The ringleader behind the Paris terror attacks in which 129 people died last Friday has been named as among those killed in a gun battle with police during a raid on a city suburb this week.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who went on the run earlier this year after a gun battle with police in Belgium over a suspected plot to kill Belgian officers, was confirmed dead by France’s chief prosecutor. Another alleged attacker, Salah Abdeslam, is still on the run.
The news came as France’s government voted to extend the state of emergency implemented by President Francois Hollande in the wake of attacks which saw gunmen open fire on bars, restaurants and a concert hall, as well as set off bombs outside France’s national stadium.
Speaking to the French parliament’s lower house, Prime Minister Manuel Valls also warned that the country could be at risk of attacks using chemical or biological weapons. French police launched the raid on Wednesday, in the Saint-Denis suburb of northern Paris, after receiving information from tip-offs, as well as surveillance and taped phone calls. The Paris prosecutor said the eight people detained during the raids will stay in custody for at least another day.
Authorities said five men in the apartment building were taken into custody, while a woman and two other men – including the man whose apartment was used as the cell’s hideout – were arrested on a nearby street. Under French law, officials can detain suspects for up to 96 hours without charges.
Abaaoud, a 27-year-old Belgian of Moroccan origin, was identified based on skin samples and saliva traces, according to Paris prosecutor François Molins.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said he had received intelligence that Abaaoud passed through Greece on his return from Syria – where it is previously thought he had remained. It is believed he could have concealed himself among refugees in the country. The flat which was the centre of the raid was all but destroyed, after heavily armed officers stormed the building before dawn on Wednesday, triggering a massive firefight and multiple explosions.
“Abdelhamid Abaaoud has just been formally identified as having been killed during the raid,” the prosecutor said.
Mr Valls said: “We know today that the mastermind of the attacks – or one of them, let’s remain cautious – was among those dead.”
One of the other people who died during yesterday’s raids was reported to be a cousin of Abaaoud, Hasna Aitboulahcen, who blew herself up with a suicide vest when confronted by police.
However, a terrorism expert warned that the fact the authorities had got Abaaoud’s whereabouts wrong indicated major problems. It is thought European authorities believed he was in Syria, until they were tipped off by intelligence services from a non-EU country.
“Finding Abaaoud in France and not in Syria means that all our European systems of alerts have failed completely,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, a French international consultant and expert on terrorism. “It’s a huge collective failure.”
Meanwhile, Belgian police are reportedly searching for a man named Mohamed K, from Roubaix, northern France, who is suspected of supplying the terrorist gang with explosives.
Wednesday’s raid was launched after a discarded mobile phone and tapped telephone conversations allowed investigators to identify a series of safehouses, with the suggestion that Abaaoud may have been holed up in an apartment less than a mile from the Stade de France, where one of the terror attacks took place.
Police fired about 5,000 rounds of ammunition during an early morning exchange of gunfire which lasted about an hour as the terrorist cell barricaded themselves in the hideout.
The eight arrested included one woman and a man whose flat was used as a hideout by the terror cell. They are being interrogated.
Mr Valls spoke in parliament ahead of the vote to extend the state of emergency by three months.
The legislation allows police arrests without warrants of suspects who are deemed “threats to national security”, to be held under house arrest; and the ability to close public venues.
The bill can also “encourage” the closing of mosques if they “become too radical”, Mr Valls said, while a state official could implement a curfew if it is considered necessary. Mr Valls claimed that “terrorism hit France, not because of what it is doing in Iraq and Syria, but for what it is”.
“What is new are the ways of operating; the ways of attacking and killing are evolving all the time,” he said.
“The macabre imagination of those giving the orders is unlimited. Assault rifles, beheadings, suicide bombers, knives or all of these at once.”
He added: “We must not rule anything out, there is also the risk from chemical or biological weapons.” MPs voted by 551 votes to six to boost and extend the emergency powers. Three Green MPs and three Socialists abstained. The senate will vote on the measures today.
Meanwhile, France and Belgium, will today urge their European partners at an emergency meeting in Brussels to tighten gun laws, toughen border security and choke off funds to extremist groups. However, it is expected that European Union interior and justice ministers will not agree on any new measures that could be immediately introduced to restore calm among countries rattled by the coordinated strikes in the French capital.
It is believed that the ministers will merely try to push forward on priorities already identified, but not acted on, by EU leaders following the earlier attacks in Paris in January.
France has also circulated a UN Security Council draft resolution that calls on all countries to “redouble and coordinate their efforts” to prevent further attacks by Islamic State and similar groups and “eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.”