Suspected Paris attacks leader boasted of crossing borders

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Paris Attacks: Profile of Key Suspect, Abdelhamid Abaaoud

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -- Abdelhamid Abaaoud, suspected planner of the Paris attacks, mocked European frontier controls and boasted of the ease with which he could move between Syria to his Belgian homeland and the rest of Europe.

As police piece together how militants mounted Friday's assaults, evidence that some involved had fought in Syria and were on wanted lists, yet slipped back to kill 129 people, will raise a host of questions on how Europe tracks local Islamists and controls the borders it has opened to half a million Syrian refugees.

SEE ALSO: 2 dead, 7 arrested in raid targeting Paris attack mastermind

Abaaoud, a 28-year-old of Moroccan origin, was the best known of more than 350 Belgians to fight in Syria -- proportionately the biggest contingent from Europe -- and in particular of dozens of young men from the poor Molenbeek district of Brussels to take up arms for Islamic State.

His notoriety was based on videos on social media and, for the past year, his boasts of mounting attacks in Europe.

See photos of Abaaoud and other suspects in the Paris attacks:

3 PHOTOS
Suspects in the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Salah Abdeslam, Ahmad Almohammad
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Suspected Paris attacks leader boasted of crossing borders
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, suspected mastermind of the #ParisAttacks was "interviewed" in #ISIS's Dabiq magazine https://t.co/wSKmztFfn5
BREAKING: Third Bataclan attacker identified as Foued Mohamed-Aggad https://t.co/FYwEykV9Kp https://t.co/7g6vH7gvwH
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In a slick online English-language magazine produced by Islamic State in February, Abaaoud, now known as Abu Omar al-Baljiki -- the Belgian -- said he had been in his homeland the previous month planning attacks with two others who had fought in Syria and who died in a Belgian police raid in January.

He had, he said, returned to Syria, despite his face having been well known to police thanks to a much-posted video of him driving a pick-up truck towing the bloodied bodies of prisoners.

"I suddenly saw my picture all over the media, but alhamdulillah (thanks be to God), the kuffar (infidels) were blinded by Allah," he said. "I was even stopped by an officer who contemplated me so as to compare me to the picture, but he let me go, as he did not see the resemblance.

"This was nothing but a gift from Allah."

Boasts like that from one of Europe's most wanted men are likely to fuel debate on stepping up measures like the use of biometric passports, including fingerprint or iris data, that could combat the use of fake documents and human recognition.

A PROMISING STUDENT

Once a student of some promise -- at 12 he won a scholarship to an elite Catholic school miles from his family clothes store in Molenbeek -- he later worked with his father, Omar, but in 2013 vanished suddenly before showing up in Syria.

Omar has since disowned him and accused him of kidnapping his younger brother who, at just 13, was vaunted on social media as becoming the youngest foreign fighter in Syria.

Security officials have said Abaaoud may have first returned briefly to Europe in late 2013 and then returned before the attacks on French magazine Charlie Hebdo this January.

A week later, two of his alleged accomplices were killed in a raid in the eastern Belgian town of Verviers that officials said foiled a plot to kidnap and kill a police officer.

In his online interview, supposedly back in Syria, Abaaoud said he was the only one who traveled with the two dead men, named in Belgium as Sofiane A and Khalid B, both in their 20s, although a third man was arrested in connection with the case.

Asked if the trio, who were pictured together in the online publication Dabiq against a background of blue sky and olive trees, had found it hard to return to Europe, he said:

"We faced a number of trials during the journey. We spent months trying to find a way into Europe, and by Allah's strength, we succeeded in finally making our way to Belgium."

Security officials believe they entered Europe via Greece.

"We were then able to obtain weapons and set up a safe house while we planned to carry out operations against the crusaders.

"The kuffar raided the place with more than 150 soldiers from both French and Belgian special forces units. After a gun battle that lasted about 10 minutes, both brothers were blessed with shahadah (martyrdom), which is what they had desired."

Abaaoud noted that he had previously been in prison in Belgium -- local media have said he was jailed for robbery in 2010 and spent time alongside Salah Abdeslam, the 26-year-old Molenbeek man also sought over the Paris attacks and whose elder brother has been identified as one of seven suicide bombers.

The Abdeslam brothers ran a Molenbeek bar shut down for drug dealing this summer. Both were on the Belgian intelligence services radar as possibly having been radicalized, judicial officials told Le Soir newspaper.

The elder, Brahim, had traveled to Turkey hoping to reach Syria but was deported by the Turks and questioned on his return. So too was Salah, though it is unclear if he had ever tried or succeeded in traveling to Syria.

Photos of the anti-terrorism raids across Europe:

27 PHOTOS
Anti-terrorism raids and arrests across Europe after Paris attacks
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Suspected Paris attacks leader boasted of crossing borders
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - DECEMBER 29: Security forces of Belgium stand guard as two people arrested on suspicion of terrorism in Brussels, Belgium on December 29, 2015. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - DECEMBER 29: Security forces of Belgium stand guard as two people arrested on suspicion of terrorism in Brussels, Belgium on December 29, 2015. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 20: On the street where the raid took place in the Saint Denis area of Paris, and where three people died, including the ringleader of the terrorist attack, police man the security barrier as the investigation at the apartment continues. A third body was found in the rubble today. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
ALSDORF, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 17: Heavily-armed members of the German SEK special forces police unit stand outside a house in Schaufenberger Strasse street where they possibly made two arrests on November 17, 2015 in Alsdorf, Germany. Police announced earlier today that a unit of the SEK special forces had in a separate incident arrested two men and one woman at 9:30 this morning in connection with the recent terror attacks in Paris in the parking lot of a Jobcenter employment office. So far it is unclear who the suspects are though initial reports indicate Salah Abdeslam, a brother of a man who took part in the attacks and whom police are searching for across Europe, is not among them. (Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images)
ALSDORF, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 17: Heavily-armed members of the German SEK special forces police unit stand outside a house in Schaufenberger Strasse street where they possibly made two arrests on November 17, 2015 in Alsdorf, Germany. Police announced earlier today that a unit of the SEK special forces had in a separate incident arrested two men and one woman at 9:30 this morning in connection with the recent terror attacks in Paris in the parking lot of a Jobcenter employment office. So far it is unclear who the suspects are though initial reports indicate Salah Abdeslam, a brother of a man who took part in the attacks and whom police are searching for across Europe, is not among them. (Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images)
Policemen check the identity of motorists as part of security measures set following terrorist attacks in Paris on November 17, 2015 at the French-Belgium border in Neuville-en-Ferrain. AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)
ALSDORF, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 17: Police officers arrive at Schaufenberger Strasse street where they possibly made two arrests on November 17, 2015 in Alsdorf, Germany. Police announced earlier today that a unit of the SEK special forces had in a separate incident arrested two men and one woman at 9:30 this morning in connection with the recent terror attacks in Paris in the parking lot of a Jobcenter employment office. So far it is unclear who the suspects are though initial reports indicate Salah Abdeslam, a brother of a man who took part in the attacks and whom police are searching for across Europe, is not among them. (Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images)
Police officers patrol at the main railway station in Berlin, on November 17, 2015. Security has been tightned in Germany following the string of coordinated attacks in and around Paris late November 13, 2015 left at least 129 people dead, in the worst such violence in France's history. AFP PHOTO / DPA / KAY NIETFELD +++ GERMANY OUT +++ (Photo credit should read KAY NIETFELD/AFP/Getty Images)
ALSDORF, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 17: Police officers arrive at Schaufenberger Strasse street where they possibly made two arrests on November 17, 2015 in Alsdorf, Germany. Police announced earlier today that a unit of the SEK special forces had in a separate incident arrested two men and one woman at 9:30 this morning in connection with the recent terror attacks in Paris in the parking lot of a Jobcenter employment office. So far it is unclear who the suspects are though initial reports indicate Salah Abdeslam, a brother of a man who took part in the attacks and whom police are searching for across Europe, is not among them. (Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images)
Policemen check the identity of motorists as part of security measures set following terrorist attacks in Paris on November 17, 2015 at the French-Belgium border in Neuville-en-Ferrain. AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Belgium special force officers us a camera as they prepare to enter a house in the Rue Delaunoy in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean of Brussels, on November 16, 2015, several days after a series of deadly attacks on the French capital Paris. During the weekend searches were carried out and multiple people were arrested in relation to the November 13 attacks in Paris which left at least 129 dead and 350 injured. Most people were killed during a concert in venue Bataclan, the other targets were a restaurant and a soccer game. The attacks have been claimed by Islamic State. AFP PHOTO/BELGA/DIRK WAEM =BELGIUM OUT= (Photo credit should read DIRK WAEM/AFP/Getty Images)
Belgium special force officers prepare to enter a house in the Rue Delaunoy in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean of Brussels, on November 16, 2015, several days after a series of deadly attacks on the French capital Paris. During the weekend searches were carried out and multiple people were arrested in relation to the November 13 attacks in Paris which left at least 129 dead and 350 injured. Most people were killed during a concert in venue Bataclan, the other targets were a restaurant and a soccer game. The attacks have been claimed by Islamic State. AFP PHOTO/BELGA/DIRK WAEM =BELGIUM OUT= (Photo credit should read DIRK WAEM/AFP/Getty Images)
Belgium special force officers climb the outside of a house as they prep[are to enter in the Rue Delaunoy in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean of Brussels, on November 16, 2015, several days after a series of deadly attacks on the French capital Paris. During the weekend searches were carried out and multiple people were arrested in relation to the November 13 attacks in Paris which left at least 129 dead and 350 injured. Most people were killed during a concert in venue Bataclan, the other targets were a restaurant and a soccer game. The attacks have been claimed by Islamic State. AFP PHOTO/BELGA/DIRK WAEM =BELGIUM OUT= (Photo credit should read DIRK WAEM/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers look on as an operation takes place in the Molenbeek district of Brussels on November 16, 2015. Belgian police launched a major new operation in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, where several suspects in the Paris attacks had previously lived, AFP journalists said. Armed police stood in front of a police van blocking a street in the run-down area of the capital while Belgian media said officers had surrounded a house. Belgian prosecutors had no immediate comment. AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the special police forces takes a picture outside a house being searched in the Rue Delaunoy in Brussels on November 16, 2015. During the weekend searches were carried out and multiple people were arrested in relation to Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris. Several terrorist attacks in Paris, France, have left at least 129 dead and 350 injured. Most people were killed during a concert in venue Bataclan, the other targets were a restaurant and a soccer game. The attacks have been claimed by Islamic State. AFP PHOTO/BELGA/BENOIT DOPPAGNE (Photo credit should read BENOIT DOPPAGNE/AFP/Getty Images)
Security forces personnel walk past during ongoing operations in the Molenbeek district of Brussels on November 16, 2015. Belgian police launched a major new operation in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, where several suspects in the Paris attacks had previously lived, AFP journalists said. Armed police stood in front of a police van blocking a street in the run-down area of the capital while Belgian media said officers had surrounded a house. Belgian prosecutors had no immediate comment. AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Police escort a woman away from the scene as an operation takes place in the Molenbeek district of Brussels on November 16, 2015. Belgian police launched a major new operation in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, where several suspects in the Paris attacks had previously lived, AFP journalists said. Armed police stood in front of a police van blocking a street in the run-down area of the capital while Belgian media said officers had surrounded a house. Belgian prosecutors had no immediate comment. AFP PHOTO / BELGA / BENOIT DOPPAGNE (Photo credit should read BENOIT DOPPAGNE/AFP/Getty Images)
Heavily armed special forces stand guard outside a house being searched in the Rue Delaunoy in Brussels on November 16, 2015. During the weekend searches were carried out and multiple people were arrested in relation to Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris. Several terrorist attacks in Paris, France, have left at least 129 dead and 350 injured. Most people were killed during a concert in venue Bataclan, the other targets were a restaurant and a soccer game. The attacks have been claimed by Islamic State. AFP PHOTO/BELGA/DIRK WAEM (Photo credit should read DIRK WAEM/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers man a cordon as an operation takes place in the Molenbeek district of Brussels on November 16, 2015. Belgian police launched a major new operation in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, where several suspects in the Paris attacks had previously lived, AFP journalists said. Armed police stood in front of a police van blocking a street in the run-down area of the capital while Belgian media said officers had surrounded a house. Belgian prosecutors had no immediate comment. AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Heavily armed special forces stand guard outside a house being searched in the Rue Delaunoy in Brussels on November 16, 2015. During the weekend searches were carried out and multiple people were arrested in relation to Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris. Several terrorist attacks in Paris, France, have left at least 129 dead and 350 injured. Most people were killed during a concert in venue Bataclan, the other targets were a restaurant and a soccer game. The attacks have been claimed by Islamic State. AFP PHOTO/BELGA/BENOIT DOPPAGNE (Photo credit should read BENOIT DOPPAGNE/AFP/Getty Images)
Special force officers move into position outside a house being searched in the Rue Delaunoy in Brussels on November 16, 2015. During the weekend searches were carried out and multiple people were arrested in relation to Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris. Several terrorist attacks in Paris, France, have left at least 129 dead and 350 injured. Most people were killed during a concert in venue Bataclan, the other targets were a restaurant and a soccer game. The attacks have been claimed by Islamic State. AFP PHOTO/BELGA/DIRK WAEM =BELGIUM OUT= (Photo credit should read DIRK WAEM/AFP/Getty Images)
An anti-bomb robot is pictured on the scene of a bomb alert at the Rue des Deux Eglises (Tweekerkenstraat street) in downtown Brussels on November 16, 2015. AFP PHOTO / BELGA PHOTO / ERIC LALMAND ** Belgium Out ** (Photo credit should read ERIC LALMAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers man a cordon as an operation takes place in the Molenbeek district of Brussels on November 16, 2015. Belgian police launched a major new operation in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, where several suspects in the Paris attacks had previously lived, AFP journalists said. Armed police stood in front of a police van blocking a street in the run-down area of the capital while Belgian media said officers had surrounded a house. Belgian prosecutors had no immediate comment. AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers man a cordon as an operation takes place in the Molenbeek district of Brussels on November 16, 2015. Belgian police launched a major new operation in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, where several suspects in the Paris attacks had previously lived, AFP journalists said. Armed police stood in front of a police van blocking a street in the run-down area of the capital while Belgian media said officers had surrounded a house. Belgian prosecutors had no immediate comment. AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Belgian police cordon off a street during a police raid in connection with the November 13 deadly attacks in Paris, in Brussels' Molenbeek district on November 14, 2015. Several people were arrested in Brussels on November 14 during police raids connected to the attacks in Paris, Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens said. Geens said on RTBF television that these arrests in the capital's Molenbeek neighbourhood 'can be seen in connection with a grey Polo car rented in Belgium' found near the concert hall in the French capital where scores of people were killed. AFP PHOTO / BELGA / JAMES ARTHUR GEKIERE = BELGIUM OUT = (Photo credit should read JAMES ARTHUR GEKIERE/AFP/Getty Images)
A car is towed during a police raid in Brussels' Molenbeek district on November 14, 2015, in connection with the November 13 deadly attacks in Paris. Several people were arrested in Brussels on November 14 during police raids connected to the attacks in Paris, Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens said. Geens said on RTBF television that these arrests in the capital's Molenbeek neighbourhood 'can be seen in connection with a grey Polo car rented in Belgium' found near the concert hall in the French capital where scores of people were killed. AFP PHOTO / BELGA / JAMES ARTHUR GEKIERE = BELGIUM OUT = (Photo credit should read JAMES ARTHUR GEKIERE/AFP/Getty Images)
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"ALLAH BLINDED THEIR VISION"

After the Verviers raid, Abaaoud told the Dabiq online site: "They gathered intelligence agents from all over the world ... to detain me. They arrested Muslims in Greece, Spain, France, and Belgium in order to apprehend me." None of those were associates, he said, and he was able to make it back to Syria.

"Allah blinded their vision and I was able to leave and come to Sham (Syria) despite being chased after by so many intelligence agencies. All this proves that a Muslim should not fear the bloated image of the crusader intelligence. My name and picture were all over the news yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely."

French and Belgian security officials believe Abaaoud has been closely involved with at least three other attacks. He was in contact with Mehdi Nemmouche, the Frenchman facing trial for killing four people at Brussels' Jewish Museum in May 2014.

He is suspected of a role in a failed attack on a church in a Paris suburb in April this year and in an abortive attempt by another man to shoot dozens of people aboard an Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris Thalys express train in August.

A French judicial source said a French jihadist questioned on his return to France from Syria in August said he was ordered by Abaaoud to travel via Prague to avoid detection and to scout out a soft target in Europe -- such as a concert hall -- to ensure a high death toll.

Roland Jacquard, a French security expert, said Abaaoud was part of a French-speaking brigade of Islamic State in Raqqa, which was targeted by French air strikes last month, and that he was subordinate to Salim Benghalem, a Frenchman on global most wanted lists and may have ultimately ordered the Paris attacks.

Omar Abaaoud, whose own father arrived in Belgium from Morocco four decades ago to work in the coalmines, told Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws in January after the Verviers raid:

"We had a good, I'd say a fantastic life. Abdelhamid wasn't a difficult child and a good manager. But then he all of a sudden left for Syria.

"I think about why he left every day and why he turned so incredibly radical at such short notice. There will never be a real answer ... I don't understand why he wanted to attack Belgium. Our family owes everything to this country."

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