French prosecutors disclosed on Thursday that the suspected ringleader behind last week’s deadly attacks in Paris, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was amongst those killed in a French police raid that occurred in the early morning hours on Wednesday.
Early on Thursday, the Paris prosecutor’s office confirmed that Abaaoud was amongst those killed when anti-terror police raided a flat in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis. The prosecutor’s office has disclosed that his body was found riddled with bullets and shrapnel in a shattered apartment in the northern suburb. Officials however have noted that it still remains unclear whether Abaaoud had blown himself up or not. Abaaoud (28), a Belgian national, was identified from his fingerprints.
On Wednesday, eight people were arrested and at least two killed in the raid, which targeted the property in the Saint Denis district, near the Stade de France stadium. Sources have disclosed that heavily armed police stormed the building after they received a tip-off that Abaaoud was in Paris. A woman at the flat died during the raid after activating a suicide vest. French media have since reported that the woman, named Hasna Aitboulahcen (26), was Abaaoud’s cousin. Aitboulahcen is believed to be the first female suicide bomber in Western Europe. According to reports, the French-Moroccan citizen was born and grew up in Paris. She is understood to have worked at a construction company in the French capital until 2012. According to a witness to the raid, a woman with long, blonde hair, thought to be Aitboulahcen, was seen approaching the window in the apartment about an hour into the siege. French authorises have indicated that the raid on the flat foiled another attack, which was reportedly planned for the La Defense business quarter of western Paris. The EU’s law enforcement agency, Europol, has warned that further attacks by IS are likely elsewhere in Europe.
Hours later, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve disclosed that he had received intelligence that Abaaoud had passed through Greece. He further confirmed that the so-called Islamic State (IS) militant had left for Syria last year, adding that no European Union (EU) states signalled his return. He disclosed that a non-EU state had alerted French officials on Monday that Abaaoud was in Greece. The French minister also implicated Abaaoud in four out of six attacks foiled in France since this spring. The identification of Abaaoud raises serious questions for security services not only in France, but across Europe. Abaaoud was high on both French and Belgian wanted lists and yet he managed to travel from Syria to the heart of Paris without ever leaving a trace.
Investigators are still looking for another suspect, Salah Abdeslam, who is believed to have travelled to Belgium after Friday’s attacks. Earlier on Thursday, Belgian police raided properties linked to Abdeslam and fellow suspected attacker Bilal Hadfi, who was killed on Friday outside the Stade de France stadium. According to Belgian prosecutors, several raids took place in and around Brussels, with Belgian prosecutors reporting that one person has been detained.
On the ground sources have reported that most of the raids in the Belgian capital on Thursday targeted properties in Jette and Molenbeek connected to Bilal Hadfi, a Frenchman who was living in Paris and who was one of the seven attackers killed Friday night. Sources have also reported that a further raid, which targeted an address in the Brussels district of Laeken, was linked to Salah Abdeslam. Speaking to Belgian media, the prosecutor’s office indicated that the raids had been planned for some time and that they are not part of the manhunt. Sources have indicated that Belgian authorities were already investigating Hadfi as he was through to have travelled to Syria.
Meanwhile French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has called for Europe to adopt measures on sharing information about airline passengers as a way of protecting collective security. The call came as France’s lower house of parliament on Thursday voted on a bill to extend the state of emergency, which was declared by President Francois Hollande on Friday for 12 days. The French senate is due to vote on the bill on Friday. The bill includes extending the state of emergency for three months; placing under house arrest anyone deemed to be a public threat; barring suspects from communicating with each other; allowing police to carry out searches at any time, without the prior approval of a judge, if the public is believed to be in danger. Furthermore, under a police directive that was issued to coincide with the state of emergency, French police officers will be allowed to carry their weapons while off duty as long as they wear an armband to identify them. Paris police have extended their ban on gatherings and demonstrations until midnight on Sunday, however they will be allowed at the various sites that were attacked last Friday.