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The Paris attacks: Who? Why?

Weekend Read: The atrocities of November 13th, committed by ordinary-looking young Europeans are the culmination of two decades of French jihadism

Suicide bomber: 20-year-old Bilal Hadfi, who blew himself outside the Stade de France, raising his right index finger in the Islamic State salute
Islamic State propaganda: Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s brother Younes, who was exploited in videos made by the organisation; he is raising his right index finger in the Islamic State salute
Paris mastermind: 28-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud as he appears in Islamic State’s English-language magazine, Dabiq
Islamic State attacker: 37-year-old convert Fabien Clain, the voice in an audio recording claiming responsibility for the attacks in Paris
Islamic State attacker: a registration photograph from a document issued to 25-year-old Ahmad Almohammad
Islamic State attacker: Salah Abdeslam, who led the three-man team that killed dozens of people on Paris cafe terraces

Their faces became familiar to us this week, through images recorded on Islamic State videos, through police mugshots and through Facebook pages. But they provide no clues about why five Frenchmen and a Belgian of north African Arab origin, aged between 21 and 31, set out to slaughter as many “infidels” as possible on the night of Friday, November 13th.

There is Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the 28-year-old jolly jihadist with a toothy grin and a taste for self-promotion. He died in a crumbling apartment building in Saint-Denis early on Wednesday, blown apart by police grenades or perhaps a suicide belt.

Could this goofy-looking young man really be “the face of terror,” as Libération newspaper called him? French authorities say Abaaoud planned the attacks that killed 129 people and wounded 352 others.

In his wanted photograph, 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam has a fine-featured – one is almost tempted to say gentle – face, of the sort one sees every day in Paris. The former tram worker ran his brother Brahim’s bar in the Molenbeek quarter of Brussels, where 80 per cent of the population is Arab.

A childhood friend of Abaaoud, Abdeslam led the three-man team that mowed down dozens of people on cafe terraces. He’s still on the run, but his brother Brahim, who was 31, died when he detonated an explosive vest.

Investigators now believe that Abaaoud was the third gunman in the cafe shootings, because video surveillance filmed him just after the attacks at the Montreuil metro station at 10.14pm.

Samy Amimour, who was 28, has a serious, brooding look, a shaved head and a tiny goatee beard. Amimour had sent for his 17-year-old fiancee, Kahina, whom he’d met when he was a bus driver in Paris’s northern suburbs in 2012. She is now pregnant and living in Islamic State’s “capital”, the Syrian city of Raqqa. “I’m the wife of a suicide bomber!” Kahina texted proudly to relatives in France.

Amimour died in the three-man attack that killed at least 89 people at the Bataclan concert hall.

Baby-faced Bilal Hadfi was the youngest, at 20. Like Abaaoud, Amimour and Ismael Omar Mostefai, a 29-year-old French extremist who had lived in Chartres, Hadfi was trained in Syria. Nobody has found a photograph of Mostefai, who also died at the Bataclan.

Most of the photographs defy our preconceived notions of what “terrorists” look like. With two exceptions.

Ahmad al-Mohammad, who also blew himself up outside the Stade de France, looks more foreign, less European. But nobody is sure if the Syrian passport found near his shredded body is authentic. His fingerprints match those of a migrant who passed through the Greek island of Leros, Macedonia and Serbia this autumn.

The face that comes closest to the stereotype is that of Fabien Clain, a 37-year-old French convert to Islam and longtime veteran of jihadism who took his family and followers to Syria last year. Clain has deep-set dark eyes, a fleshy face and thick black hair and beard. It was in Syria, probably in Raqqa, that he and his brother Jean-Michel recorded and posted the group’s claim of responsibility for the November 13th slaughter.

The first ‘home-grown terrorists’

Twenty years separate the first attacks in France by “home-grown terrorists” from the atrocities of November 13th. The pattern has been repeated each decade, in immigrant banlieues such as Les Minguettes, Le Mirail, Grigny and Saint-Denis.

In these situations the children of immigrants become petty criminals, serve time in prison, and convert to radical Islam. On release they seek combat experience, then return to attack the country they never felt part of.

In the 1990s the jihadists were mostly of Algerian origin, and they wanted to punish the French government for supporting the military regime in Algiers. Dismayed by the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya, some got involved in those conflicts. The Algerian Armed Islamic Group set up a franchise in the Lyons region. The “Roubaix gang”, on the Belgian border, sent the proceeds of its robberies to Bosnia.

Twenty-four-year-old Khaled Kelkal was France’s first “home-grown terrorist”, the prototype for a long string of muddled young men who became assassins. Among the most recent: Mohamed Merah, Mehdi Nemmouche, Chérif and Said Kouachi, Amedy Coulibaly, Sid Ahmed Ghlam and the perpetrators of the November 13th attacks.

That summer of 1995 France was terrorised by home-made bombs rigged with gas canisters. On July 25th, 1995, one exploded at the Saint-Michel RER train station, killing eight people and wounding 119. It was a turning point in the capital’s modern history, the moment, several people told me this week, beyond which they no longer felt safe in Paris.

A similar bomb exploded in a rubbish bin near the Arc de Triomphe, wounding 17 people, three of them critically. Police found Kelkal’s fingerprints on a gas-canister bomb on the high-speed TGV train line in late August. Then a car bomb targeted a Jewish school in Villeurbanne, wounding 14. Police identified Kelkal, a dropout and former petty criminal, as the country’s most wanted man.

“We expected a big international terrorist network, and we found out it was amateurs planting bombs,” said the journalist Robert Marmoz, who covered the story for Le Monde, in a recent article.

Kelkal and his close friend and accomplice Karim Koussa went on the run. Koussa was critically wounded in a shootout, captured and imprisoned. Kelkal escaped, and a two-day manhunt ensued. He was surrounded by eight gendarmes at a bus stop. The gendarmes opened fire. His death was filmed and shown within minutes on the evening news, but the voice of a gendarme shouting “Finish him off! Finish him off!” was cut from the broadcast.

After Kelkal’s death, on September 29th, 1995, Dietmar Loch, a young German sociologist, published an interview he’d conducted with Kelkal three years earlier.

Kelkal had been a good student until he was accepted by one of the best lycées in Lyons. “I had the ability to succeed, but there wasn’t a place for me, because I told myself ‘total integration is impossible’,” Kelkal told Loch in 1992. “Forget my culture. Eat pork. I cannot. They had never seen an Arab in their class, like they told me frankly . . . So I started stealing, hanging around.”

David Vallat, a French convert who served 10 years in prison for running an Islamist network in the Lyons area, had given Kelkal the gun he held when he was gunned down by gendarmes.

Vallat recalled in Le Monde after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, earlier this year, how Islamists in the mid-1990s had passed around videos that portrayed the world in black-and-white terms. Muslims were the victims. Their Russian, European, American and Israeli persecutors needed to be targeted .

“The principle is exactly the same today in Islamic State’s videos,” Vallat said. “Except today, with the internet, a person can radicalise himself alone in his bedroom, out of sight.”

In Bosnia, Vallat said, he was afraid “of ending anonymously, a body rotting in a ditch”. The jihadists who attacked Paris may have felt the same way. “You get to the point where you want to give more meaning to your death than to your life, a spectacular meaning.”

Like Khaled Kelkal, the young European men who carried out the November 13th massacre in Paris did not “find their place” in France or Belgium.

In the late 1990s French jihadists shifted their attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where some trained with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The 2003 invasion of Iraq inspired the Buttes-Chaumont network in Paris to send some of their own to fight the Americans in Baghdad. Fabien Clain, the native of Toulouse who claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks on behalf of Islamic State, was imprisoned for three years for participation in a similar network.

Chérif Kouachi, who, with his brother Said, killed 12 people at Charlie Hebdo magazine on January 7th this year, frequented the Buttes-Chaumont group in the 2000s. The Kouachi brothers trained briefly in Yemen, then linked up with Amedy Coulibaly, a Malian immigrant who served time in prison with Chérif and Djamel Beghal, an older jiahdist who had trained with al-Qaeda.

The Kouachis credited al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with their attack on Charlie Hebdo. Coulibaly coordinated with the Kouachis when he murdered a policewoman, then four people in the Hypercacher kosher supermarket. But Coulibaly dedicated his murders to Islamic State.

‘It was a gift from Allah’

Abdelhamid Abaaoud apparently had nothing to do with the January 2015 attacks, but France’s interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said on Thursday that Abaaoud had been the instigator of four of six recent attacks, some of them aborted, in France.

When Charlie Hebdo was attacked Abaaoud had returned to Belgium to run a jihadist cell in Verviers. Two Islamists were killed when police stormed their hideout on January 15th. Abaaoud subsequently bragged about his ability to move back and forth between Belgium and Syria, despite a conviction in absentia and a 20-year prison sentence in Belgium.

“I was stopped by an [immigration officer] who looked at me for a long time, then looked at the photo. But he didn’t recognise me, and let me continue,” Abaaoud told Islamic State’s English-language magazine, Dabiq, in February. “It was a gift from Allah.”

The Paris attacks have shone a spotlight on the failings of French and European intelligence and immigration services. Amimour was the subject of an international arrest warrant but, like Abaaoud, was able to travel freely from Syria to Paris.

In theory French jihadists are to be arrested if they return from Syria. Yet three French citizens returned from Syria to carry out the attacks apparently without difficulty. The Belgian government has put the Abdeslam brothers and Bilal Hadfi on their watch list. All three were French citizens, but Brussels neglected to notify Paris.

The family were not religious

Abbaoud’s father, Omar, emigrated from Morocco to Belgium, to work in a mine, 40 years ago. Omar Abaaoud later bought a clothing shop in Molenbeek and sent Abdelhamid to the Collège Saint-Pierre, a Catholic school in a fashionable neighbourhood. Abdelhamid was expelled the following year for disruptive behaviour. Omar purchased a second shop, in the hope that his son would run it.

But after he was expelled from school Abaaoud became increasingly delinquent. In 2010 he and his childhood friend Salah Abdeslam – who helped organise the November 13th Paris attacks – committed armed robbery. When Abaaoud came out of prison in September 2012, his father said last winter, he turned into a fundamentalist and went to Syria.

Abaaoud’s sister Yasmina has said the family was not religious, that no one went to the mosque. When someone telephoned the Abaaouds earlier this autumn to say that he was dead – a common ploy by Islamic State to facilitate its militants’ movements – Yasmina told Belgian media: “We really hope it’s true.”

Omar Abaaoud was interviewed by the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws after the Verviers cell was stormed last January. “I can’t take it any more . . . I’m ashamed for Abdelhamid, my son. He has ruined our lives. Why in the name of God would he want to kill innocent Belgians? Our family owes everything to this country.”

When Abaaoud was in training with other French-speaking recruits near Aleppo in the summer of 2013, he made his first video recording.

All his life, Abaaoud says in that video, he has “seen the blood of Muslims flowing”. He wants to “see God break the backs of those who oppose him”. Thereafter Abaaoud frequently posted photographs of himself armed with a Kalashnikov or posing with Islamic State props.

‘What happened to little Younes’

Abaaoud returned to Brussels briefly in early 2014. He lied to his parents, telling them he had given up religion and wanted to take his little brother Younes, then 13, to Morocco to see their grandfather. Instead he took Younes to Syria, where the child was exploited in Islamic State propaganda videos.

When Omar Abaaoud learned that his son had been the target of the French police raid in Saint-Denis “his reaction was to say that maybe at last he’ll find out what happened to little Younes”, the elder Abaaoud’s lawyer, Nathalie Gallant, told Belgian television. “Abdelhamid kidnapped him because he thought his father was giving him an infidel, European education.”

‘A cool Muslim woman’

Abaaoud did not hesitate to involve Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the French-born 26-year-old woman whom Moroccan intelligence identify as his cousin on his mother’s side, in his murderous plot.

The young woman was registered as the manager of a bankrupt construction company. Neighbours in Creutzwald, in Moselle, where Ait Boulahcen’s father lived, called her “the cowboy woman” because she wore a big hat. They described her as “a little mixed up” and an “extrovert” who drank alcohol.

Ait Boulahcen showed another side of herself on Facebook, in a full-length niqab veil, brandishing a weapon. She expressed admiration for Hayat Boumeddienne, the companion of the Hypercacher gunman Amedy Coulibaly, and wrote: “I’m going to Syria soon, God willing.” She had told acquaintances she would marry.

A neighbour in Saint-Denis described Ait Boulahcen to Le Figaro as “a cool Muslim woman, veiled but with make-up”.

She moved into the dilapidated apartment building several months ago, with what her neighbours assumed were relatives. “She bought her groceries every day at the Turkish shop on the corner . . . She was Madame Tout-le-Monde. I never could have imagined she was radicalised,” the neighbour said.

At 6am on Wednesday, after a shouted exchange with the French police outside, Ait Boulahcen’s suicide vest was detonated, by herself, by someone inside the apartment or by a police bullet.

Six of the Paris attackers on November 13th also died when their suicide belts exploded.

‘A beautiful way to die’

Islamic State has found a seemingly inexhaustible supply of young men and women willing to die for the “caliphate”. Christoph Reuter, a correspondent for the German magazine Spiegel, interviewed the man formerly in charge of suicide bombings in Iraq after he was imprisoned by the Iraqi government.

Asked if the suicide bombers whom he equipped ever had second thoughts, the Islamic State munitions expert said no. “When they were brought to me they were calm, sometimes even playful. When I put the belt on them they said things like: ‘It looks good on me!’ ”

He described how Abu Mohsen Qasimi, a young Syrian, was still joking two minutes before his operation. “Then he drove off alone, with a little wave of the hand.”

The Bataclan killer Samy Amimour had told his little sister Maya that to be blown up was “a beautiful way to die”.

’They looked drugged’

A client of a restaurant in the 11th arrondissement of Paris saw one of the cars used by the jihadists on the night of the 13th. “The driver had a hard time turning the steering wheel, as if he didn’t know how to drive. I told them they were parked badly,” the man told Le Figaro.

“They didn’t roll down the window, and they gave me a dirty look. They looked like the living dead, as if they were drugged . . . I got a good look at the driver and passenger, because they were tapping on their smartphones, which lit up their faces.”

Drugs may help to explain the sangfroid of the killers, who repeatedly reloaded their Kalashnikovs and calmly picked off diners and concert-goers.

French forensic scientists are testing the remains found in Paris and Saint-Denis for fenethylline, also known as Captagon. The drug imparts a sense of calm, vigilance, confidence and determination. The Islamic State attacker who killed 39 tourists on a beach in Tunisia last summer had traces of fenethylline in his body.

‘They went to clubs, smoked pot’

In Raqqa the Hesba moral police sniff civilians’ clothes and have them flogged if they smell of tobacco. Yet the Abdeslam brothers, who carried out the restaurant and cafe shootings, were known as drug dealers in Molenbeek.

Les Béguines cafe was owned by Brahim and run by Salah. It was shut down by Belgian police on November 4th because, a police notice said, a “strong odour of drugs was perceptible”.

“Partially consumed joints were found in ashtrays” and several clients were “found to be in possession of cannabis resin” during a routine check in August.

Like the Kouachi brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and the Clain brothers who claimed responsibility on behalf of Islamic State for the Paris attacks, the Abdeslam brothers were radicalised together. They hid their devotion to jihadism. There were large signs in the cafe advertising beer. No one recalled them going to a mosque.

“They went to nightclubs, smoked pot, slept with women,” an 18-year-old female neighbour told Libération. “A radical won’t even shake a girl’s hand.”

‘An ordinary teenager’

As the leader of the “Versailles locos” gang in a Brussels suburb, Bilal Hadfi posted photographs of himself raising the middle finger on his Facebook page. When he became religious the photographs changed to show him raising the index finger of his right hand in the Islamic State salute, which signifies the unity of God and of the movement.

Online, Hadfi seemed like an ordinary teenager. He called himself “Billy du Hood” and chose images of big cars, wads of banknotes and weapons. In the spring of 2014 Hadfi began showing signs of Islamic radicalism. When Israel assaulted Gaza that summer he wore a keffieh in pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

“He stopped smoking. He fasted two days a week to ask God’s pardon,” Hadfi’s widowed mother told La Libre Belgique newspaper when she was interviewed as the mother of a jihadist in Syria, 10 days before the Paris attacks. “I thought it was positive that he repented, and that he’d given up alcohol and pot.”

After Hadfi’s death his friends left tributes on his Facebook page, asking God to have mercy and to open the gates of paradise for him.

One comment, which was later removed, criticised French Muslims who condemned the attacks. “All those with the French flag, gang of traitors, you deserve to get shot,” it said.

Hadfi left for Syria last February, then returned to his native France to blow himself up outside the Stade de France. His short life had spanned the first two decades of French jihadism.