Belgian mastermind behind deadly Paris attacks

Abdelhamid Abaaoud's ISIL links emerged after Charlie Hebdo attacks in January.

Belgian special forces climb an apartment block in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek during a raid on November 16, 2015, in search suspects linked to the deadly attacks in Paris. Yves Herman / Reuters
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London // A Belgian fighting with ISIL in Syria has emerged as the suspected mastermind of the Paris terrorist attacks that have killed 129 people and left 99 critically wounded.

Investigators believe Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 27, who is of Moroccan descent, was the organiser and financier of the wave of shootings and suicide bombings on Friday.

In an article published in The National in January, Abaaoud was named as the suspected leader of a cell of extremists linked to ISIL after two of its members were killed in a police operation just eight days after terrorists murdered 12 people at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

He was said then still to be at large and his father, Omar, told Belgian media he was deeply ashamed of his son, who had ruined a family that “owed everything to Belgium”.

If it was Abaaoud directing the eight terrorists who carried out the Paris attacks, this would reinforce French president Francois Hollande’s declaration that the atrocity, for which ISIL has admitted responsibility, was planned outside France. Mr Hollande said yesterday the bloodshed was “decided and planned” in Syria, organised in Belgium and perpetrated with French accomplices.

Both France and Belgium intensified the search for those involved on Monday, mounting a series of raids on suspected extremists in several cities. Five of the seven attackers killed in the attacks had been identified by yesterday evening.

The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, warned that Syrian-based ISIL militants were already planning further attacks in Europe, words echoed by his British counterpart David Cameron.

Amid a continuing manhunt for Salah Abdeslam, thought to be the only surviving attacker, France also mounted further air strikes on the terrorist group’s positions in Syria. Addressing a special session of French parliamentarians at the historic palace of Versailles, outside Paris, Mr Hollande said these strikes would be intensified.

“We are at war against jihadist terrorism,” the president said, adding that changes to the French constitution may be needed in the fight against extremism.

But there were tears and defiance, too, as France, along with countries around the world, observed a one-minute silence in honour of those who died in what has become known as Paris’s “Bloody Friday the 13th”. Mr Hollande was flanked by a visibly distressed Mr Valls and his education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, born in Morocco to a Muslim family, at Paris’s renowned Sorbonne university, chosen as a symbol of the many students and academics who figured among the victims.

In what seems certain to be a long and complicated investigation, the raids on French addresses in suburban Paris and the cities of Grenoble, Toulouse and Lyon led to the detention of 23 people, with more than 100 others placed under house arrest.

France’s interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said dozens of weapons were seized, including a Kalashnikov assault rifle and rocket launchers.

In Belgium, police activity was concentrated on finding Salah Abdeslam, 26, who has been identified by French authorities as the “eighth man” involved directly in the attacks on a Parisian concert hall, restaurants, bars and the Stade de France sports venue.

Abdeslam lived in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, which has been described as a hotbed of extremist sympathisers. But the Molenbeek mayor Eric Van Der Sypt said after raids in the suburb that no one had been arrested.

Media commentators have expressed disbelief that Abdeslam, whose elder brother Brahim, 31, was among the attackers killed, was stopped while crossing from France into Belgium on Saturday but, arousing no immediate suspicion, allowed to proceed. Another brother, Mohammed, was among those arrested over the weekend but was released without charge on Monday.

There is also concern about the movements of one of the three suicide bombers outside the Stade de France, a man carrying the passport of a 25-year-old Syrian, Ahmad Al Mohammad.

The passport was used in early October by a man presenting himself as a refugee from the Syrian conflict. He was allowed to proceed through Greece and Serbia. However, French authorities continued yesterday to urge caution on whether the bomber carrying the passport had entered Europe as a bogus refugee or was in possession of a stolen document.

Meanhwile, Turkey announced that it had twice notified France, in December last year and again in June, about Ismael Omar Mostefai, the first of Friday’s attackers to be formally identified.

Known to the French authorities as a man with a radicalised outlook, he was identified when a severed finger found at the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 people were killed, matched digital records.

A senior Turkish official said his country received a request for information from France about Mostefai only after Friday’s attacks. Mostefai was said to have entered Turkey in 2013 but the official said there was no record of him leaving. Turkey has previously complained that while it has been urged to take a more robust stance on terrorist suspects crossing its border with Syria, it has been given inadequate access by western powers to intelligence information.

“This is not a time to play the blame game, but we are compelled to share [this] information to shed light on [Mostefai’s] travel history,” the Turkish official said. “[His] case clearly establishes that intelligence sharing and effective communication are crucial to counter-terrorism efforts.”

France, in common with other European countries, realised there was a growing menace of attacks by ISIL. The suspected bombing of a Russian airline over the Sinai desert and deadly bombings in Beirut made terrorist atrocities more likely, especially in the context of France’s decision last month to start bombing ISIL in Syria.

Mr Valls said France was dealing with a “terrorist army” rather than a single terrorist group and added: “We know that operations were being prepared and are still being prepared, not only against France but other European countries too.”

He said Monday’s raids had taken place at more than 150 addresses. “We are making use of the legal framework of the state of emergency to question people who are part of the radical jihadist movement ... and all those who advocate hate of the republic,” he said.

The others attackers named so far are Bilal Hadfi, 20, another of the Stade de France attackers, and Samy Amimour, 28, from near Paris, who took part in the attack at the Bataclan where the US band Eagles of Death Metal was performing.

Amimour was already facing terrorism charges and had been placed under judicial supervision after allegedly planning to travel to Yemen. He was the subject of an international arrest warrant after jumping bail two years ago. Three of his relatives were among those detained yesterday.

In Britain, Mr Cameron said seven attacks on a smaller scale than those carried out in Paris had been foiled in the UK in the past six months. This added weight to a previous warning from the head of Britain’s MI5 intelligence service, Andrew Parker, that ISIL wanted to mount mass casualty operations in the country.

Mr Cameron repeated his belief that Britain should be involved in air strikes on ISIL positions in Syria, a highly contentious issue in the UK. Mr Cameron conceded he would have to convince parliament to support his view but warned that if British interests were at stake, he would act first and report to parliament later.