France IDs top Paris attack figure, seeks unity to bomb Islamic State
France identified a 27-year-old Belgian who once boasted about killing “infidels” and fought for the Islamic State group in Syria as the mastermind of the Paris attacks, and President Francois Hollande vowed Monday to forge a united coalition capable of defeating the jihadists at home and abroad.
Addressing lawmakers after France observed a minute of silence honoring the 129 people killed and 350 wounded, Hollande said the victims came from at least 19 nations, and the international community, led by the United States and Russia, must overcome their deep-seated divisions over Syria to destroy Islamic State on its home turf.
“Friday’s acts of war were decided and planned in Syria. They were organized in Belgium and perpetrated on our soil with French complicity with one specific goal: to sow fear and to divide us,” Hollande told Parliament in a rare joint session convened at the Palace of Versailles.
“Syria has become the biggest factory of terrorism the world has ever known and the international community is still too divided and too incoherent.”
As he spoke, thousands gathered around candlelit memorials at the Place de la Republique square and beneath the Eiffel Tower, which like many top attractions in one of the world’s most-visited cities reopened for business Monday in a defiant spirit. The tower was bathed in red, white and blue floodlights of the French tricolor, with the city’s centuries-old slogan – “Tossed but not sunk,” suggesting an unsinkable city braving stormy seas – projected in white lights near its base.
French and other Western intelligence agencies face an urgent challenge to track down the surviving members of the three Islamic State units who inflicted the unprecedented bloodshed in France and, perhaps more importantly, to target their distant commanders in IS-controlled parts of Syria.
A French security official said anti-terror intelligence officials had identified Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, as chief architect of the Friday the 13th attacks on a rock concert, a soccer game and popular nightspots in one of Paris’ trendiest districts.
The official cited chatter from IS figures that Abaaoud had recommended a concert as an ideal target for inflicting maximum casualties, as well as electronic communications between Abaaoud and one of the Paris attackers who blew himself up.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive investigation.
Abaaoud came to public attention last year by boasting in an IS propaganda video about his pride in piling the dead bodies of “infidel” enemies into a trailer. Anti-terror agencies previously linked him to a series of abortive shooting plots this year in Belgium and France, including a planned attack on a passenger train that was thwarted by American passengers who overpowered the lone gunman.
French police have used emergency powers to conduct 168 searches since Sunday night that netted 127 arrests and 31 weapons.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said police seized a Kalashnikov assault rifle, three automatic pistols and a bulletproof vest from a suspected arms dealer with jihadist sympathies, and a rocket launcher and other military-grade gear from his parents’ home.
But police have yet to announce the capture of anyone suspected of direct involvement in Friday’s slaughter. Seven attackers died – six after detonating suicide belts and a seventh from police gunfire – but Iraqi intelligence officials told The Associated Press that its sources indicated 19 participated in the attack and five others provided hands-on logistical support.
French police accidentally permitted the suspected driver of one group of gunmen, 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, to avoid arrest at the border Saturday and cross to his native Belgium. On Monday, Belgian police in balaclavas, gas masks and body armor raided Abdeslam’s suspected hideout in the Molenbeek district of Brussels but came out empty-handed.