Suspected architect of Paris attacks is dead, according to two senior intelligence officials
The suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks was killed Wednesday in a massive predawn raid by French police commandos, two senior European intelligence officials said, after investigators followed leads that the fugitive militant was holed up north of the French capital and could be plotting another wave of violence.
More than 100 police officers and soldiers stormed an apartment building in the suburb of Saint-Denis during a seven-hour siege that left at least two dead, including the suspected overseer of the Paris bloodshed, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, officials said. Abaaoud, a Belgian extremist, had once boasted that he could slip easily between Europe and strongholds of the Islamic State militant group in Syria.
Paris prosecutor François Molins, speaking to reporters hours after the siege, said he could not provide the identities of the people killed at the scene. But two senior European officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said they received confirmation from the French that Abaaoud was slain in the raid.
It was not immediately clear how Abaaoud died — whether in police gunfire, by his own hand or in a suicide blast triggered by a woman in the apartment.
After the raid, forsenics experts combed through the aftermath — blown-out windows, floors collapsed by explosions — presumably seeking DNA and other evidence.
Molins said a discarded cellphone helped identify safe houses used by attackers to plan Friday’s coordinated assaults, which killed 129 people and wounded more than 350 across Paris.
Molins said police launched the raid because they believed that Abaaoud was “entrenched” on the third floor of the apartment building. He said that neither Abaaoud nor another wanted suspect, Salah Abdeslam, was among eight people who were arrested at the apartment and other locations on Wednesday. Three people were arrested in the raid on the apartment, he said, one of whom had a gunshot wound in the arm.
Molins said the safe houses indicated “a huge logistics plan, meticulously carried out.”
The death of Abaaoud closes one major dragnet in the international search for suspects from Friday’s carnage.
But it raised other worrisome questions, including the apparent ability of Abaaoud to evade intelligence agencies while traveling through Europe and whether other possible Islamic State cells could be seeking to strike again.
It also left no doubt that other potential threats remained.
The raid on the apartment buildingappeared to be linked in part to plans to stage a follow-up terrorist attack in the La Defense business district, about 10 miles away, two police officials and an investigator close to the investigation said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media.
As security forces closed in, a woman set off a suicide blast — possibly an explosive-rigged vest or belt — after opening fire. The eight people who were arrested Wednesday in Saint-Denis, a teeming district with a large immigrant population, included seven men and one woman, Molins said.
French media identified the suicide bomber as Hasna Aitboulahcen, a cousin of Abaaoud’s. The 26-year-old French citizen is a former manager of Beko Construction, a company in Epinay-sur-Seine, a town north of Saint-Denis. The company was closed in 2014.
Five days after the worst violence on French soil since World War II, European nations remained on edge, enhancing vigilance against possible attacks by Islamist militants who have promised to bring the brutal tactics employed in Iraq and Syria to the West.
President François Hollande, seeking to reassure French citizens unnerved by the bloodshed on the streets of Paris, said the attacks would not alter the French way of life.
“We are at war against terrorism, terrorism which declared war on us,” Hollande said at a meeting of French mayors. “It is the [Islamic State] jihadist organization. It has an army. It has financial resources. It has oil. It has a territory.
“It has allies in Europe, including in our country,” he continued, “with young, radicalized Islamist people. It committed atrocities there and wants to kill here. It has killed here.”
He renewed his case for an extension to a state of emergency decreed after the attacks and for changes to the constitution that he said would make France safer.
When Wednesday’s raid began, heavily armed police clad in military gear — some with their faces covered by balaclavas — moved quickly through the dark streets, while helicopters scanned from the skies. For hours, traffic and public transportation were halted, and schools were shuttered.
Uthayaseelan Sanmugan, a 38-year-old cook who lives near the targeted apartment, said he woke up at 4:30 a.m. to the sound of gunfire, went to his window and saw the lights of weapon lasers outside.
“When I got to the street, I saw a lot of blood on the sidewalk. The blood of the terrorists.”
Residents were instructed to stay inside their homes.
“I heard gunshots, and, sometime around 7 a.m., a huge blast, an explosion,” said Kelly Ovo, a 45-year-old day laborer who lives close to the apartment under siege.
French police reported that Diesel, a 7-year-old police dog, was “killed by the terrorists” in the raid.
Molins, the Paris prosecutor, told reporters that the operation was launched after authorities received information — potentially tips or intelligence information — that Abaaoud was in the area.
Abaaoud, an ardent Islamic State supporter linked to several other terrorist attempts, was believed to be in Syria earlier this year. But some officials speculate that he could have returned to Europe, perhaps passing undetected among the flood of asylum seekers pouring into Greek islands from Turkey.
The siege appeared to have been aided by another potential breakthrough in the probe: the discovery of a mobile phone in a garbage can near the Bataclan concert hall, the site of one of Friday’s assaults.
The phone’s data contained a map of the music venue, French media reported, along with a chilling text message sent shortly after the first gunmen entered: “Let’s go, we’re starting.”
The information on the phone opened fresh leads, including to an apartment southeast of Paris in Alfortville, according to Mediapart, a French news outlet.
French officials have cast a wide net in the hunt for suspects in Friday’s attacks, which took place at Bataclan, several bars and restaurants, and a soccer match. Across France, 118 additional raids were conducted overnight on Tuesday, yielding at least 25 arrests. That brought to 414 the number of raids launched throughout France since Friday, the Interior Ministry said.
After Friday’s assaults, which laid bare the shortcomings of European intelligence agencies’ ability to prevent militant attacks, officials across the continent have remained on high alert.
In Copenhagen, a terminal at the Danish capital’s international airport was briefly evacuated after “an overheard conversation about a bomb,” police said in a Twitter post. The terminal was later reopened.
Countries, including Sweden and Italy, raised terror alerts. Extra security was posted in St. Peter’s Square, where Pope Francis addressed pilgrims.
French authorities, meanwhile, issued a pan-European bulletin asking people to watch for a Citroen Xsara car that could be carrying Salah Abdeslam, a French militant also accused of having a direct role in the attacks, the Spanish news site El Español reported Wednesday.
On Tuesday, authorities in Hanover, Germany, abruptly called off a friendly soccer match between Germany and the Netherlands that Chancellor Angela Merkel had planned to attend. One target of Friday’s attacks was a friendly soccer match between France and Germany at a crowded stadium north of Paris — not far from the Saint-Denis raids. No explosives were found at the German site.
In Brussels, a soccer match between Belgium and Spain also was canceled Tuesday.
But France’s secretary of sport, Thierry Braillard, said soccer matches throughout the country will go ahead as planned. “Life must go on,” he told the sports newspaper L’Equipe. German officials said soccer matches would be played as scheduled as well.
In a measure of French concerns, the country on Tuesday invoked for the first time a European Union mutual aid pact that calls for members of the bloc to assist other member states if they are attacked.
France continued airstrikes Tuesday night against Islamic State targets in Syria, a significant escalation of its military participation in the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State. Also on Wednesday, France’s only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, embarked from Toulon port en route to the eastern Mediterranean, where its fighter jets will take part in operations against the militant group.
Also Tuesday, Russia conducted a “significant” number of strikes on Raqqa, possibly using sea-launched cruise missiles and long-range bombers, a U.S. defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Russian operation. Those strikes follow the Russian government’s assessment that explosives brought down an airliner full of Russian tourists over Egypt last month. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who spent 30 years serving in the CIA, said raids in Paris are also likely focusing on hunting down the group’s bombmaker. Suicide belts worn by the assailants were likely assembled in Europe, rather being smuggled in, he said.
“That means that there’s somebody somewhere close to Paris that knows how to make suicide belts,” he said. “I suspect that whoever had those skills wasn’t wanted in the operation. A bombmaker is very important in a terrorist group.