PARIS — The explosions and gunfire that rocked a quiet street in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis before dawn this morning marked a new phase in the search for terrorists serving the so-called Islamic State who carried out the ferocious attacks here last Friday night.
Police went to a rented apartment on Rue Corbillon looking for Islamists who might have information about or connections to the Belgian fanatic Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, often described as the “mastermind” of the Paris attacks that killed 129 people and wounded hundreds more.
What the cops found were heavily armed men. French and Belgian officials later determined that in the ensuing firefight, Abaaoud was killed, according to reports. A woman also blew herself up with a suicide vest. And they may well have been planning new attacks. The apartment is close to the Stade de France, the huge stadium hit by three suicide bombers on that night of horror. They appear to have had the same kinds of arms and explosives used last Friday: AK-47s and explosives.
But even as initial reports based on unofficial police sources claimed they were closing in on Abaaoud in Saint-Denis, questions are being raised in intelligence circles about whether he is really so important to the ISIS terror networks as he’s sometimes been portrayed.
Probably not, says Wassim Nasr, the well-sourced terrorism analyst at the French international network France 24. Nasr, in his commentary, has carefully demoted Abaaoud from “mastermind” to “operational commander.” And that sentiment is shared by current and former U.S. intelligence officials.
Abaaoud clearly seems to have had personal connections to important ISIS figures as well as to men who acted as foot soldiers in Europe, including one who attacked a Jewish museum in Brussels, killing four.
But Abaaoud is now seen as a potentially important logistics coordinator or maybe even a top field operative, while the multiple, coordinated attacks in Paris bear the marks of an operation that was planned and ordered by men higher in the ISIS hierarchy.
“To call him a mastermind seems like saying a major or a lieutenant colonel was the mastermind of some battle plan,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official opined. “He seems more like the lead guy for the project, who more often than not is getting signoff from headquarters.”
One U.S. official, who asked not to be identified when discussing a sensitive ongoing investigation, said it would be misleading to suggest that Abaaoud thought up and then oversaw the attacks himself, because the operation was too sophisticated for one person.
For starters, the attackers were wearing suicide vests, which aren’t easy to make, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA intelligence officer and counterterrorism expert, told The Daily Beast.
“It’s also not easy to transport them from Syria to Paris,” Riedel said. “It’s more likely there is a bomb maker somewhere near Paris with some kind of workshop. It’s unlikely [ISIS] would use a bomb maker for a suicide mission, so he is probably still alive and very busy.”
Witnesses described some of the shooters standing with their legs apart to brace themselves when they fired, taking their time to choose targets, and reloading their weapons while others continued shooting. That speaks to a level of formal training, which ISIS conducts in Syria.
And there, French authorities have been tracking senior ISIS leaders, including Salim Benghalem, believed to be the man in charge of supervising French ISIS recruits, and who apparently knew Abaaoud.
On Oct. 8, French jets dropped bombs on a suspected ISIS training camp outside Raqqa, hoping Benghalem was there. Reports suggest that he survived. And CNN reported that, according to a French counterterrorism official, Abaaoud may also have been a target.
That potentially puts Abaaoud in the heart of ISIS territory in Raqqa, along with one of France’s most-wanted jihadists and operational figures. If Abaaoud did play a role in planning and executing the Paris attacks, it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t collaborate with his brothers-in-arms in Syria.
One source who has been in touch with U.S. intelligence analysts examining the Paris attack, and who asked not to be identified, said their attention has focused on Benghalem as a more important figure in the ISIS hierarchy, and potentially a bigger fish in the Paris plot. Abaaoud may have been more like a pupil or apprentice, this person said.
Abaaoud may also have had more value to ISIS as a propaganda tool: a “poster boy” for ISIS horror. He has been featured in a video joking as he drove a pickup truck dragging corpses across a field, and Dabiq, the ISIS online organ, published a interview with him, with photographs, boasting of his violent exploits in an effort to encourage other young men to imitate him.
Considering that Abaaoud was already on France’s radar and had been targeted by the military, ISIS had nothing to lose in turning him into a public spectacle. In the Dabiq interview, he taunts the vaunted prowess of Western intelligence agencies, which he says were powerless to stop his comings and goings between Syria and Europe. If that’s true, then Abaaoud fits the model of a go-between or liaison and not a lone actor.
What’s becoming clearer in recent days is that Abaaoud had important contacts with ISIS fighters in Europe and the ability to communicate with them. French officials have linked him to Mehdi Nemmouche, who carried out an attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels in May 2014. Nemmouche also knew Benghalem, the French ISIS trainer, and worked with him in one of ISIS’s prisons, French security officials have said.
Abaaoud was also in phone contact with alleged ISIS members who were part of a cell in Verviers, Belgium, that police raided last January. The authorities said the group was planning terrorist attacks. That cell was also linked to men whom authorities say were plotting to attack people waiting in line to buy the issue of Charlie Hebdo that went on sale following the murders at the magazine’s editorial office.
All this tends to put Abaaoud at the center of ISIS’s operations. But the intelligence indicates he was part of a larger network of leaders and ground fighters. If he truly was able to move back and forth between Syria and Europe, that undoubtedly made him valuable to the group. Perhaps even an essential logistics man or quartermaster, able to get fighters what they needed. But it doesn’t necessarily make him the mastermind of the Paris attacks.
For them, as well as for him, the search goes on.
Christopher Dickey reported this story from Paris; Shane Harris reported from Washington, D.C.