French prosecutors confirmed Thursday that the suspected mastermind of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was killed Wednesday in a police raid in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. Paris Prosecutor François Molins’ office said Abaaoud, 27, was identified based on skin samples.
"Abdelhamid Abaaoud has just been formally identified, after comparing fingerprints, as having been killed during the raid," a statement from the prosecutor's office said in French. "It was the body we had discovered in the building, riddled with bullets."
Here's the official release from the Paris prosecutor on the death of Abdelhamid Abaaoud pic.twitter.com/2cLUtxM2Dr
— David Wyllie (@journodave) November 19, 2015
Abaaoud, a Belgian national of Moroccan descent, was apparently hiding out with other suspected terrorists in an apartment in Saint-Denis, about a mile from the Stade de France near where three suicide bombers detonated during an international friendly soccer match last Friday between France and Germany. More than 100 police and soldiers stormed the apartment and another on the same street early Wednesday. They unleashed a fusillade of nearly 5,000 bullets to overtake the suspects, who they say were plotting another terrorist attack. The raid ended with two dead and eight under arrest, prosecutors said.
"We have reason to believe, given their weaponry, given their structured organization, and their determination, we have reason to believe this commando cell could have moved to act," Paris prosecutor Molins told ABC News.
Abaaoud and a female suicide bomber identified as his cousin Hasna Aitboulahcen were both killed during the massive operation. Aitboulahcen apparently blew herself up after a brief exchange with police officers. An official told the Guardian she was asked: “Where is your boyfriend” and she responded angrily: “He’s not my boyfriend!” before a huge explosion rang out. Identification of the bodies took longer than expected because the entire third floor of the building at Rue du Corbillon collapsed during Wednesday’s raid.
Abaaoud was a military commander, or “emir of war,” for the Islamic State group in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzour province, a remarkably high rank for a foreign fighter, according to the Wall Street Journal. Officials believe Abaaoud was close to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the extremist group, and may have been the link between senior ISIS leadership and ISIS agents in Europe.
The Belgian national amassed a vast network of radicals and extremists in Europe, long before the Paris attacks. Abaaoud was regarded as such a large threat by Western intelligence that the French military conducted unsuccessful attempts to kill him in airstrikes in October, targeting an ISIS training camp for foreign fighters in Raqqa, the group's de facto capital in Syria.
"He was the one training foreign fighters," and he spent time at the camp, a French counterterrorism source told CNN, though it's unclear whether Abaaoud was there at the time of the airstrikes.
Abaaoud, a Muslim, grew up in the Molenbeek suburb of Brussels, which is home to other members of the Islamic militant cell suspected of carrying out the deadly attacks in Paris. His family prospered as owners of a clothing shop, located near their spacious home on Rue de l'Avenir close to the local police station. Abaaoud was granted admission to Collège Saint-Pierre d’Uccle, a prestigious Catholic school in an upscale residential area of Brussels, but he stayed for only one year. He was the largest shareholder in his parents’ retail business in 2013 and presided over board meetings, the Wall Street Journal reported. However, he got involved in drugs and theft, and spent time in jail for petty crime, the New York Times reported.
While living in Molenbeek, Abaaoud became friends with Ibrahim and Salah Abdeslam, two brothers who are now at the center of the French investigation. Authorities said Ibrahim was one of the suicide bombers Friday and Salah, who rented a car used in the attacks, remains at large.
Abaaoud headed to Syria at the start of 2014, where he was assigned to menial jobs by the Islamic State group, formerly known as ISIS or ISIL. But he quickly ascended through the ranks due to his successful military operations in Iraq and Syria. Abaaoud started with luring Francophone jihadists to ISIS and eventually was appointed a top military commander tasked with organizing attack missions in Europe, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Abaaoud lured his own brother, Younes, who was 13 years-old at the time, to Syria at the start of 2014. Their father, Omar, joined a state prosecutor's case against Abaaoud in May for having recruited Younes to join him in Syria. Abaaoud’s parents have since left Belgium, according to the New York Times.
In recent weeks, counterterrorism officials collected more evidence that Abaaoud represented an imminent threat. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in absentia by a Brussels court in July on terrorism charges and recruiting jihadists. In August, a French national was detained upon returning from Raqqa who had received instructions from Abaaoud to attack a concert hall in France. The Frenchman warned counterterrorism investigators: “It’s a real factory. They are determined to hit,” the Wall Street Journal reported.