Attacks were ordered from Syria and planned in Belgium
High-ranking Frenchmen in Islamic State may have chosen Paris targets, sources say
The French air force launched air strikes against Islamic State in its Raqqa stronghold in Syria on Sunday. Photograph: EPA
The investigation into the attacks that killed at least 129 people and wounded hundreds more in Paris on November 13th focuses on the Raqqa-Molenbeek-Paris triangle, the places where the slaughter was conceived, planned and staffed, and executed.
Abedelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian citizen from the Molenbeek suburb of Brussels, is believed by French officials to have incited the “eight brothers” from Islamic State (IS) to carry out the attacks. He is based in Raqqa, Islamic State’s “capital” in northern Syria.
At least three of the assailants were French citizens living in Belgium. According to a French intelligence report, quoted by Le Monde: “To avoid detection, IS advises its members to act in countries other than their countries of origin.”
One of the Frenchmen resident in Belgium, Salah Abdeslam, served time in a Belgian prison with Abaaoud and may have provided the link between Molenbeek and Raqqa.
Islamic State’s claim of responsibility said the attacks “targeted carefully chosen sites in the heart of Paris”.
Bombing raidsSalim BenghalemFrance
The French defence ministry said it carried out “massive” bombing raids against a command post and a training camp in Raqqa on Sunday night in retaliation for the Paris killings.
Nicolas Hénin, the French journalist and author who was held hostage by IS in Raqqa in 2013-2014, spoke out against the bombing. Half a million people still live in Raqqa and as many again in the surrounding countryside.
“Hitting Raqqa to avenge Paris merely throws hundreds of thousands of people into the arms of Islamic State,” Hénin says. “Even if no civilians are killed, it is traumatising for them, and it feeds IS’s claims that, ‘The whole world is against us. We are being massacred’.”
Horrified as he is by the slaughter in Paris, Hénin believes it is important to keep a sense of perspective.
“The death toll in Paris was half of one day in Syria,” he says. “There have been 200 people killed every day there for four years.”
Bloomsbury has just published Hénin’s book Jihad Academy: The Rise of Islamic State. Except for jihadi recruits, no westerners have visited Raqqa since Hénin and his colleagues were kidnapped there in 2013.
Raqqa was bombarded by Bashar al-Assad’s army, taken over by IS, then fell victim to western and now Russian air strikes. Hénin is in contact with civilian activists there who tell him of conditions in the city.
“The two bridges have been destroyed,” a founder of the group called Abu Ibrahim told him. “We rarely have water and electricity. People have to cross the Euphrates on little boats and take their water from it. The hospitals have also been bombed and are closed, at least for the time being.”
Islamic tribunals condemn someone to death every three days on average, according to Hénin. Most of the executions are carried out downtown, on Naim Square. Convicts are often crucified before they are executed, and their bodies are displayed as a lesson, meaning corpses can be seen almost continuously.
The fact that at least five of the eight killers were French is evidence that such instructions are followed. Intelligence services make a distinction between attacks carried out under orders from Islamic State and those carried out in its name. The November 13th massacre appears to have been the former; Amedy Coulibaly’s attack on a Jewish supermarket last January was the latter.
Relations between the IS leadership and recruits is highly decentralised. Hénin likens IS to the gangs that plague western cities. “Instead of gangs, they call their groups ‘katibas’ and they call their gang leaders ‘emirs’. But they function like secretive teenage gangs.”
The “emirs” in Raqqa are believed to communicate with European jihadis through text messages on encrypted services such as the Telegram app.