Alleged Paris Mastermind: Belgian Police ‘Let Me Go’

In February, the man who allegedly plotted Friday's deadly attacks in Paris bragged that Belgian authorities let him slip between their fingers.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 12.27.28 PM
Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 12.27.28 PM

Belgian officials launched a massive manhunt in Brussels and surrounding suburbs Monday in an effort to locate Salah Abdeslam, one of the surviving suspects in Friday evening’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

Belgian officials launched a massive manhunt in Brussels and surrounding suburbs Monday in an effort to locate Salah Abdeslam, one of the surviving suspects in Friday evening’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

But if earlier police raids in Belgium are any indication, they might not have much luck.

On Monday, French authorities named Belgian-born Abdelhamid Abaaoud as the suspected mastermind behind the Islamic State-linked attack that left 129 dead and more than 300 injured. Abaaoud, a Belgian citizen of Moroccan descent, was previously wanted by Belgian authorities for a terrorist plot foiled in Belgium in January.

But in a February interview published by Dabiq, the Islamic State’s magazine, Abaaoud bragged that he not only successfully traveled from Syria to Europe to plot an attack, but also managed to return to Syria after a direct confrontation with Belgian police.

“My name and picture were all over the news yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely when doing so became necessary,” he said. “I was even stopped by an officer who contemplated me so as to compare me to the picture, but he let me go, as he did not see the resemblance!”

If that proves to be true, there would be an eerie similarity between his escape and that of Abdeslam. Initial reports suggest that in the hours after Friday evening’s attacks, Abdeslam may have been stopped by police but later released. Two days later, a high-intensity manhunt is looking to reverse that potential oversight.

Abaaoud explained in the Dabiq interview that two other Islamic State militants were killed in a gun battle in their Belgian safe house after roughly 150 Belgian and French police and special forces raided their property. He said he wasn’t home at the time of the raid, but that European officials were aware of his ties to extremism because he had previously been detained.

But he said that Western nations were wasting their resources trying to track him down and that arrests made after he escaped Belgium and returned to Syria proved the authorities were on entirely the wrong track.

“They gathered intelligence agents from all over the world — from Europe and America — in order to detain me,” he said in the interview. “They arrested Muslims in Greece, Spain, France, and Belgium in order to apprehend me.… All those arrested were not even connected to our plans!”

It was not immediately clear Monday whether the attacks he was plotting in Belgium in January were related to Friday’s attacks in Paris or to other plans that were foiled in Europe earlier this year. According to French authorities, Abaaoud was also tied to a foiled attempt to attack a church in Paris in April and to the Moroccan man who tried to open fire on a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris in August. When he tried to open fire, the gunman was tackled and disarmed by three American bystanders.

Photo credit: Dabiq

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