Officials: Suspected Paris mastermind, cousin died in raid

This undated image taken from a Militant Website on Monday Nov. 16, 2015 showing Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud. A French official says Abdelhamid Abaaoud is the suspected mastermind of the Paris attacks was also linked to thwarted train and church attacks. (Militant video via AP)

PARIS (AP) — The Belgian extremist suspected of masterminding the deadly attacks in Paris died along with his cousin when police stormed a suburban apartment building, French officials said Thursday, a day after the chaotic, bloody raid.

Police found Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s body Wednesday in the apartment building in Saint-Denis, but it took some time to identify the 27-year-old using his fingerprints. It was not clear how he died.

Officials believed Abaaoud was in Syria and it’s not clear how he ended up near Paris. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said France did not know before Friday’s deadly attacks that Abaaoud was in Europe.

A country outside of Europe tipped off Paris on Monday that Abaaoud had been spotted in Greece, Cazeneuve said, but he did not say when exactly Abaaoud was believed to have been there.

He had bragged in the Islamic State’s English-language magazine, that he was able to slip in and out of Europe undetected.

Authorities have not detailed Abaaoud’s exact whereabouts in the days leading up to or actions during the deadly rampage that killed 129 people and injured hundreds of others last week at cafes, a rock concert and the national stadium.

Three police officials have told The Associated Press that a woman who died in the police raid Wednesday was Abaaoud’s cousin. One said the woman, Hasna Aitboulahcen, is believed to have detonated a suicide vest in the building after a brief conversation with police officers. It was not clear if she had any role in the attacks.

The official confirmed an audio recording, punctuated by gunshots, in which an officer asks: “Where is your boyfriend?” and she responds angrily: “He’s not my boyfriend!” Then loud bangs are heard.

The bodies recovered in the raid were badly mangled, with part of Aitboulahcen’s spine landing on a police car, slowing down the identification process, according to one of the officials.

The three all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to divulge details of the investigation.

French police launched the operation after receiving information from tapped phone calls, surveillance and tipoffs suggesting that Abaaoud was holed up in the apartment. Eight people were arrested in the raid.

“We can’t cry ‘victory over terrorism’,” said Michel Thooris, secretary-general for the France Police labor union. “The situation is far more complex than one bad guy.”

“It’s a good thing, but we don’t think the entire network has been taken down,” he said.

Cazenueve said Thursday that Abaaoud was believed to be behind four of six attacks thwarted since spring by French authorities, including a planned April attack on a church in the Parisian suburb of Villejuif that was foiled when the would-be attacker shot himself in the foot and another on a high-speed train where three young Americans tackled a heavily armed man.

No one was killed in the train attack, but the would-be church attacker was blamed for the death of a woman found shot in her car.

Also Thursday, authorities in Belgium said they had detained nine people during as many raids in and around Brussels relating to the Paris attacks or one of the suicide bombers. There were already two suspects in custody charged with terrorist murder and belonging to a terrorist group.

An official in the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office told The Associated Press the raids were taking place in the suburb of Molenbeek, where Abaaoud lived, and other areas of Brussels. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.

With France still reeling from the attacks, France’s lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, voted Thursday to extend a state of emergency for three months. The measure now goes to the Senate, where it likely will be approved.

The state of emergency expands police powers to carry out arrests and searches, and allows authorities to forbid the movement of people and vehicles at specific times and places.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls had pressed for the extension, warning that Islamic extremists might at use chemical or biological weapons.

“Terrorism hit France not because of what it is doing in Iraq and Syria … but for what it is,” Valls told lawmakers. “We know that there could also be a risk of chemical or biological weapons.”

Valls did not say there was a specific threat against France involving such weapons, however.

Later Thursday Cazeneuve said he had requested a meeting of European interior and justice ministers Friday in Brussels to discuss the fight against terrorism.

“Everyone must understand that it is urgent for Europe to recover, get organized and defend itself against the terrorist threat,” Cazeneuve said.

Elsewhere in Europe, jittery leaders and law enforcement moved to protect their citizens as Rob Wainwright, director of the European Union’s police coordination agency Europol, warned of “a very serious escalation” of the terror threat in Europe.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged the international community to do more to eradicate the Islamic State group, which has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Fabius, speaking on France-Inter radio, said the group “is a monster. But if all the countries in the world aren’t capable of fighting against 30,000 people (IS members), it’s incomprehensible.”

France has stepped up its airstrikes against extremists in Syria, and French military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said Thursday that French forces have destroyed 35 Islamic State targets in Syria since the attacks on Paris.

French President Francois Hollande is going to Washington and Moscow next week to push for a stronger international coalition against IS.

Francois Molins, the Paris prosecutor, said Wednesday that investigators found a cellphone in a garbage can outside the Bataclan concert hall in eastern Paris where 89 attack victims died. It contained a text message sent about 20 minutes after the massacre began. “We’re off, it’s started,” it read.

Molins said investigators were still trying to identify the recipient of the message.

Seven of the Paris attackers died on the same night as the attacks. French authorities have said most of the attackers — five have been identified so far — were unknown to them. But two U.S. officials said that many, though not all, of those identified were on the U.S. no-fly list. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

French security forces have conducted 414 raids, making 60 arrests and seizing 75 weapons, including 11 military-style firearms.

Click here for complete coverage of the Paris attacks.

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