As information trickles out to the public about Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the ISIL member believed to be the architect behind the attacks in Paris, it’s becoming clear that the Belgian citizen thought to be living in Syria was well known to intelligence services.
In fact, the Wall Street Journal reports that an alliance of Western countries tried to have him killed by an airstrike (paywall) two weeks before the attacks in Paris. However, officials told the paper those attempts proved difficult as they weren’t sure if intercepted communications were conducted by Abaaoud or his 13-year-old brother, who he recruited to ISIL.
Although Abaaoud’s name is only now gaining prominence in the press, the attacks he has allegedly planned have been widely reported. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has tracked the clearest timeline of at least three attacks that authorities think were directed by Abaaoud this year:
- In February, Belgian police were engaged in a violent confrontation with a suspected terrorist cell in Verviers, as part of raids in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. After killing two, the police uncovered a plot to attack Belgian security services. Abaaoud was named as a planner of the thwarted plot.
- In April, French paramedics rushed to aid an Algerian-born French student lying in the street, suffering from a gunshot wound. Authorities later determined that the student accidentally shot himself while planning to attack a church. A French official told the Associated Press this week that Abaaoud was also connected to this incident.
- In August, three Americans on vacation—two of them off-duty soldiers—tackled a heavily armed gunman aboard a train from Amsterdam to Paris, preventing a deadly attack. (The would-be terrorist boarded the train in Brussels.) The same official told the AP that Abaaoud was involved in this plot as well.
Despite planning these attacks, Abaaoud has been able to evade European authorities, hiding out in Syria or Greece instead of Belgium or France, the target of his attacks. In addition to the airstrikes, European authorities planned a continent-wide manhunt for Abaaoud (paywall) after the Verviers incident, although that too was eventually aborted.
The trans-national nature of ISIL, and Abaaoud’s long international reach, underscores the need for closer cross-border collaboration between intelligence agencies to prevent more attacks in the future.