday, a woman answered the buzzer at the flat where Yasmina, Mr. Abaaoud’s sister, lives. She shouted: “Stop coming here, you’re terrorizing the neighborhood, I’m going to call the police!”

The raids in Belgium largely focused on the relatives and friends of Mr. Hadfi. They had been scheduled before the Paris attacks, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor in Brussels said, but gained urgency afterward.

Mr. Hadfi, who is a French citizen, lived in the Neder-over-Heembeek district of Brussels with his mother and three other siblings. 

The newspaper La Libre quoted his mother, Fatima, describing Mr. Hadfi as a “pressure cooker” and saying: “I felt that he was going to explode one day or the next.”

Before he left for Syria, Mr. Hadfi told his mother that he was traveling to Morocco to visit his father’s grave. The day before he left, “he wasn’t in his normal state,” the mother told the newspaper. “When he came over to the house his eyes were red,” she said. “He took me in his arms. He knew that it was a departure with no return.”

Four days after he left, Fatima said, her daughter and two other sons came with the news that Mr. Hadfi had gone to Syria. Previously, he had smoked cigarettes and marijuana, but he gave up those habits as he became steadily more religious and politicized, his mother said.

A senior Belgian counterterrorism official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss ongoing investigations, adding that Mr. Hadfi had been on a list of foreign fighters who had gone to Syria.

Both France and Belgium remained on high alert. Mr. Valls, the French prime minister, said an attack using “chemical or biological weapons” could not be ruled out, and his Belgian counterpart, Charles Michel, asked Parliament to approve a variety of strict new security measures.

In a statement on Thursday evening after a defense meeting at the Élysée Palace, President François Hollande said he had given the “necessary instructions to intensify ongoing military operations” against the Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq.

Separately, the White House said President Obama would not abandon plans to attend climate change talks in Paris at the end of the month despite the security concerns.

Mr. Obama called Mr. Hollande from Manila on Thursday evening to discuss the latest developments the investigation and again convey his condolences. “Both leaders reiterated their unwavering commitment to degrade and destroy ISIL,” the White House said in a statement, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

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