The Belgian man of Moroccan descent fingered by French authorities as the mastermind of the Paris attacks is believed to be operating from Syria with the Islamic State, but U.S. officials say his ties to the terror group’s leaders are unclear and that other jihadis, based in Europe, likely also played central roles in plotting the attacks.
Intelligence sources told The Washington Times that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, born in Belgium to Moroccan immigrant parents and in his late-20s, may be under the command of an as-yet unidentified “external operations chief” within Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Syria- and Iraq-based Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
With Friday night’s attacks featuring at least eight assailants in three separate suicide teams, one intelligence source said it would be “an oversimplification” to describe Abaaoud — whose name surfaced in intelligence circles in connection to two foiled terror plots in Europe earlier this year — was the lone mastermind.
At the same time, al-Baghdadi’s modus operandi is to ensure “built-in redundancy” to everything the Islamic State does, the source said, suggesting that the terrorist leader has likely given the green light to multiple operatives like Abaaoud to plot and execute different kinds of attacks, typically working independently.
CIA Director John O. Brennan said Monday it’s “clear” that the Islamic State has “an external agenda [and] that they are determined to carry out these types of attacks.” Paris was neither “a one-off event” nor “the only operation that ISIL has in the pipeline,” he said.
He also told a Center for Strategic International Studies audience in Washington that Paris was “something that was deliberately and carefully planned over the course, I think of several months, in terms of making sure that they had the operatives, the weapons, the explosives with the suicide belts.”
French President Francois Hollande, meanwhile, said the attacks “were decided and planned in Syria, they were organized in Belgium and committed on our land.”
His comments came as the manhunt around the attacks continued, with French authorities as of Monday having detained at least 23 individuals suspected of some level of involvement.
Authorities say they’ve identified five of seven suicide bombers who blew themselves up in the attacks. While reports and statements about their backgrounds are mixed, the bombers were predominantly French and Belgian citizens of Arab and North African descent.
One is 31-year-old Brahim Abdeslam, the older brother of 26-year-old Saleh Abdeslam, 26, who was the subject of an international manhunt. Both are reported to be French passport holders, although the younger Mr. Abdeslam is believed to also have deep ties in Belgium, where he was believed to be on the run as of Monday night.
Belgium remains a focal point of the wider investigation, with more than a dozen suspects detained there since Friday and at least two people so far charged with “participating in a terrorist attack.”
Intelligence officials have been watching the tiny nation closely for the past three years as it emerged as a key source of foreign fighters flowing from Syria and Iraq.
Reports indicate some 450 of Belgium’s 11 million citizens have become foreign fighters — with some 80 percent of them of Moroccan descent. More than 1,000 foreign fighters have come from France, but on a per capita basis, the number of Belgium’s foreign fighters is the highest in Europe.
Mr. Brennan said the ability of European intelligence agencies to “monitor and surveil these individuals is under strain.”
It was not immediately clear how closely authorities have monitored Abaaoud.
A French official told The Associated Press the Belgian plot organizer is believed to have links to earlier terror attacks that were thwarted: one against a Paris-bound high-speed train that was foiled by three young Americans in August, and the other against a church in the Paris suburbs.
The child of Moroccan immigrants, Abaaoud grew up in the scruffy Molenbeek-Saint-Jean neighborhood of Brussels.
Belgian authorities said he helped organize and finance a terror cell in the eastern city of Verviers that was broken up in an armed police raid on Jan. 15, in which two of his presumed accomplices were killed.