The alleged mastermind of the Paris attacks that killed at least 129 people has been named as the leader of an Islamic State (Isis) cell who was sought by police earlier this year but remains at large.
French officials said Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 27, was instrumental in organising and executing the gun and suicide bomb attacks on Friday night that wrought devastation in central Paris, AFP reported.
Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan origin, was first named by police as a wanted extremist after a gun battle in eastern Belgium in January during a raid on an Isis cell.
That security operation was believed to have destroyed a cell plotting to assassinate Belgian police officers, with two suspects killed in a fierce gun battle with police during the raid in the eastern town of Verviers.
Abaaoud, the group’s suspected leader, spent time fighting alongside Isis in Syria. He was known to security forces after appearing in an Isis video, at the wheel of a car transporting mutilated bodies to a mass grave.
He was described as being on the run after the attack and has now been named as a leader in the Paris attacks. Koen Geens, the Belgian justice minister, said in January: “Last night’s arrests did not succeed in nabbing the right person. We are still actively looking for him and I presume we will succeed.”
Abaaoud was also linked by French officials to the thwarted attacks on a Paris-bound high-speed train in August and a foiled plot to attack a church in Paris in April. The French newspaper Libération also linked him to Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a French student charged with murder, attempted murder and terror offences.
Abaaoud regularly attempted to recruit other western fighters to join Isis militants in Syria – even recruiting his 13-year-old brother, Younes, according to French media.
It is alleged that documents found at his home and in a search of his computer and telephone records suggested Ghlam was in contact with a French speaker in Syria, who had ordered him to carry out an attack on a church.
VTM, a Flemish-language channel, reported that Abaaoud made calls from Greece to the brother of one of two heavily armed suspects killed in Verviers in January.
In an interview with the Isis magazine Dabiq, Abaaoud boasted that he had been able to plot attacks against the west right under the nose of Belgian intelligence agencies, and that he was in Syria in February.
The militant, also known as Abu Umar al-Baljiki, said he and two fellow jihadis travelled to Belgium to “terrorise the crusaders waging war against the Muslims”.
Posing for pictures holding an Isis flag and the Qur’an, the bearded Abaaoud told the magazine: “We faced a number of trials during the journey. We spent months trying to find a way into Europe, and by Allah’s strength, we succeeded in finally making our way to Belgium.
“We were then able to obtain weapons and set up a safe house while we planned to carry out operations against the crusaders.”
Abaaoud revealed he was stopped during the journey by “an officer” after a picture of him fighting for Isis was published in Belgian media; however the officer “let me go, as he did not see the resemblance”, he said. It is not clear when or where this alleged police intervention took place.
The 27-year-old said the two fellow jihadis killed by Belgian police during the raid in January were “blessed with shahādah [martyrdom], which is what they had desired for so long”.
Asked by the magazine why he became a suspect, Abaaoud said: “The intelligence [services] knew me from before as I had been previously imprisoned by them. After the raid on the safe house, they figured out that I had been with the brothers and that we had been planning operations together. So they gathered intelligence agents from all over the world – from Europe and America – in order to detain me.
“They arrested Muslims in Greece, Spain, France, and Belgium in order to apprehend me … All those arrested were not even connected to our plans! May Allah release all Muslims from the prisons of these crusaders.”
He boasted that he had been able to plan terror attacks against westerners while living in Belgium and being wanted by intelligence agencies when he travelled to Syria in January 2014.
“I was able to leave … despite being chased after by so many intelligence agencies,” he told the magazine. “All this proves that a Muslim should not fear the bloated image of the crusader intelligence.
“My name and picture were all over the news yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely when doing so became necessary. I ask Allah to accept the fruitful deeds of the shuhadā’ [martyrs] who terrorised the crusaders of America, France, Canada, Australia, Germany and Belgium.”
Abaaoud was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Belgian court earlier this year after being tried in absentia for recruiting for Isis in Syria. He was among 32 people charged with running one of Belgium’s largest jihadi recruitment networks, although many of the defendants – including Abaaoud – were tried in absentia and remain at large.
He was also accused of kidnapping after his younger brother, Younes, 13, travelled to Syria in January 2014, earning the media nickname of “the youngest jihadi in the world”. Their father, Omar Abaaoud, having heard no news from his two sons, filed a police complaint against his older son, AFP reported in May.
Abaaoud’s older sister, Yasmina, told the New York Times in January that neither of the brothers showed a zealous interest in religion before leaving for Syria. “They did not even go to the mosque,” she said.
Their father owned a shop and lived with his wife and six children in an apartment on rue de l’Avenir in one of Molenbeek’s better areas, near a canal that separates Molenbeek from a trendy Brussels district of bars and restaurants, the newspaper reported.
Yasmina said the family received calls in autumn 2014 from Syria saying he had become a “martyr”, meaning he had been killed in battle. She said the family had not heard from him or the younger brother, now 14, since. However, investigators believed the martyr claim was a ruse to throw western intelligence services off his scent.
Abaaoud was described as a happy-go-lucky student who went to one of Brussels’ most prestigious high schools, Saint-Pierre d’Uccle.
His home was raided in January after police intercepted phone calls between him and suspected jihadis following counter-terror raids a week earlier aimed at dismantling the Belgian terror cell.
After his trip to Syria in January 2014, he is believed to have travelled to Greece. “All my life, I have seen the blood of Muslims flow,” Abaaoud said in a video published in 2014. “I pray that Allah will break the backs of those who oppose him, his soldiers and his admirers, and that he will exterminate them.” ( The Guardian)