Jon Henley in Paris
16 November 2015
French intelligence officials have named the alleged mastermind of a deadly string of suicide bombings and shootings in Paris as the Belgian extremist Abdelhamid Abaaoud, after French police made more than 20 arrests and seized arms and ammunition in a series of anti-terror raids across the country.
A major raid was also underway in Brussels aimed at arresting Salah Abdeslam, one of the three French brothers living in Belgium alleged to have been involved in the attacks.
As details emerged of an elaborate international terror operation run from Syria and carried out by a sleeper cell based in Belgium, officials told French media Abaaoud, seen as one of Islamic State’s most active operatives, was “investigators’ best bet” as the main organiser of the attacks, which killed at least 129 people on Friday.
Originally from the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, home to several other members of the militant Islamist cell that carried out the attacks on the Stade de France, the packed Bataclan concert hall and a string of crowded bars and restaurants, Abaaoud is suspected of involvement in a narrowly averted attack on a Thalys high-speed Amsterdam-Brussels train in August.
He is also said to have carried out several armed robberies with one of the three French brothers alleged to have been involved in Friday’s attacks. A French jihadi arrested after returning from Syria this summer reportedly told police Abaaoud had told him to attack a concert hall.
The development came as the French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said police had searched 168 addresses in dawn raids across France, taking 23 people into custody and placing 104 more under house arrest.
“It’s just a start, these operations are going to continue,” Cazeneuve said. “The response of the Republic will be huge and total. He who targets the Republic will find the Republic will catch him, will be implacable.”
Prosecutors also named two more of the seven suicide bombers. One, among the three who blew themselves up at the Bataclan, where 89 people died, was identified as Samy Amimour, 28, a French national who was the subject of an international arrest warrant.
Another, who detonated his explosive vest outside the Stade de France stadium, was carrying a Syrian passport in the name of Ahmad Almohammad, aged 25, from Idlib. His fingerprints matched those of someone who entered Europe through the Greek island of Leros in October, prosecutors said.
As a shocked nation returned to work after the bloodiest attack on French soil since the second world war, President François Hollande joined a crowd of students from the Sorbonne university in Paris for a minute’s sombre silence at midday, observed by thousands at similar gatherings around the country.
More than 350 people were injured in the attacks, Europe’s deadliest since the 2004 Madrid train bombings, with 39 still critical, officials said. Large crowds gathered in central Paris, including at the Place de la République, close to where several of the shootings took place. Many schools and companies around the country also held a minute’s silence, while MPs sang the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.
Hollande, who called the attacks “an act of war” that must be countered “mercilessly”, is due to make a historic address at Versailles to the combined houses of the French parliament later on Monday.
The raids were mostly described as “preventative” anti-terroroperations under the nationwide state of emergency declared in France since the attacks. In Lyon, police seized a “war arsenal” of weapons including a rocket launcher, pistols and a Kalashnikov.
Further raids took place in Toulouse, Grenoble, Jeumont – near the border with Belgium – Strasbourg, Marseille and the Lille suburb of Roubaix, as well as in the north-east Paris suburb of Bobigny – the only operation “directly linked” to Friday’s attacks, police said.
The prime minister, Manuel Valls, said there was a real risk of more terror attacks to come. “We know that operations were being prepared, and are still being prepared, not only against France but other European countries too,” Valls said. “France will live with the threat of new attacks for a long time to come.”
The raids followed France’s biggest airstrike on Syria to date on Sunday night, targeting Isis’s de facto capital, Raqqa, after the group’s claim of responsibility for the Paris carnage.
Twelve planes including 10 fighter jets were launched from the United Arab Emirates and Jordan and 20 bombs dropped on a command centre, a recruitment centre for jihadis, a munitions depot, and a training camp for fighters, the defence ministry said. Reports from inside Raqqa suggest the targets were known Isis strongholds, including an army base to the north of the city under Isis control since 2014.
Cazeneuve said the strikes were a direct retaliation for the Paris attacks, which he said were organised from within Syria, with a cell in Belgium. “We are facing a new reality, one of acts of war organised by barbarians from inside Syria,” Cazeneuve said.
At a G20 summit in Turkey, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said the country had the “legitimacy” to take action against Isis, adding that France had to be “present and active” following the attacks.
A senior Turkish official said authorities had twice flagged one of the suicide bombers – the 29-year-old French national Omar Ismaïl Mostefai – to their French counterparts, but only received an information request after the Paris attacks. The officials said Mostefai was first named as a possible “terror suspect” in October 2014.
It emerged on Sunday that Iraqi intelligence had warned French intelligence agencies the day before the Paris onslaught of imminent “bombings or assassinations or hostage-taking in the coming days”.
French security officials said such warnings were frequent, but Iraqi intelligence operatives said they had warned France of specific details, including that the attackers were trained for this operation and had been sent from Raqqa to France, where they were to meet a sleeper cell to help carry out the plan.
The raid aimed at arresting Salah Abdeslam in Brussels came as part of a cross-border manhunt for the 26-year-old. Claims earlier on Monday that he had already been arrested were swiftly denied.
Salah Abdeslam rented a Belgian-registered VW Polo that was parked outside the Bataclan concert hall. Along with two others, he was pulled up for a routine check near the French-Belgian border early on Saturday morning, hours after the attacks. But the men were released because none of their names were on wanted list.
One of his brothers, identified as Brahim Abdeslam, 31, blew himself up outside the Bataclan. The third Abdeslam brother, Mohamed, was arrested in Belgium and later released without charge, alongside five other detained people.
In all, 24 people were allegedly involved: 19 attackers and five others in charge of logistics and planning, the uncorroborated Iraqi report claimed.
The Washington Post named another suicide bomber as Bilal Hadfi, whose nationality was not known but who was thought to have fought in Syria. Seven of Mostefai’s relatives, including his father and brother, were questioned by French police.
France urged its European partners to move swiftly to improve intelligence sharing, fight arms trafficking and terror financing, and strengthen border security as a result of the attacks.
“Clearly, decisions must be taken,” the senior official in charge of European affairs, Harlem Désir, said ahead of talks with European Union foreign ministers. “France was attacked, but all of Europe was hit. We were hit together, and we will respond together.”