LONDON/BRUSSELS – French investigators think they know who masterminded the deadliest terrorist assault in peacetime France: Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 20-something Belgian who joined the ranks of the Islamic State group a few years ago.
The son of a Moroccan shopkeeper, familiar to the intelligence community for his high-profile presence on social media, Abaaoud is being studied by investigators as the man who orchestrated the seven attacks in the Paris area Friday that left at least 129 people dead and hundreds more wounded, the prosecutor’s office said. Abaaoud, who Le Monde newspaper says is 28, is also linked by French officials to a failed assault on a Paris-bound high-speed train in August and a plot to attack a church in the city in April.
Belgian security officials began tracking him in March 2014 after he appeared in a video behind the wheel of a pickup truck dragging mutilated bodies to a mass grave in Syria. About six months later, photos surfaced on the Internet indicating he had lured his 13-year-old brother Younes to the war zone.
Like many jihadis, Abaaoud leads a ghostlike existence, with investigators scarcely able to piece together an outline of his whereabouts. His trail went cold in Greece after thwarted assaults against Belgian police in January he’s accused of planning. He’s believed to have returned to Syria. Western allies sought to kill Abaaoud in an airstrike in the weeks before the Paris attack, but failed to find him, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing two unidentified Western security officials.
The Paris attacks were “decided, planned in Syria, organized in Belgium and carried out in France,” President Francois Hollande told lawmakers on Monday in a rare joint session of the two houses of parliament in Versailles, on the outskirts of the French capital.
There are few clues to Abaaoud’s radicalization. He grew up in Molenbeek, a working-class district of Brussels, where the now-banned Shariah4Belgium extremist group was particularly active in seeking recruits among the disenfranchised and alienated youth. The Guardian reported that he had committed several armed robberies. His father said he was a good son whose actions have brought shame to the family.
“Why would he want to kill innocent Belgians? Our family owes everything to this country,” Omar Abaaoud told La Derniere Heure newspaper this year. “Abdelhamid was not a difficult child and became a good businessman. Suddenly, he left for Syria. I wondered every day how he became radicalized to this point. I never got an answer.”
In July, Abaaoud was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison by a Belgian court, along with 31 other jihadis, for the plot to attack the police officers.
The video of Abaaoud dragging corpses comes from a cellphone found by Free Syrian Army soldiers that they gave to Etienne Huver, a French journalist who spent time last year on the Turkish-Syrian border. It turned out to be Abaaoud’s.
The oldest photos on the phone are banal, showing images of family members, cartoons, Huver said in a televised interview. In January 2014, his phone activity shows searches for a suitable car for a long road trip. A month later, Abaaoud appears in Syria wearing the traditional Afghan shalwar kameez tunic and pants that have become a uniform of sorts for jihadis, brandishing his Kalashnikov and other weapons.
What life do you prefer, he asks his friends in one video filmed around a camp fire, Europe or here? “Europe is nothing, zero,” one replies.
In the pickup-truck video, Abaaoud arrives at the scene of a bloodbath and films corpses of men wearing Syrian Army uniforms. “They fought for democracy, for secularism, for money,” he says. “They are fighting us because we want to establish Shariah law.”
Inside a nearby house are the bodies of dead civilians, a man who had been chopping onions and a child carrying a plate. He shows no remorse as he walks through the rooms.
“Before, we pulled jet skis, quads, motorcycles, luggage full of presents to go on holiday in Morocco,” he says grinning in the pickup. “Now, we are pulling ‘kufar,’ ‘murtads,'” derogatory Arabic terms used to refer to nonbelievers.
On his Facebook page, he called himself a “terrorist tourist.”
Abaaoud’s social media presence stopped soon after all the cellphone data was released. He re-emerges in February 2015 when Islamic State’s English-language Dabiq magazine published what it said was an interview with him. He’s referred to as Abu Umar al-Baljiki and discusses the planned assault on Belgian police in January and the subsequent shootout in which two of his co-conspirators were killed.
Security sources were quoted by Belgian media at the time as wondering if the interview was fake, citing contradictions in Abaaoud’s statements. For example, he said he had been in Belgium for the planned attack, but the country’s Flemish-language VTM reported that his telephone was traced to Greece, where he may have been briefly detained by police.
In the Dabiq article, Abaaoud says Allah chose him “to terrorize the crusaders waging war against Muslims.”
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