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Alleged Paris Attacks Mastermind Declared Dead as France Warns of Chemical Attacks
The alleged mastermind behind Friday's attacks in Paris has been confirmed dead, but European officials warn that other terrorist cells remain a threat.
French authorities announced the death Thursday of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian terrorist believed to have masterminded last week’s onslaught in Paris, more than 24 hours after a massive raid that targeted him in the suburb of Saint-Denis.
A fingerprint analysis was used to confirm Abaaoud’s identity, said Paris Prosecutor François Molins. Abaaoud’s body was badly wounded by gunfire and a grenade, but officials “do not know at this stage whether Abaaoud blew himself up or not,” Molins said.
The woman who died in the raid Wednesday after detonating a suicide vest has been identified as Hasna Aitboulahcen, Abaaoud’s 26-year-old cousin. Abaaoud grew up in Molenbeek, Belgium, but is of Moroccan descent. He is thought to have been 27 or 28 years old.
Molins’s announcement Thursday came as the French National Assembly gave tentative approval to a plan, proposed by French President François Hollande, extending the country’s state of emergency for three more months. The bill would give the government sweeping powers, including searching people’s homes to ensure national security. It will now move to the upper house, or Senate, for a Friday vote.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls also warned Thursday that violent gun and bomb attacks were not the only threats facing Europe. He said European officials could not rule out the possibility of “chemical or biological weapons” being deployed by the Islamic State.
Americans elsewhere in Europe were already being warned of threats against main tourist attractions. The U.S. Embassy in Italy issued a security warning for much of Rome and Milan, alerting U.S. citizens that “terrorist groups may possibly utilize similar methods used in the recent Paris attacks.” And Italian officials have been searching since Wednesday for five people after being alerted by the FBI, Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told RAI state media on Thursday. More details were not immediately available.
The U.S. Embassy’s Nov. 18 alert said St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the Duomo cathedral and La Scala opera house in Milan, and other churches, synagogues, restaurants, theaters, and hotels in both Rome and Milan are potential terrorist targets. It said Italian authorities are aware of the threats.
St. Peter’s Basilica, the seat of the worldwide Catholic Church, has ramped up its security with the approach of the Dec. 8 start of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, when millions of pilgrims are expected to flock to the Vatican. The State Department commonly issues such travel warnings, but usually in the Middle East, Africa, and other areas of ongoing unrest.
Paolo Messa, director of the Center for American Studies in Rome, said the U.S. threat alert was understandable, but “the objective of Daesh is to raise the panic. If the fear wins, then terrorism will win.” Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
“Trust and hope must prevail,” Messa said Thursday. “These are our better weapons in this kind of hybrid war.”
French and Belgian authorities initially thought Abaaoud was in Syria when he plotted the highly coordinated attacks across Paris, which killed 129 and wounded more than 300.
But officials were tipped that Abaaoud was holed up in an apartment in Saint-Denis, prompting them to launch Wednesday’s raid before dawn. The raid also swept up eight people who were arrested. Earlier this year, Abaaoud was featured in Dabiq, the Islamic State magazine, and bragged he had freely traveled back and forth between Europe and Syria without being arrested by police.
It was during one of those trips that he is thought to have organized a terrorist cell in eastern Belgium, which police broke up in January. Abaaoud was not home at the time of that raid, but two of his accomplices were killed. According to his interview with Dabiq, he was stopped by Belgian police but quickly let go, and later returned to Syria. Abaaoud is also believed to have helped plan an attack on a Paris-bound train in August, which was only foiled after three Americans tackled and disarmed the shooter, who was armed with a Kalashnikov rifle.
Abaaoud’s death marks the end of an intense manhunt, but also leaves French authorities with little more information about the Islamic State’s sphere of European influence than when they started. Abaaoud is thought to have close ties to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who heads the Islamic State, and may have even been a top point of contact between senior Islamic State officials and militants operating in Europe.
Salah Abdeslam, believed to be one of Friday’s attackers, is still on the loose. On Thursday, Belgian authorities launched more raids in Molenbeek to question relatives of Bilal Hadfi, who died after helping carry out Friday’s attacks in Paris. One person was reportedly detained for questioning.
Lara Jakes contributed to this report from Rome.
Photo credit: Marc Piasecki/Getty Images