Friday 23 August 2019

Paris terror attacks: Attacks probably ordered by Belgian living in Syria

* Four of seven dead attackers identified as French
* Investigation points to Belgium-based cell
* Belgian man in Syria suspected of ordering assault

Belgian police stage a raid, in search of suspected muslim fundamentalists linked to the deadly attacks in Paris, in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, November 16. 2015. Reuters/Yves Herman
Belgian police stage a raid, in search of suspected muslim fundamentalists linked to the deadly attacks in Paris, in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, November 16. 2015. Reuters/Yves Herman

John Irish

Friday's attacks in Paris were probably ordered by a Belgian living in Syria and carried out by a group led by Belgium-based French nationals with an accomplice who may have used a refugee route via Greece.

With at least one of the group still on the run, French prosecutors say they have identified five of the seven who died in suicide attacks on Paris bars, a concert hall and a soccer stadium that killed 129 people.

Four were French, while the fifth man was stopped and fingerprinted in Greece in October and may have been Syrian.

Belgian police were hunting for Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old Frenchman based in a suburb of Brussels, who is one of at least two brothers believed to have been involved in the plan who managed to cross the border after the attacks.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian national currently in Syria, was suspected of having ordered the operation, a source close to the investigation said.

"He appears to be the brains behind several planned attacks in Europe," the source told Reuters.

The international reach of the network prompted French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve to call for an urgent European Union meeting to assess what new security measures the bloc needs to counter such threats.

"The abject attack was prepared overseas, mobilised a team based on Belgian territory and benefited from support in France," he told a news conference with his Belgian counterpart.

Police named two French attackers -- Ismael Omar Mostefai, a 29-year-old of Algerian descent from Chartres, southwest of Paris, Samy Amimour, 28, from the Paris suburb of Drancy.

Amimour had been under police surveillance but had slipped away to Syria at some point after 2013. Le Monde quoted his father in 2014 saying he had gone to the Syrian border to try and bring him back.

A source close to the investigation named two other French assailants as Bilal Hadfi, 20, and Ibrahim Abdeslam, 31, brother of Saleh Abdeslam, who police suspect rented the black VW Polo car used during the shootings.

All Roads lead to Belgium

He was registered crossing into Belgium at the weekend in a VW Golf which was later found in Brussels.

Mostefai is one of seven militants who died in the slaughter, blowing himself up at the Bataclan concert hall, the bloodiest of Friday's attacks.

His profile is typical of French jihadists -- a period of petty crime before he became quickly radicalised and withdrew from the social circle he had previously known.

French media cited local residents as saying he had been influenced by a visiting radical Imam from Belgium in 2010, the same year that the Paris prosecutor said his security file for Islamist radicalisation was created.

A judicial source said the he had likely travelled to Syria in the winter of 2013-2014 via Turkey before returning to Chartres.

Belgian police detained seven people following the raids and prosecutors said on Monday two were still being held. They had earlier confirmed two of the French suicide bombers had been living in Belgium.

Of those arrested, at least one of those held from the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek was believed to have spent the previous evening in Paris, where two cars registered in Belgium were impounded close to scenes of some of the violence.

"There is nearly always a link with Molenbeek, which is a gigantic problem," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said.

Belgium is the EU state which has per capita contributed most foreign fighters to the civil war in Syria, and has figured in several Islamist attacks and plots in Europe in the past year.

The Migrant Link

One of the most sensitive aspects of the investigation centres on a Syrian passport found near the body of one of the attackers near the Stade de France, the national stadium.

If a killer did enter Europe among refugees and migrants fleeing war-torn countries, this could change the political debate about accepting refugees.

The holder of the passport was registered as a refugee in Greece and Serbia last month, after travelling through the Greek island of Leros, where he was processed on Oct. 3. Greece identified the man as 25-year old Ahmad Almohammad from the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib.

Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas said on Sunday French authorities had told Greece they suspected Almohammad was indeed one of the attackers.

The Paris prosecutor confirmed on Monday that one of the suicide bombers at the Stade de France had passed through border controls in Greece, but authorities could not confirm that the passport found was authentic.

Jihadi sources told Reuters in September they were using the migrant crisis to send some of their fighters to Europe, although Western officials played down that prospect.

It is also possible Islamic State may have wanted to leave a Syrian passport behind to stoke fears about migrants in Europe.

"It can be that a terrorist was infiltrated there (through the refugee route). It can be that this trail was laid on purpose by the IS to influence the refugee debate," German Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere told German television.

Others suggest the passport may be fake.

"Such fake Syrian passports are widely available in Turkey, and are often bought by non-Syrians trying to get to EU because Syrians get preferential treatment on the journey," Human Rights Watch's Peter Bouckaert, a close Syria-watcher, wrote on his Facebook page.

With investigators trying to trace back the origins of weapons and explosives used in the attack, the list of countries used by the cell may well increase.

A man arrested in Germany's southern state of Bavaria in early November after guns and explosives were found in his car may be linked to the Paris attacks, Bavaria's state premier said on Saturday.

Analysis of the Montenegrin's car navigation system found he drove from Montenegro via Croatia, Slovenia and Austria to Germany, aiming to reach France. Asked about his destination, the man said he wanted to see the Eiffel Tower, police said.

Criminologist Alain Bauer, a former security adviser to French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, said the increasingly coordinated character of much European criminal activity was not always matched by the work of police authorities.

"We have a series of European partners that have completely different policies, be it on terrorists or organised crime," he said.


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