A massive police raid Wednesdays killed the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks during a blitz-style sweep, two senior European intelligence officials said, after investigators followed leads that the fugitive militant was holed up north of the French capital and could be plotting another wave of violence.
More than 100 police and soldiers stormed the building during a seven-hour siege that left two dead including the suspected overseer of the Paris bloodshed, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian extremist who had once boasted he could slip easily between Europe and the Islamic State strongholds in Syria.
The confirmation was made after forsenic experts combed through the aftermath — blown-out windows, floors collapsed by explosions — presumably seeking DNA and other evidence. The intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity before announcements from authorities.
Attempts to get further confirmation were unsuccessful as of late today. Other news organizations were working to confirm the death, but The Associated Press reports that Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens says he cannot.
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If true, the death of the Abaaoud closed one major dragnet in the international search for suspects from Friday’s carnage that killed at least 129 people and wounded 350 others. At least one other suspect believed closely linked to the Paris attacks remains at large.
But it raised other worrisome questions, including the apparent ability of Abaaoud to evade intelligence agencies while traveling through Europe and whether other possible Islamic State cells could be seeking to strike again.
It also left no doubt that other potential threats remained.
The target of the raid, an apartment building in the Saint-Denis suburb, was believed to be linked to plans to stage a follow-up attack in the La Defense business district, about 10 miles away, two police officials and an investigator close to the investigation said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media.
As security forces closed in, a woman set off a suicide blast — possibly an explosive-rigged vest or belt — after opening fire. In addition, at least seven people were arrested before the showdown was over in the historic heart of Saint-Denis, a teeming quarter with a large immigrant population.
French media identified the suicide bomber as Hasna Aitboulahcen, a cousin to Abaaoud. The 26-year-old French citizen is a former manager of Beko Construction, a company in Epernay-sur-Seine, a town north of Saint-Denis. That company was closed in 2014.
Five days after the worst violence on French soil since World War II, European nations remained on edge, enhancing vigilance against possible attacks by Islamist militants who have promised to bring the brutal tactics employed in Iraq and Syria to the West.
‘We are at war’
President François Hollande, seeking to reassure French citizens unnerved by the bloodshed on the streets of Paris, said the attacks would not alter the French way of life.
“We are at war against terrorism, terrorism which declared war on us,” Holland said at a meeting of French maoyors. “It is the (Islamic State) jihadist organization. It has an army. It has financial resources. It has oil. It has a territory.
“It has allies in Europe, including in our country,” he continued, “with young, radicalized Islamist people. It committed atrocities there and wants to kill here. It has killed here.”
He renewed his case for an extension to a state of emergency decreed after the attacks and also for changes to the constitution that he said would make France safer.
When Wednesday’s raid began, heavily armed police clad in military gear — some with their faces covered by balaclavas — moved quickly through the dark streets, while helicopters scanned the streets from the skies. For hours, traffic and public transportation were halted, and schools were shuttered.
Uthayaseelan Sanmugan, a 38-year-old cook who lives near the targeted apartment, said he woke up at 4:30 a.m. to the sound of gunfire, went to his window and saw the lights of weapon lasers outside.
“When I got to the street, I saw a lot of blood on the sidewalk. The blood of the terrorists.”
Residents were instructed to stay inside their homes.
“I heard gunshots, and, sometime around 7 a.m., a huge blast, an explosion,” said Kelly Ovo, a 45-year-old day laborer who lives close to the apartment under siege.
French police reported that Diesel, a 7-year-old police dog, was “killed by the terrorists” in the raid.
Tips on Abaaoud
Paris prosecutor François Molins told reporters that the operation was launched after authorities had received information — potentially tips or intelligence information — that Abaaoud was in the area.
Abaaoud, an ardent Islamic State supporter linked to several other terrorist attempts, was believed to be in Syria earlier this year. But some officials speculate he could have returned to Europe, perhaps passing undetected among the flood of asylum seekers pouring into Greek islands from Turkey.
The siege appeared to have been aided by another potential breakthrough in the probe: the discovery of a mobile phone in a garbage can near the Bataclan Concert Hall, the site of one of Friday’s assaults.
The phone’s data contained a map of the music venue, French media reported, along with a chilling text message sent shortly after the first gunmen entered: “Let’s go, we’re starting.”
The information on the mobile phone opened fresh leads, including to an apartment southeast of Paris in Alfortville, according to Mediapart, a French news outlet.
The hunt for suspects in Friday’s attacks, which took place at a concert hall, several bars and restaurants, and a soccer match, French officials cast a wide net for potential suspects. Across France, 118 additional raids were conducted overnight on Tuesday, with at least 25 arrests. That brought to 414 the total number of raids launched throughout France since Friday’s attack, the Interior Ministry said.
After Friday’s assaults, which laid bare the shortcomings of European intelligence agencies’ ability to prevent militant attacks, officials across the continent have remained on high alert.
In Copenhagen, a terminal at the city’s international airport was briefly evacuated after “an overheard conversation about a bomb,” police said in a Twitter post. The terminal was later reopened.
Countries including Sweden and Italy raised terror alerts. Extra security was posted in St. Peter’s Square, where Pope Francis addressed pilgrims.
French authorities, meanwhile, issued a pan-European bulletin asking people to watch for a Citroen Xsara car that could be carrying Salah Abdeslam, a French militant also accused of having a direct role in the attacks, the Spanish news site El Español reported Wednesday.