‘We’re off, it’s started’ mobile message led police to terror boss

Published: Friday 20th November 2015 by The News Editor

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A discarded mobile phone found near the blood-soaked Bataclan concert hall led investigators to the cousin of the Paris attacks ringleader – and then to the apartment where both died in a hail of bullets and explosions, authorities have said.

As a manhunt intensified for a fugitive connected to last Friday’s carnage that killed 129 people, details emerged about the operation that allowed authorities to zero in on Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian-Moroccan extremist said to have orchestrated the attacks in Paris and four plots thwarted earlier this year.

The narrative provided by French officials raised questions about how a wanted militant suspected of involvement in multiple plots could slip into Europe undetected.

Investigators quickly identified Abaaoud as the architect of the deadly attacks in Paris, but they believed he had co-ordinated the assaults against a football stadium, cafes and a rock concert from the battlefields of Syria.

That situation changed profoundly on Monday, when France received a startling tip-off from a non-European country that Abaaoud had slipped into Europe through Greece, interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.

“It was a big surprise when the intelligence came in,” said a police official. “There were many people who didn’t take it seriously, but effectively it was confirmed.”

As it turned out, not only was Abaaoud in Europe, but under the noses of French investigators, a 15-minute walk from the Stade de France stadium where three suicide bombers had blown themselves up during the attacks.

“We have strong reason to believe that this cell was about to commit massive terror attacks in France,” prime minister Manuel Valls said.

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Abaaoud was traced to the apartment in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis through phone taps and surveillance.

Two police sources briefed on the investigation said a mobile phone dumped in a rubbish bin outside the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 people were killed, proved crucial. It contained a text message sent about 20 minutes after the massacre began that read: “We’re off, it’s started.”

The phone had contact information for Abaaoud’s 26-year-old cousin, Hasna Aitboulahcen, one of the officials said.

Both she and Abaaoud were killed as heavily armed SWAT teams raided the apartment in Saint-Denis early on Wednesday.

Her final moments were marked by a brief, angry exchange with police before she is believed to have detonated a suicide vest – an explosion that hurled parts of her body on to a police car on the street below.

An audio recording, confirmed by a police official, captured the exchange. As gunshots rang out, an officer was heard shouting: “Where is your boyfriend?”

“He’s not my boyfriend!” Aitboulahcen responded angrily. Then a loud explosion was heard, which police officials said was the bomb in her vest detonating.

Prosecutors said a fingerprint check confirmed that another mangled body found inside the heavily-damaged building was that of Abaaoud. Eight people were arrested in connection with the raids, including two who were pulled out of the rubble.

“Abaaoud played a decisive role in these attacks,” Mr Cazeneuve said. “The investigation will establish precisely how this Belgo-Moroccan was involved.”

Abaaoud was also believed to be behind four of six attacks thwarted this year, including on a church in the Parisian suburb of Villejuif that was foiled when the would-be attacker shot himself in the foot.

French authorities are investigating if Abaaoud was involved in an attempted attack on a high-speed train, where three young Americans tackled a heavily-armed man, Mr Cazeneuve said.

In addition, he was suspected of links to two jihadis returning to Europe from Turkey, and a “wannabe jihadi” who upon his arrest in August told French intelligence that he had been recruited by Abaaoud to carry out a “violent act” in France or another European country, the interior minister said.

Abaaoud is believed to have got to know some of the attackers responsible for the Paris massacre in the Moleenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels where he grew up, including Brahim Abdeslam who blew himself up outside a cafe in one of Paris’ trendiest neighbourhoods. Abdeslam’s brother, Salah, is still being sought as a suspected accomplice.

Authorities in Belgium launched six raids in Molenbeek and other areas of Brussels yesterday, linked to another of the suicide bombers, Bilal Hadfi, a French citizen who blew himself up outside the football stadium.

How and when Abaaoud entered France before his death remained unclear. He had bragged in the Islamic State (IS) group’s English-language magazine that he was able to slip in and out of Europe undetected.

Abaaoud was wanted in Belgium, where he was sentenced in absentia this year to 20 years’ imprisonment for serving as an IS recruiter and kidnapping his younger brother Younes. Belgian authorities say Abaaoud brought the boy, then 13, to Syria last year to join him in IS-controlled territory.

The lower house of the French parliament has voted to extend a state of emergency for three months. The measure now goes to the Senate, where it will probably be approved.

France has requested a meeting of European interior and justice ministers for today in Brussels to discuss the fight against terrorism and French president Francois Hollande is going to Washington and Moscow next week to push for a stronger international coalition against IS.

French military spokesman Colonel Gilles Jaron said French forces had destroyed 35 IS targets in Syria since the attacks on Paris.

Meanwhile, Italian authorities were searching for five people flagged by the FBI in connection with a US State Department warning that St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Milan’s cathedral and La Scala opera house, as well as churches, synagogues, restaurants, theaters and hotels had been identified as “potential targets”.

Police in the Netherlands have detained three people who were found near a parked car in Rotterdam with Belgian registration plates. The city’s mayor, one of the country’s most prominent Muslims, was escorted out of a nearby restaurant as a precaution.

Published: Friday 20th November 2015 by The News Editor

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