11/27/2015 07:19 PM
What The Paris Attacks Tell Us About Islamic State Strategy
The biographies of those behind the Paris attacks offer deep insight into the structures and organization of Islamic State in Europe. And they confirm what experts have long warned about: The new jihadists have our cities in their sights. By SPIEGEL Staff
On the horrific evening in Paris that only ended after 130 people had been slaughtered in jihadist attacks, something strange happened at 10:28 p.m., a development that only came to the attention of investigators much later. On the upper end of Boulevard Voltaire, where the Bataclan concert hall is located, three terrorists were in the process of gunning down people with their Kalashnikovs and exchanging salvos with the police, who were closing in on them. At the lower end of the street, another man exited from the Metro — Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected leader behind the attacks.
He had just been a part of the group that had killed 39 people at La Belle Équipe, Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge. For a while afterwards, he had driven around aimlessly in a black SEAT through the neighborhood’s streets, before parking it in the Montreuil suburb. He was then caught on CCTV cameras at 10:14 p.m. inside the Croix de Chavaux Metro station, as he jumped the turnstile to avoid paying and traveled back to the scene of the crime.
Over the next two hours, Abaaoud apparently went for a walk through the 10th and 11th arrondissements, the area where he had just unleashed a bloodbath. Investigators later used the geolocation data from his mobile phone to trace his movements that evening. At 12:28 a.m., as anti-terror units were entering the concert hall, the phone was just next to Bataclan. It’s as if Abaaoud wanted to convince himself of his own success and view firsthand the inferno he had helped unleash. It wasn’t much later that French President François Hollande arrived at the scene.
It’s a disturbing thought, but one that also seems fitting for a terrorist as vain and brutal as Abaaoud. This, after all, was not the first time he had outfoxed security forces.
In terms of media coverage, Abaaoud had been Belgium’s best-known jihadist, and yet he nevertheless managed to travel back and forth between Syria and Europe without raising attention and would ultimately conduct the Paris attacks together with an entire group of other jihadists. Few others have reported as openly on social media about their adventures in Syria as Abaaoud. In Dabiq magazine, an official propaganda organ of Islamic State (IS), he had boasted in January that he could “plan operations” and come and go as he pleased despite the fact that “my name and my picture have been all over the news.”
Is the Worst Yet to Come?
With Abdelhamid Abaaoud and his men, Islamist terror in Europe has reached a new level. It’s the first time that a major European city has experienced such a complex attack at the hands of the Islamic State, which resulted in 130 deaths and 350 wounded. In the week that followed, Brussels, another major European city, announced a state of emergency, a rare occasion in the postwar era. The city shut down its Metro system and closed schools. Local authorities said they took the dramatic steps in order to prevent attacks like the ones committed in Paris the previous weekend.
For years, terror experts had been warning about their fears of terrorist attacks in Europe and, in recent days, they appear to have become reality. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris and Copenhagen at the beginning of 2015 weren’t isolated cases, Peter Neumann, a professor of security studies at King’s College London, warned in his new book “The New Jihadists,” published in September in German. He believes what we have just witnessed are the “first, very dramatic warnings of what will play out on the streets of Europe in the next decades.” Europe, he cautions, is standing “at the precipice of a new wave of terror that will still occupy us for a generation to come.”
French journalist and jihad expert David Thomson offers a similarly bleak assessment. “Attacks like this will no longer be something completely extraordinary,” he warns. “I can’t say whether something like this will happen every six months or every year.”
Thomson says that, according to his research, an Islamic State unit led by a Frenchman is currently preparing attacks in Europe. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, Western intelligence agencies intercepted communications between Abaaoud and Islamic State leadership in Syria. There had been similar clues after the attack in Beirut the day before and also after IS brought down a Russian jet carrying vacationers over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. When IS issued a claim of responsibility for the plane crash a few hours later, it provided no information about the perpetrators. But German authorities say this is standard practice for IS: The order is issued by the leadership, but it is then carried out solely by the terrorist cell.
‘Islamic State Is Acting in Europe’
“We must assume that this was the first coordinated series of attacks,” an internal government paper dating from Nov. 23 states. “The Islamic State is acting in Europe. The concerted action and the means used in the crime point to very well-trained perpetrators prepared to do anything, as well as longer and highly conspiratorial planning of the attack.”
It’s a disturbing development. In contrast to al-Qaida before it, terror attacks on the West had not previously been a part of Islamic State strategy. Instead, the group had limited itself to expanding its territories in Iraq and Syria and establishing state-like structures.
“Islamic State conceives itself as a state, it acts like a state — and it employees bureaucrats whose jobs do not differ much from those in the West,” writes terror expert Neumann. It provides five to seven million people with food, child care, heating oil and electricity and is seeking to be the “perfect welfare state,” he says. Observers say that IS covers up to $2 billion in annual financial needs through oil sales, donations, taxes and the seizure of assets. Neumann refers to it as a “loot economy.”
Under Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida sought to bring about the West’s downfall, but it never had the declared goal of creating its own state. Islamic State, on the other hand, has pursued the goal of establishing its own state from the very beginning and it initially showed no interest in international terrorism.
Shortly after the US-led coalition began attacking IS in Iraq in August 2014 and later in Syria, however, Islamic State propaganda minister Abu Mohammed al-Adnani called on Muslims in the West to perpetrate attacks. “If you can, kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian or Canadian,” the video address stated. The attacks in Paris demonstrate the threat wasn’t an empty one.
Is Attacking Europe Part of Their DNA?
For years, experts have worried that the up to 4,000 young men and women from Western Europe who are believed to have gone to Syria and Iraq to either fight with Islamic State or live inside it might one day return and conduct attacks here. European IS fighters have long been using social media platforms to openly discuss their dreams of attacks on their home countries.
“Attacking Europe is in the DNA of many of those who have traveled from Europe to Syria,” says jihad expert Wassim Nasr of French international news channel France 24. Still, he argues, it is very unlikely that individual members like Abaaoud made the decision to actually carry out the attacks on their own. He see it is “an issue of such strategic importance that it has been directed from the highest level of IS.” And it appears that the decision was taken months ago.
It’s not surprising that IS chose France as the target of its first attack in Europe. With around 1,200 current and former fighters, the largest number of IS jihadist from Western Europe originate from France. With its numerous military deployments in Africa and the Middle East, France is very much in the terrorists’ crosshairs. Measured against its overall population, the only country in Europe with a greater per capita number of IS fighters is Belgium. Germany also has several hundred residents who have gone to the region as jihadists.
The Europeans tended to play a relatively minor role in combat for the IS in recent years, but they have an important function in terms of recruitment. And under Islamic State’s new strategy, they are also in charge of bringing the war to Europe. The terrorists who struck in Paris may have spent some time in Syria, but they are the product of our society. In that respect, fighting in Syria to prevent Islamic State terror in the West can only have a limited effect.
Germany’s IS Shill
One of the most prominent German jihadists fighting for IS in Syria is Deso Dogg, whose real name is Denis Cuspert. He grew up in Berlin and became radicalized in Germany’s Rhineland region before taking off for the Middle East in 2012. In many respects, Cuspert is a German incarnation of Abdelhamid Abaaoud.
His death has been reported many times, but it appears he’s still alive. He appears in videos heading to massacres in an SUV with a smile on his face. And he has repeatedly appeared in videos in which he disparages those he left behind in Germany as cowards and reminds them of their duty to travel to Syria. Deso Dogg is Islamic State’s shill for luring new supporters from Germany.
In his videos, Cuspert can be seen kneeling in front of a waterfall shouting, “Jihad is fun.” And there are videos showing him in the desert as IS fighters slit the throats of their bound prisoners. Cuspert then takes a decapitated head in his hand and announces, “They fought against the ‘Islamic State’ and we imposed the death penalty.” Sometimes he also sings nasheeds, religious songs.
The propaganda is effective. It lures young men from places like Berlin, Hamburg and Dinslaken in the Ruhr region. They come from all social strata, including underdogs from socio-economically disadvantaged areas in addition to mechanical engineers. Hardly a case against suspected terrorists is heard in German courts without the name Deso Dogg being mentioned.
But what exactly is drawing young people who grew up in France, Belgium and Germany into the war? Why do they want to commit attacks in their home countries?
There’s no simple answer to these questions, particularly given that that the young jihadists don’t necessarily come from the same social class or religion. Many are immigrants or the children of migrants, but had little previous knowledge of religion before joining up with the Islamic State. Most seem to be fascinated not by Islam, but by jihad and a sense of “adventure.”
20,000 Foreign Fighters
Currently, IS counts fighters from more than 90 countries among its ranks. Extremism expert Neumann estimates this figure includes more than 20,000 foreigners who have traveled to Syria and Iraq. He uses three different categories to classify the foreign fighters. First there are the “defenders,” who traveled to the region early on — mostly to fight on the side of the Sunnis against dictator Bashar Assad. Second, there are those “searching for meaning.” Politics and religion aren’t the primary motivator for these people. Instead, they are seeking to fulfil their need for community, identity, power and masculinity through weapons and the use of force. The third group is comprised of the “tag-alongs,” who follow their clique of friends when they leave Europe.
Only a small percentage is actually assessed as being prepared to carry out attacks. Neumann calculates that there are around 300 “dangerous” IS returnees in Europe who “are motivated, networked and have learned the trade from the most brutal terrorist group that ever existed.”
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected chief planner behind the Paris attacks, was born on April 8, 1987, in the Anderlecht district of Brussels. Life seemed to start out on the right track for him. His father had emigrated from Morocco during the 1970s to work in a mine. He later opened a clothing store in the city’s Molenbeek-Saint-Jean district. His father wanted the best for Abdelhamid and he sent him to the elite private Collège Saint-Pierre high school in Uccle, one of the richest areas in the Belgian capital. But Abdelhamid quit after a year, preferring to hang around in his old neighborhood.
Authorities first took notice of Abaaoud on one evening in 2006. He had drunk too much with friends and began impersonating a police officer in order to lure and then threaten his victims. After getting caught, police initially detained him for several days. Thereafter, he was frequently involved in violent fist fights resulting in bodily injury — often the product of drunkenness. One time, he tried breaking into a car repair shop while stoned together with Salah Abdeslam, the suspect in the Paris terror attacks who is still at large and is currently Europe’s most-wanted man.
When he was released in September 2012 from an additional, this time significantly longer, stint in jail, he had changed. Now, the confused, disoriented thug from Molenbeek was wearing a beard and began looking for a job — and criticizing the Western world. Abaaoud told his lawyer that he had become religious. This would become the starting point of his career as a terrorist. Shortly afterward, Abaaoud traveled to Syria for the first time.
Those biographical details can be found in a 245-page court file dating from July 2015 that SPIEGEL reviewed in the reporting of this story. The file provides detailed insights into how Abdelhamid Abaaoud became radicalized and it describes his ties to the Belgian jihadist scene, one of Europe’s most dangerous. It also shows how key figures in Belgian terror cells use Europe as a base for their operations. The documents indicate that the Belgian jihadist movement is the product of an interplay between people in charge of indoctrination, logisticians and fighters seeking to destroy the “infidels.”
During the years after his first trip to Syria, Abaaoud cultivated contact with people close to Khalid Zerkani, one of the more notorious figures in the Belgian Islamist scene. Investigators believe the two had mutual acquaintances.
Zerkani, 42, a native of Morocco, is considered by officials to be a kind of Islamist brainwasher in Molenbeek, dispatching young men to Syria without ever having traveled to the country himself. The example of Zerkani shows that the recruitment of future jihadists is no longer undertaken exclusively by radical imams inside mosques. After conducting raids on Zerkani and people connected to him, police uncovered unambiguous documents with headings like, “16 Things One Needs When Traveling to Syria” or “38 Ways to Participate in Jihad.” The titles are so mundane that one could be forgiven for thinking they might be chapters in some “Jihad for Dummies” guide.
On July 29, 2015, a court convicted Abaaoud in absentia and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. The judges came to the conclusion Abaaoud had “acted as if he were the head of a terrorist group.” In their verdict, the judges held that “some elements gave cause for suspicion that he, from either near or afar, was a member of a cell that was preparing to commit an attack or attacks in Belgium.”
The legal proceedings against the Islamist group document a solid logistical network between Belgium and Syria. According to a court document, one of the plotters was responsible, among other things, for “taking care of travel costs, accompaniment during the trip, contact to a smuggler who helps with the border crossing, reception at the border, a residence on site, training of fighters, assistance in leaving Syria, the transportation of personal objects and money belonging to the jihadists, conveyance of news to the family, purchase and transportation of Belgian goods to Syria and the collection of donations.”
Raising Money for the Jihad
Abaaoud too apparently raised money. Behind a door in his apartment on the main street of Molenbeek, officials in January 2014 found a dagger, pepper spray, burglary tools and stolen license plates. Homages to Islamic State were scrawled on the door. The court presumed that Abaaoud had “probably” been involved in criminal activity in Belgium to raise money for the jihad in Syria.
In January 2014, Abaaoud’s radicalization reached a new level: He kidnapped his 13-year-old brother Younes from school and secretly took him to Germany. Together, they flew to Istanbul from the Cologne-Bonn airport with a friend. On Jan. 21, their father Omar received a telephone call from Syria. “You will never see Younes again,” Abaaoud told his father, adding that, as a parent, he had been doing everything wrong with the boy. “It isn’t acceptable for me that you are raising him in such a European manner.” The account comes from Nathalie Gallant, the father’s lawyer.
At the beginning of February 2014, images on the Internet show Younes, 13, posing with a Kalashnikov that is almost as big as he is. Underneath the pictures is the caption: “Mashallah, a real man.”
Once they arrive on the Turkish side of the border, jihadists are received by smugglers and brought across into Syria. Islamic State then subjects the newcomers to a security check in order to uncover possible spies. In the past, the procedure has often required newcomers to name a contact person within Islamic State.
Michael Flynn, the former head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, says of Islamic State: “They document everything. These guys are terrific about it. In their recruiting and in interviews, they ask, ‘What’s your background? Are you good with media? With weapons?’ It’s this kind of well-structured capability they have that then evolves into a very, very unconventional force.”
A Trove of Mobile Phone Photos
For German jihadists, that included questioning from a German-speaking IS fighter about motivation, ancestry and acquaintances. Former jihadist Ayoub B., from Wolfsburg, likens such units to a kind of Islamic State domestic intelligence agency. Upon arrival, he was interviewed by Mustafa K. and Nils D., two men belonging to a group from Dinslaken who were involved in almost all relevant activities undertaken by Islamic State troops. After questioning, Islamic State divides foreigners into two groups: suicide bombers and fighters. Thus far, German officials have identified more than 20 German suicide bombers.
The life of Abdelhamid Abaaoud of Belgium is better documented than almost any other jihadist. In spring 2014, the French journalist Étienne Huver came into possession of photos and videos that had been saved on Abaaoud’s mobile phone. Huver had traveled to the Syrian city of Azaz, just a few kilometers from the border with Turkey, not long after Syrian rebels had finally managed to push the Islamic State out following an extended occupation. In Azaz, Huver was contacted by Syrian rebels who offered him photos of European IS fighters. “They told us: You have to publish them. People are coming from you to us and killing Syrians,” Huver says.
The rebels had managed to copy the data with the help of a supporter who worked in an Internet café that Abaaoud frequented. When Abaaoud connected his mobile phone to a computer to share his photos with friends via Facebook, the Internet café employee made a secret copy. All of the photos were taken between Jan. 7 and Feb. 26, 2014.
An image taken on Feb. 1 shows him in Syria for the first time, wearing a wool vest and an oversized Afghan pakol cap and posing for selfies with a Kalashnikov. In one photo, he has his head thrown back and the morning sun shines onto his face. He sent the photo to friends and acquaintances back home in Belgium — and also to young women he wanted to impress.
The photos and videos Abaaoud made during the ensuing four weeks were for his own private use. They consistently show him with the same group of people: Eight young men who speak accent-free French and broken Arabic with a North African accent. All of them are Frenchmen or French-speaking Belgians. It almost seems as though they were a group of friends enjoying a bit of adventure in Syria.
Francophone Fighting Unit
Abaaoud gave himself the nom de guerre “Abu Omar al-Soussi” — Abu Omar from the Souss Massa, a region in Morocco where his parents are from. Islamic State, however, dubbed him “Abou Omar Al-Beljiki,” transforming him back into the Belgian he was.
Some of those in the group already knew each other from Brussels. Others likely only met in Syria when they joined the French-speaking unit that Belgians and French fighters were assigned to for matters of simplicity. It was deemed too problematic to put them in Arabic-speaking units because they wouldn’t have been able to understand the orders given.
German security officials believe that the plans for the Paris attacks were likely developed within this Francophone fighting unit. German Islamic State fighters, by contrast, are spread out among several different units.
During his first days in Azaz, it has become clear, Abaaoud had close contact with notorious German Islamists; in spring 2014, his group lived in the same house with the “Lohberger Brigade,” a group of young men from the Lohberg neighborhood of the Ruhr Valley city of Dinslaken who joined the jihad in 2013. During the time they lived together, the two groups posed with decapitated heads in front of the same statue in the center of Azaz.
Early on, Abaaoud seemed fascinated by the violence perpetrated by the Islamic State fighters and documented it on his mobile phone. “They fought for democracy and secularism, and thus, against us,” Abaaoud narrates in one video of dead rebel fighters — a comment that had little to do with the power struggle underway between the Syrian rebels of Azaz and Islamic State.
Abaaoud was notable even then, a natural leader because of his charisma. He instructed his comrades to speak into the camera or told them to take a picture of him next to a foreign IS fighter. He seemed to have a clear goal in mind with his photos and videos: that of encouraging more young people from Europe to join Islamic State.
‘Sham Is Better!’
“What is life like here in comparison to Europe?” Abaaoud asks a friend in one of the videos. “Life in Europe is nothing,” comes the response, half-Arabic and half-French. “Al-Sham is better!” Abaaoud responds, using the old Arabic name for the region along the Mediterranean coast.
The young men from the banlieues were discovering a life that they could never have lived back home. In Syria, they could mostly take what they wanted, justifying it as the confiscation of enemy property. As members of Islamic State, they belonged to those who held power. Others had to obey.
There is little in the videos about religion and faith. Abaaoud seemed more intent on documenting his grand adventure.
It becomes clear from the material that Abaaoud, in February 2014, was but a small gear in the larger machine. One image shows him lightly armed lying behind a wall with friends, an old Kalashnikov, a GPS device and a walkie-talkie next to him. He was on guard duty in a city where IS had long since established control. The real fighters were at the front.
But that apparently changed soon thereafter. In May 2015, the death of Abu Shaheed was announced, a Frenchmen who had most recently lived in Brussels and who was also seen in Abaaoud’s group photos. Apparently, the group had joined the notorious Libyan fighting unit Katibat al-Battar.
Social networks play an important role in recruitment. In contrast to the period when al-Qaida was predominant, when becoming affiliated with a jihadist group was a long and difficult process, IS propaganda largely takes place on the web. Initially, Facebook was the network of choice, until the company improved its vigilance. Today, IS propaganda largely takes place on Twitter. There too, accounts are constantly being deleted and banned, but new ones are immediately created to replace them.
Loyal and Compliant
Western recruits belong to the Islamic State elite. They receive privileged treatment and are allotted homes, women and higher salaries. Militarily, they are mostly useless at the beginning, but they are beneficial from a propaganda standpoint because they offer clear proof that IS also has supporters among its enemies, in America, Britain, France and elsewhere.
“We know from debriefings that they have actually broken Raqqa down into international zones because of language barriers,” former Defense Intelligence Agency head Flynn says. “The Australians alone have about 200 people. There’s even an Australian sector in Raqqa and they’re tied into the other English speakers because not everybody shows up speaking Arabic. This requires a military-like structure with military-like leadership.”
Because they are far from home, the foreigners are also Islamic State’s most loyal and compliant troops. They are used for propaganda purposes, as cannon fodder or deployed to commit atrocities. According to one estimate, 70 percent of IS suicide attacks have been committed by foreign fighters. “Such fighters are indispensable for IS: They project clout, strength and ideological determination,” writes terror expert Neumann. And they can be used for attacks in the West.
The investigation into the secret IS cell network in Europe is still in its early stages. In November, the American journalist Michael Weiss — one of the best known analysts of IS and co-author of the book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” — interviewed a local IS intelligence head who had fled to Turkey. The man, identified only by a pseudonym in the series of articles published in the Daily Beast, spoke of the Kafkaesque interrelationships of various IS security services — and revealed how the organization is reacting to the fact that it has become more difficult for foreign fighters to join IS. “The most important thing,” he said, “is that they are trying to make sleeper cells all over the world.” ISIS leadership has “asked people to stay in their countries and fight there, kill citizens, blow up buildings, whatever they can do. You don’t have to come.”
All of those Paris attackers who have been identified spent at least some time in Syria, but they were all citizens of EU countries. They were radicalized in the societies where they grew up. Often, their own parents tried to prevent them from going down the Islamist path, which shows that modern-day jihadism is also a generational problem.
That’s not just true of Abaaoud, but also of Samy Amimour, one of the Bataclan attackers. He’s from a family with Algerian roots that lives in the Paris banlieue of Drancy. Back when he was just sitting around at home, watching Islamist videos and insisting that his mother cover herself, his father became concerned that Samy was slipping away. Because his son hardly spoke any Arabic, the father translated religious texts into French because he had the impression that his son had a misguided interpretation of Islam.
Nowhere to Be
When Samy Amimour took off for Syria, his father went after him and tried to convince him to come back home. To no avail.
Olivier Roy, a French expert on Islamism, writes in Le Monde: “Almost all French radicals belong to one of two categories: They either come from the second generation of immigrants or they are converts.” What do the two groups have in common? “They break with their parents, or, to be more precise, with that which their parents represent when it comes to culture and religion.”
IS divides the younger generation from the older: That can also be seen at the Tawhid Mosque on Avenue Danielle Casanova in Le Blanc-Mesnil, which neighbors Darcy. Samy Amimour is thought to have visited the unremarkable, green-painted building a couple of times. Most of those who can be seen at the mosque, though, are elderly men. The younger ones can be found a hundred meters away, hanging out in front of a food stand and a café. There are perhaps a dozen of them, in their twenties and wearing sweat suits or sarwal, the baggy pants with the low-hanging crotch that Salafists prefer. It is just before noon on a workday, but none of those present have anywhere to be.
A young Frenchman with Moroccan roots who only identifies himself as Mohammed says he didn’t know Amimour, adding that he only goes to the mosque to pray. “This is a mosque for the old ones. It is full of state spies, especially now,” Mohammed says. When he talks about “the old ones,” Mohammed is referring to those of his parents’ generation. “They came here and only worked. They made themselves small and forgot their true religion.”
Mohammed rejects the attacks of Nov. 13 as “criminal.” But he also says things like: “When the French kill women and children in Syria, they shouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happens to them.”
He says he has no desire to go to Syria, but adds that he is thinking about moving to Morocco. Europe is becoming increasingly “mean spirited,” he says — anti-Muslim hostility, airstrikes against IS and now, following the attacks, an uptick in the number of police raids without search warrants in France.
He also admits to watching the newest Islamic State videos on his smartphone every day — “out of pure curiosity,” he says. “It’s not like the media portrays it.” He clicks on a propaganda video showing bombed-out houses and claiming that French warplanes had been responsible for the bombardment, which allegedly killed several civilians. No proof for the claims is offered.
Jihad in Germany
There are many like Mohammed in France, young men who live in housing projects on the outskirts of the city. Young men who feel oppressed as Muslims and who hate the country they live in. In Germany, there are no real ghettos of the kind found in France and there is also a lack of the historical rage that some French immigrants hold for the former colonial power.
But in Germany, too, there is a new generation of radicals. And here too, they aren’t imports from the Arab world, but young Germans who say everything they want to say in the German language. Of the Germans who traveled to the Middle East to join the jihad, one-third have since returned home — to Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt or Dusseldorf. They are received by state prosecutors, who open investigations into the returnees on suspicion of terrorist activities. The probe encompasses everyone around them, including wives, friends and relatives. They are accused of financing terror, membership in a foreign terror group and are often suspected of having fought and even killed. Most of all, though, German judges these days are trying to determine if the returnees in the docket in front of them are disillusioned fighters who regret having joined the jihad in the first place. Or whether they could be potential sleepers who might commit attacks in the future.
How should a state react to the danger? Is the solution to shut down entire cities, as happened in Brussels last weekend? Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is demanding the introduction of ankle monitors for those returning from Syria. President François Hollande wants to revoke French citizenship for convicted terrorists who possess dual citizenship. But there are more than 10,000 people in France with “Fiche S” files, which means they are seen as a potential danger to the state. There may not be as many in Germany, but officials here are also wondering what to do about them.
Those who organize terror attacks have often long been on the radar of law enforcement officials, but it is difficult to convict them. The state of emergency recently authorized by French parliament now allows officials to disregard many legal safeguards — they have been granted the ability to conduct arbitrary searches, for example. That, though, often serves to magnify the stigmatization already felt by many Muslims — because it is primarily the doors of Muslim families that are kicked in, and their sons that are pressed up against the wall by heavily armed gendarmes.
On Tuesday of this week, in the bucolic landscape south of Toulouse, all hell broke loose. Around 100 police officers stormed a run-down house on the edge of a ravine. The place is the home of Olivier Corel, who is also known as the “white emir.” Investigators believe him to be one of the most dangerous Islamists in France, a preacher who is thought to have turned several young men into murderers and terrorists. He is considered to be the spiritual leader of a strong terror cell in southern France.
The Spiritual Leader
Investigators and intelligence officials have had him on their radar for years, but have thus far been unable to prove anything against him. But on Tuesday, police found an old hunting rifle that Corel had failed to register.
Just one day later, his trial was held in the new courthouse in the department capital of Foix. It was a farce that showed just how uneasy France is and how eager officials are to produce successes in the battle against terror. Corel, 69, was sitting in a glass box in the courtroom. With his mottled gray hair, gray beard and worn jacket, he looked like a French farmer. But Corel came to France from Syria in 1973, his name back then was Abdulilah Qorel.
During the proceedings, one of the three judges asked him about alleged contacts with known terrorists: to Fabien Clain, whose voice was identified on the audio message in which Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, and to Mohamed Merah, who attacked French soldiers and Jewish civilians in a trio of shootings in March 2012. Corel claimed that he had nothing to do with any of it.
The public prosecutor then held a rather odd final argument, beginning by noting that a state-of-emergency was in effect. “We have 130 dead in Paris. The judiciary must provide a clear answer. We have to show vigilance.” Corel’s court-appointed defender shyly noted that the indictment was actually only about an old hunting rifle. Ultimately, Corel was sentenced to two years of probation, the first six months of which are to be accompanied by strict constraints.
The police commander, Christophe Rouget, says Corel is the “spiritual leader” of the terror cell surrounding Toulouse. “But he is very clever” — too clever to publicly call for acts of terror to be committed. His group, Rouget goes on, is like a sect. “Young men from the margins of society come to him. They have no direction and don’t know what to do with their lives.” People like Corel, Rouget says, give such men a direction, and send them into jihad.
There are hundreds of Islamists in the region, from three generations, says a criminal defense lawyer in describing the region’s Islamist scene. The lawyer is familiar with several cases, but prefers to remain anonymous out of fear. At the end of the 1990s, he says, many Islamists came to Toulouse from Algeria. Starting in 2000, a second generation joined them, men like Clain and Merah and radicalized by preachers such as Corel. They are the predecessors of the ones who are now being attracted by Islamic State.
A Shoot Out in Saint-Denis
It was only four days after the attacks in Paris that officials were able to track down Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who spent the evening of the attacks near the Bataclan. Together with two other members of his cell, Abaaoud had barricaded himself in an apartment in Saint-Denis. One of them was his alleged cousin, Hasna Ait Boulahcen.
Officials believe they were planning another attack, this time on the La Défense quarter of Paris. In Saint-Denis, he and his accomplices engaged in a seven-hour battle with the hundreds of police, anti-terror officers and soldiers who deployed to capture him. The operation ended with their deaths.
French security officials knew soon after the operation that Abaaoud was among the dead, but kept the information quiet for quite some time. The police had found several mobile phones in the possession of the now dead terror suspects and hoped to use them to find Abaaoud’s contacts.
Still, two weeks after the attacks in Paris, many questions remain open. Not all of the perpetrators have yet been identified and investigations continue into several suspects.
Most of all, though: Nobody knows if the next Abdelhamid Abaaoud has long-since set up shop in Europe.
By Maik Baumgärtner, Sven Becker, Jörg Diehl, Matthias Gebauer, Özlem Gezer, Clemens Höges, Katrin Kuntz, Juliane von Mittelstaedt, Peter Müller, Christoph Reuter, Mathieu von Rohr, Raniah Salloum, Fidelius Schmid, Samiha Shafy, Holger Stark, Andreas Wassermann and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt