Paris terror attacks were plotted by a small extremist cell in Brussels, investigators suspect

Richard A. Serrano, Henry Chu and Joe Mozingo
Los Angeles Times
November 14, 2015

Friday night’s terror attacks in Paris apparently began with a small extremist cell in Brussels, where French authorities believe the attacks were planned and the operation financed, according to two U.S. law enforcement officials who have been advised about the ongoing French probe.

The sources, speaking confidentially because the investigation is just underway, also emphasized that the attackers probably had a substantial understanding of the history and culture of France — Paris in particular — and said it was “highly possible” some had lived in the capital.

That, the sources said, was evident in how they seamlessly moved about the vast metropolis and set up coordinated attacks at six targets across the city — from a stadium to a theater to a restaurant.

French prosecutor Francois Molins said three teams of terrorists, carrying AK-47 assault rifles and wearing explosive vests with identical detonators, appeared to have coordinated the attacks that killed 129 people and injured 352 across a swath of central Paris.

Nineteen people were gunned down at a sidewalk cafe, and more were killed in at least five more attacks in a vibrant area not far from the Place de la Bastille.

When terrorists struck the Bataclan concert hall, survivors described a horrifying shooting gallery. With little cover, concert-goers scrambled for exits or laid low to escape up to 10 minutes of withering fire from automatic weapons.

A journalist who works for the French newspaper Le Monde captured a portion of the grisly scene on video.

The reporter, Daniel Psenny, who lives behind the theater, had a vantage point above one of the emergency exits.

The nearly three-minute video shows terrified concert-goers running out of the theater as gunshots ring out. They can be seen running around at least one body lying on the ground just outside the exit, and several people drag apparently injured victims down the alley away from the venue.

One injured person hopped down the alley, which was stained with blood. Multiple people appeared to be hanging onto the side of the building in an apparent attempt to escape the upper floors.

Psenny told his newspaper that he opened the door to his apartment building to allow victims in, and was shot in the arm.

A young man named Louis was in the audience at the Bataclan with his mother when the gunfire erupted.

“These guys arrived, and they started shooting from near the entrance,” he told France Info radio shortly after the attack.

Louis’ sobbing grew more intense as he continued: “They were shooting straight into the crowd, screaming `Allah Akbar.’”

“I heard them reloading. The concert stopped. Everybody was lying on the ground. They kept shooting people. It was hell.”

Louis, who was speaking by mobile phone from a car as he and his mother were leaving the scene, apologized for crying. The France Info anchor told him it was OK under the circumstances and asked him to keep speaking.

“I got my mother. We were lying on the ground. Someone said, ‘They’re gone.’ We got out through an emergency exit. The gunshots kept going as we were leaving. We were stepping over bodies. It was a nightmare.”

“We avoided getting shot,” he said. “There were people everywhere on the ground.”

Molins said 89 people died at the Bataclan. He said the attackers mentioned Syria and Iraq as they fired. When police entered the building, two of the terrorists detonated their suicide vests and one was shot to death by authorities, he said.

“We are determined to find out who were the attackers, who were the accomplices,” he said. “How they were financed.”

One of the terrorists who took hostages was a 29-year-old man who has been arrested eight times for “acts against the common good,” but had not been linked to terrorists, Molins said.

A second Frenchman was stopped and questioned at the Belgian border. He had rented a black Volkswagen Polo driven by a man believed to be one of the gunmen who attacked concertgoers at the Bataclan, the prosecutor said.

Authorities were still looking for a black Seat car believed to have been used during the attacks on several sidewalk cafes, he said.

One of the victims was a 23-year-old design student at Cal State Long Beach.

Nohemi Gonzalez, of El Monte, was part of an international exchange program at the Strate School of Design, according to a statement translated from French and posted on social media by the school’s dean, Dominique Sciamma.

Gonzalez was a “kind, thoughtful, generous and talented student, dear to all who knew her,” Michael LaForte, a lecturer at Cal State Long Beach’s department of design, wrote on Facebook. “We grieve for her today and give our hearts to her grieving family and boyfriend.”

LaForte said three other Cal State Long Beach students were in Paris with Gonzalez and are safe.

At least one other American was injured in the attacks. Helen Jane Wilson told the Associated Press she was shot in the leg and was heading into surgery at L’hopital Saint-Antoine.

Wilson said she lived in New Orleans before moving to Paris, where she runs Rock en Bol, a catering company. According to her Facebook page, Wilson is originally from Los Angeles.

Authorities across Europe moved swiftly Saturday to identify possible accomplices to the seven attackers, with Belgian authorities announcing they had made several arrests.

A spokeswoman for Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens told reporters that authorities had arrested “several suspects,” though it was not clear what connection, if any, they had to the attacks.

Geens said the arrests came after a rental car with Belgian license plates was seen close to the Bataclan, the magazine De Standaard reported.

U.S. law enforcement officials confirmed that several vehicles, particularly black sedans, have been identified in connection with the case, and that at least one traced back to Brussels. One was found laden with high-powered weapons, they said; another had been rented.

The sources confirmed that one of the terrorists appeared to be a Syrian, based on his fingerprints and a Syrian passport found near his body. Several others, the sources said, are believed to have come from Iraq.

Each of the terrorists who blew themselves up was wearing “vests or belts” heavy with detonators and metal fragments, such as “nails and ball-bearings,” the sources said. All of the suicide bombs appeared to have been built in a similar fashion and with identical components. Other terrorists were armed primarily with high-powered Russian-made Kalashnikov AK-47 rifles, they said.

“The French police were aware of at least one of them,” said one of the sources, “and had been following him at times but did not think he was operational.” By that, the source meant that the local authorities did not believe him to be a potential terrorist.

“The others we don’t think were on French police radar,” the source said.

U.S. authorities believe that the suicide blasts during a soccer game at the packed Stade de France, the national stadium just north of Paris, were meant to “send a statement” because the two teams participating — France and Germany — are Christian countries and because French President Francois Hollande was attending the match.

“But the killing of hostages at the theater was a slaughter,” said one of the U.S. sources. “It was about a high kill number.”

The Islamic State extremist group appeared to claim responsibility Saturday for the attacks, saying in a statement that “youth who divorced from the world and went to their enemy” had targeted “the hearts of the Crusaders” and unleashed “horror in the middle of their land.”

It said the attacks were in retaliation for French airstrikes on Islamic State-controlled territory in the Middle East, and that France would remain at the “top of the list” of its targets.

French officials, including Hollande, have publicly blamed the attacks on Islamic State.

But the U.S. sources said the multiple sites and soft, crowded targets in the attacks are indicative of Al Qaeda rather than Islamic State, but stressed that authorities still are trying to pin down which organization was behind the attacks.

“Who planned this? Who paid for this? That’s what we want,” said one source. “And there is a relationship to Brussels. One of the vehicles came from there.”

The sources also said an arrest last month in Germany may be linked to the Paris attacks. The suspect had a vehicle stocked with explosive devices and other weaponry and may have had a role in the early planning for the attacks, they said.

If Islamic State is behind the attacks, the U.S. officials said, they demonstrate a new widening of that terror group. “They’re moving into the West and transferring guns and people. And this kind of an attack is sobering in its sophistication. One person, OK. But a larger group with simultaneous suicide bombs is a whole new level,” one source said.

French authorities identified one of the dead terrorists as a Frenchman, about 30 years old, who had previously been tracked by authorities in connection with his Islamic radical activities, France Info radio reported.

Hollande has declared a state of emergency and a three-day period of mourning after the worst terrorist attacks in France since World War II.

“Faced with terror, France must be strong, it must be great, and the state authorities must be firm. We will be,” he declared in a televised address to the nation Friday.

Public demonstrations in Paris have been banned until Thursday, and French schools, which normally are in session on Saturday mornings, were closed until Monday.

In Vienna, where delegates from across the Middle East and Europe were meeting to discuss a resolution to the long-running war in Syria, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Paris attacks strengthened their commitment to fight extremism.

“What they do is stiffen our resolve — all of us — to fight back, to hold people accountable, and to stand up for rule of law,” Kerry said.

He described the attacks as “a kind of medieval and modern fascism, at the same time, which has no regard for life, which seeks to destroy and create chaos and disorder and fear.”

Lavrov said he fully agreed with Kerry.

“We have to strongly reiterate there will be no tolerance vis-a-vis terrorists,” he said, adding that there will be “no justification for us not doing much more to defeat” violent Islamist groups such as Islamic State and the Nusra front.

Defying both the attackers’ attempt to sow fear and officials’ appeal to stay home, some Parisians were out on the streets Saturday, trying to recapture a bit of the rhythm of ordinary life, though in subdued and somber fashion. Others lined up to donate blood at hospitals, which were overwhelmed by the number of injured who streamed through their doors late Friday night.

Eagles of Death Metal, band playing during Paris attacks, cancels remainder of tour
Eagles of Death Metal, band playing during Paris attacks, cancels remainder of tour
Many shops and other businesses — including Disneyland Paris, one of the city’s top attractions — remained closed Saturday.

Residents who ventured outside Saturday were joined by 1,500 French troops deployed to reinforce soldiers already stationed in Paris following its last terrorist attack, the slaying of 17 people in January at the headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket.

The identities of the alleged attackers were either not known or were not being released. Police said all seven assailants were dead.

If the attackers turn out to be French-born, fears of more “homegrown” terrorism — already fanned by the Charlie Hebdo massacre, whose plotters were French — will likely increase.

France’s Muslim community braced for a potential backlash. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the country saw a spike in acts of anti-Muslim aggression, such as vandalism of mosques. France is home to the highest proportion of Muslims — 7.5% — of any country in Western Europe.

Many Parisians posted appeals and photos on social media asking for news of friends or loved ones whom they had not heard from since the attacks. One man said on Twitter that a government hotline set up to inquire about missing persons was so overloaded that calls could not get through.

Well-wishers left flowers at the various attack sites, several of which were blocked off by police.

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