19 November 2015
French forensic teams are investigating whether the body of a man found dead after a massive firefight with police in a St-Denis apartment is that of the alleged mastermind of last week’s Paris terror attacks, Abdel-Hamid Abu Oud.
At least two people died in the assault targeting Abu Oud but neither the 27-year-old Belgian extremist nor another fugitive sought in connection with Friday’s shootings and suicide bombings, Salah Abdeslam, were among the eight people arrested.
One of the dead was a woman, believed to be Abu Oud’s cousin, Hasna Aitboulahcen, who blew herself up with an explosive vest, and the second an as yet unidentified man killed by police sniper fire or a grenade whose body was recovered in rubble from the flat in a rundown house in the rue du Corbillon.
Media reports quoting sources have suggested Abu Oud was killed in the assault but French officials have so far said in public statements that they do not know. Identification was proving difficult because the bodies had to be pieced together, Paris prosecutor François Molins said, and may take “longer than expected”.
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told French radio on Thursday that if Abu Oud had managed to return to France from Syria, where he was initially believed to have plotted the attacks from, it showed that there were faults in the entire European system of checks.
Molins said those arrested and killed in the St-Denis raid were likely to have been plotting further attacks.
“A fourth cell of terrorists has been neutralised,” Molins said, in reference to the three “cells” of jihadis who attacked Paris in co-ordinated strikes on Friday night, targeting a football match at the Stade de France, a concert hall, and a swath of cafes and bars in the 10th and 11th arrondissements.
“Everything leads us to believe that given their weaponry and level of preparation that they [the fourth cell] were ready to act.”
The Washington Post reported that two European officials from different countries told the newspaper they had been told Abu Oud was dead by French authorities. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
As police investigations into the attacks, their perpetrators, and organisers continue, French diplomats have said president François Hollande will urge the US president, Barack Obama, to act with greater urgency in Syria and Iraq, when the pair meet in Washington next week.
France is supportive of America’s strategy in the two war-torn countries, but is anxious to impress upon the US the destabilising effect the Syrian refugee crisis is having on Europe.
“The message that we want to send to the Americans is simply that the crisis is destabilising Europe,” a French diplomat, who did not wish to be named, told The Guardian. “The problem is that the attacks in Paris and the refugee crisis show that we don’t have time. There is an emergency.”
Eight people were arrested and two bodies were found, one male and a female believed to be Abu Oud’s cousin Hasna Aitboulahcen. It is understood Aitboulahcen died when she detonated an explosive belt she was wearing inside the apartment.
If the dead man is Abu Oud, it is not known precisely how he died: whether he was shot by police, killed by a grenade, or by the suicide blast triggered by Aitboulahcen.
Three people were arrested inside the apartment, along with two who tried to conceal themselves in the rubble. The landlord of the property, who denied any wrongdoing, and a friend were also arrested, as was a man founded wounded in the street.
Investigators had identified Abu Oud, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, as the architect of Friday’s attacks in Paris, which killed 129 people and wounded 368 others.
He was reported to be a key figure in Isis operations outside Syria and Iraq. He was part of an external operations cell that had been tracked by US intelligence agencies, for months.
Initially, it was believed he was in Syria at the time of the Paris attacks, having escaped back to that country following a police raid in Belgium in January.
He has reportedly boasted previously that he was able to move back and forth between Europe and the Middle East undetected by authorities.
A tip-off early in the week had led police to believe that Abu Oud was neither in Syria, nor his native Belgium, but in France.
Phone intercepts, and examination of banking records, led police to 8 rue du Corbillon early on Wednesday.
One of the alleged attackers from Friday night, 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, remains on the run, six days after the attacks. He was briefly detained by police when pulled over for a routine stop in the hours after the attacks, but let go because his name was not yet on any wanted lists.
In the southern French site of Marseille, a teacher at a Jewish school was harasse, abused, and then stabbed in the street on Wednesday night by three people professing support for Isis, prosecutors said.
The 57-year-old victim, who was wearing a kippa, was attacked about 8pm outside his home. He was stabbed in the arm and the leg. His injuries are not life-threatening.
Internationally, after Isis posted a video online threatening a terrorist attack in New York City, mayor Bill de Blasio appeared alongside police commissioner Bill Bratton in Times Square at the unusually late hour of 11pm, saying there was “no specific or credible threat” to the city, and dismissing the video as an “obvious attempt to intimidate the people of New York”.
“The people of New York will not be intimidated,” he said.