European officials have identified Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian man whose parents are from Morocco, as a key suspect in last week’s coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris. Abaaoud has been featured by the Islamic State in its propaganda for plotting terrorist attacks in Europe in the past.
French authorities say Abaaoud is “the presumed mastermind” of the coordinated assault, according to the Associated Press. And he is also thought to have been involved in earlier plots targeting France, the AP reports, including an attack on a Paris-bound train in August and another on a church in the suburbs of Paris.
Abaaoud has not kept a low profile despite his suspected involvement in plots against the West. The Islamic State interviewed Abaaoud in Dabiq 7, the seventh issue of its English-language magazine, which was released in February 2015. The cover of Dabiq 7 mocked Muslims who stood in unity with France over al Qaeda’s attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
Dabiq described Abaaoud as “a mujahid being pursued by Western Intelligence agencies for his jihad in Belgium.” Two members of Abaaoud’s cell were killed in a shootout with Belgian police during a raid on their safe house in Verviers on Jan. 15, just one week after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices.
In the Dabiq 7 interview, Abaaoud admitted that he and two accomplices, “Abuz-Zubayr al-Baljīkī (Khālid), and Abū Khālid al-Baljīkī (Sufyān),” (pictured, right) traveled to Europe “in order to terrorize the crusaders waging war against the Muslims.” He said Belgium was a target as the country “is a member of the crusader coalition attacking the Muslims of Iraq and Shām [Syria].”
After some difficulties in traveling to Belgium, the three jihadists “were then able to obtain weapons and set up a safe house while we planned to carry out operations against the crusaders,” he claimed.
Abaaoud mocked Western intelligence services for failing to prevent him from entering Belgium and establish a cell, and then later failing to capture him after the Verviers raid.
“Allah blinded their vision and I was able to leave and come to Shām despite being chased after by so many intelligence agencies,” he stated. “All this proves that a Muslim should not fear the bloated image of the crusader intelligence. 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.”
Abaaoud said he was stopped by security officials after the Verviers raid and police failed to match him with a photograph of him that was obtained while he was in Syria.
“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,” he said.
Islamic State has plotted attacks in Europe prior to Paris suicide assault
Abaaoud’s involvement with the Verviers cell and an attack by an Islamic State fighter at a Jewish museum in Belgium in May 2014 belie the common narrative that the Islamic State’s deadly suicide assault in Paris, which left more than 120 people dead, was a radical departure in strategy. Some analysts have claimed that up until last weekend’s attack in Paris, the Islamic State was only focused on taking control of territory in Muslim countries.
After the raid on Abaaoud’s cell in Verviers, Belgian federal magistrate Eric Van der Sypt said the group was “on the verge of committing important terror attacks,” the AP reported. “It shows we have to be extremely careful.”
Over the past year, European intelligence officials have explained that several Islamic State plots were thwarted. In September 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron said that Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain, two British nationals who were killed in airstrikes in Syria in August, were plotting attacks against the West.
According to Cameron, Khan and Hussain “were British nationals based in Syria who were involved in actively recruiting [Islamic State] sympathizers and seeking to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks against the West, including directing a number of planned terrorist attacks right here in Britain, such as plots to attack high profile public commemorations, including those taking place this summer.”
“We should be under no illusion,” Cameron continued. “Their intention was the murder of British citizens.”
An Islamic State fighter succeeded in executing an attack in Belgium in May 2014. Mehdi Nemmouche, a fighter who worked in the Islamic State’s jails in Syria, opened fire at a Jewish museum in Brussels, Belgium and killed four people.
The top leaders of the Islamic State have issued direct threats against the West, including the US. In his very first recorded speech, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, threatened America.
“As for your security, your citizens cannot travel to any country without being afraid. The mujahideen have launched after your armies, and have swore to make you taste something harder than what Osama [bin Laden] had made you taste. You will see them in your home, Allah permitting. Our war with you has only begun, so wait,” he said.
Abu Muhammad al Adnani, the spokesman for the Islamic State, threatened to strike the US and the “allies of America” in September 2014, after the US launched its air campaign in Iraq and Syria.
“[T]his campaign will be your final campaign,” Adnani said. “It will be broken and defeated, just as all your previous campaigns were broken and defeated, except that this time we will raid you thereafter, and you will never raid us. We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted.”
Abaaoud, holding a koran and the Islamic State’s Flag while standing in front of a US-made Humvee, from Dabiq 7: