Europe’s intelligence agencies missed a series of key clues before Friday night’s attacks in Paris that allowed the eight terrorists who carried out the atrocities to pass under the radar of security services.
Several of those named by police as suspects or suicide bombers were members of a known jihadist cell in the Molenbeek suburb of Brussels, and were directed by an Isis leader who managed to slip out of the country and into Syria in January after a shootout between militants and Belgian officials.
Others were known to have fought for the terror group in Syria but had managed to return to France. One was questioned three years ago about a plan to travel to Yemen and was the subject of an international arrest warrant.
It has also emerged that Turkish officials had twice offered information about Omar Ishmail Mostefai – the first of suicide bombers to be identified – to security figures in Paris, but that they asked for the details only after Friday night’s deadly attacks.
Meanwhile, Iraqi intelligence officials said France specifically had been warned of a potential attack, according to the Associated Press, including details that French authorities have yet to make public. They said that the Paris attacks appear to have been planned in Raqqa, Syria, where the attackers were trained specifically for the operation, and that a sleeper cell in France helped to execute the plan. In all, 24 people were involved.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 27-year-old Belgian of Moroccan origin, named by officials as the “presumed” mastermind of the attacks from Syria, is believed to have escaped Belgium after authorities there thwarted a terrorist cell in the eastern city of Verviers in January. Two suspects were killed in a gun battle but Koen Geens, the Belgian Justice Minister, admitted that authorities “did not succeed in nabbing the right person”.
It is believed that he was talking about Abaaoud, who told Isis’s magazine, Dabiq, in February that he had fled to Syria. Abaaoud is linked by officials to the Isis cell operating in Molenbeek, which is thought to include brothers Saleh and Ibrahim Abdeslam. Ibrahim detonated his suicide vest on Paris’s Boulevard Voltaire on Friday night. Saleh, understood to be a childhood friend of Abaaoud, was named as a key suspect – but only after he had been questioned and then freed by police near the Belgian border on Saturday.
The link between Abaaoud and Saleh constitutes a worrying development for Europe’s security services: that precisely planned attacks involving several people and sophisticated logistics can be orchestrated from Isis’s power base inside Syria.
Two of the seven people arrested in Brussels over the weekend have been charged with leading a terrorist attack but have not been named; five others were released without charge.
One of the raids was in Drancy, north of Paris, where the mother and teenaged sister of Sami Amimour, who blew himself up inside the Bataclan theatre, were taken for questioning. It emerged that in October 2012, after an aborted attempt to go to Yemen, Amimour was questioned and placed under judicial control for association with people involved in terrorism. He managed to slip out of France and join Isis in Syria in September 2013, and he became the subject of an international arrest warrant.
Drancy mayor Jean-Christophe Lagarde questioned how the police and security services had responded to the radicalisation of a young man who became a suicide bomber. Mr Lagarde, who is a leader of the centrist UDI party, said: “I know his mother well. She came to me because she was worried about the radicalisation of her son. She wanted to get her son back [from Syria]. The state didn’t follow this up.”
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