How the Paris attackers honed their assault through trial and error

PARIS: The gunfire had still not subsided, and those who could were running for their lives. But one man was crossing Paris to get close to the scenes of death.

Just after 10pm on Nov 13, the man, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, parked his rented getaway car in the eastern suburb of Montreuil, leaving behind the Kalashnikov he is believed to have used to shoot diners in central Paris a half-hour before. He boarded the No. 9 subway line and returned to the part of the city that was still under siege. Before the night was over, investigators say, he had walked past the shattered cafes and bloodied concert hall that had been among his targets.

A foot soldier turned lieutenant in the Islamic State’s hierarchy, Abaaoud was a 28-year-old Belgian.

More than two weeks after the attacks, as France buries its dead and a lengthening list of Abaaoud’s suspected confederates are rounded up, more evidence has actually emerged about how the group of at least nine militants pulled off the assaults.

In January, the police raided a safehouse in the Belgian town of Verviers, thwarting a plot that proved to be a chilling precursor to the synchronized murder that played out across the French capital 10 months later. But after phone taps uncovered the Verviers plan, Abaaoud began using encryption technology and may have concealed his communications in that way with his Paris team, intelligence officials said.

Exploiting Europe’s passport-free zone and patchy intelligence sharing, Abaaoud and his team moved not just across the Continent, but to Syria and back.

The attack in Paris was the deadliest terrorist assault on the Continent in a decade, killing 130 people. It reverberated across the region, forcing Brussels to lockdown for four days, spurring Germany to cancel a soccer match and prompting Britain to increase its military budget after years of cutbacks.

President Francois Hollande of France has actually pledged to defeat the Islamic State’s “cult of death.” Yet intelligence officials warned of the West’s vulnerabilities. Paris, they fear, heralds a brand-new era of terror, one that could play out on the streets of European capitals for years to come.

“They have patience,” said one French official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They have an army of willing martyrs that feed on an ideology that is immune to bullets.”

A combination of photos of Paris attack suspects. (AFP photo)

Warning signs

Earlier this year, an official at Europol, the Continent’s law enforcement agency, paid an urgent visit to Athens to ask for help tracking down Abaaoud, according to news media reports. After calls were tracked to Verviers, a SWAT team raided a residence there on Jan. 15, turning up evidence of surprising sophistication. The police found automatic weapons, a large quantity of cash, a body camera, multiple cellphones, hand-held radios and fraudulent identification documents, according to a US Department of Homeland Security intelligence assessment.

They also found the precursor chemicals for the explosive triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, according to the document, which was the same chemical compound used in the suicide belts in Paris.

Until then, says David Thomson, the author of a book on French jihadists, Abaaoud was known mostly for his appearance in a grotesque Islamic State video, whooping and laughing while dragging corpses behind a 4-x-4 truck.

In 2010, Abaaoud planned to break into a garage in the Belgian countryside with a childhood friend. But he slipped off the roof, and the pair were later found soaking wet and nearing hypothermia on a river edge, recalled his former lawyer, Alexandre Chateau.

The bungled burglary was unremarkable, but the partnership was not: Abaaoud’s accomplice in the burglary was one of two brothers who would later be at Abaaoud’s adverse during the Paris attacks.

Sometime between late 2013 and early 2014, Abaaoud joined a brigade called the Mujahedeen Shura Council based in Aleppo, Syria, which would soon pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.

Even when Abaaoud — by then called Abou Omar — joined the Katibat al-Battar, or al-Battar Brigade, an elite squad made up of French-speaking fighters that rose to prominence in 2014 in the Islamic State, his name surfaced only in passing, said Thompson.

Battlefield bonds

Investigators say they believe that it was in Syria that Abaaoud and most of the Paris attackers found one another.

As early as 2013, a well-established pipeline was funneling young men from Belgium to the Islamic State. Abaaoud accompanied his 13-year-old brother, Younes, to Syria. On Jan 20, 2014, they checked in for a flight to Istanbul from Cologne, Germany. At passport control, an alert flashed: Abaaoud was on a Belgian watch list. When he claimed to be visiting family in Turkey, he was allowed to proceed.

Many of the future Paris attackers ended up in the al-Battar brigade in Syria. Only Abaaoud and the two brothers from Molenbeek, Salah and Ibrahim

Abdeslam, appear to have known each other before they were radicalized.

Several came from intact, middle-class families. Abaaoud, a shop owner’s son, had been sent to an exclusive Catholic school. Second- and third-generation immigrants of Moroccan and Algerian descent, the attackers included a bus driver, a bar owner and a mechanic for the Brussels Metro. The oldest was 29, the youngest just 20.

Some had criminal records, and their families were reassured at first when they began to show signs of piety.

Bilal Hadfi, the youngest of the group, had been smoking and doing drugs until one month before his departure to Syria in January, his mother told Belgian media.

Hadfi is believed to have arrived in Syria last, on Jan 15, eventually joining a team that included two hardened French jihadists: Ismael Omar Mostefai, a 29-year-old from the Courcouronnes suburb of Paris, and Samy Amimour, a 28-year-old bus driver from Drancy, northeast of the French capital.

As Frenchmen, the two would most likely have come across an older French jihadist who had already made a name for himself in the Islamic State: Fabien Clain. Investigators said that Clain was the speaker in an Islamic State audio recording claiming responsibility for the Paris massacre. Clain works under Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the group’s chief of external operations. Abaaoud was lowlier: “A platoon leader, not the head of the armed forces,” said Francois Heisbourg, a former defense official.

By August, however, Abaaoud’s blueprint and team for attacking Europe may have been nearly ready. That month, Montasser AlDe’emeh, the author of two books on jihad and a former neighbor of Abaaoud’s in Molenbeek, heard his phone vibrate with a WhatsApp message. It was an audio recording from a Belgian jihadist in the same unit as Abaaoud.

“This is a declaration of war. We have the plans,” the recording played.

Raising the alarm

“From late summer we knew something big was being planned.,” said one French intelligence official. “Everyone was on high alert.”

The sense of alarm spread when a 26-year-old Moroccan, Ayoub El Khazzani, also linked to Abaaoud, stepped out of the bathroom of a high-speed train barreling toward Paris with a Kalashnikov before being subdued by three Americans.

The United States had also picked up intelligence that showed the Islamic State was plotting an attack in France, senior American officials said. By late September, Hollande’s government launched airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Syria.

On Oct 8 and 9, French fighter jets targeted training camps near Raqqa, the stronghold of the self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria. According to two Western intelligence officials, the hope was to take out operatives, including Abaaoud.

“When you don’t know where to hit the enemy here, you have to try to hit him over there,” said Bernard Squarcini, the former head of France’s domestic intelligence agency, said in an interview.

A calculated attack

While the security services had their eyes on Syria, most if not all of Abaaoud’s team was already back in Europe, quietly putting in place the modern logistics of mass murder.

In the period leading up to the attack, the support network expanded to include radicalized family members and loyal friends, landlords and online arms dealers. Abaaoud’s cousin helped hide him after the attacks before dying alongside him in a police raid. Five friends of Salah Abdeslam — who dumped his suicide vest in a trash can and remains at large as the only surviving member of the attackers — have been arrested in Belgium for allegedly helping him escape. In Germany, one man who may have sold the group assault rifles over the Internet was placed in custody last week.

Rather than sending a single gunman or picking a single target, Abaaoud sent teams to a variety of locations — hedging the risk of failure and forcing the police to spread themselves thin. Amimour and Mostefai were assigned the most important target, the Bataclan, with a third, still-unidentified man. The attackers at the Stade de France, the national soccer stadium, included 20-year-old Hadfi. He was dropped off strapped with an explosive belt that needed only detonating. (Neither of the other two suicide bombers at the stadium has actually been identified.) Abaaoud, himself, was believed to have gone to a busy stretch of restaurants on the Rue de Charonne, equipped with the Kalashnikov that was later recovered bearing his DNA.
Phone records released by the French prosecutor indicate he left the home at Bobigny in a rented Seat car at 8:38 p.m. accompanied by another still-unidentified attacker and Ibrahim Abdeslam, his accomplice on the bungled garage theft five years ago.
Between 8.40pm and 9.21pm the phone “most probably” used by Abaaoud was in “sustained contact” with the one used by Hadfi, according to the Paris prosecutor. That was when Hadfi tried to enter the soccer stadium near Gate D, only to be turned away.
Moments later, at 9.20, he detonated the explosive.

The last attempted call between the two phones came a minute later — the platoon leader checking up on the recruit.