Paris Attacks Mastermind Was Killed – but Big Questions Remain

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Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the presumed architect of the attacks in Paris, holding an ISIS flag
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, architect of the November 2015 attacks in Paris. the worst atrocity in France since World War Two, holding an ISIS flagCredit: AP

PARIS - The official confirmation on Thursday that one of the bodies found in the apartment stormed by French forces in the Saint Denis suburb the day before was of Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a central planner of the attacks in Paris last Friday night points to a list of failures of French and European security services in confronting Islamist terror. It also indicates that ISIS is still far from being the super-professional international terror organization some portray it as. It is particularly proficient in one field: exploiting the freedoms and open borders of the European Union. Most of the other attacks planned by Abaaoud in Europe seem to have failed and the operational discipline of the men who carried out those in Paris was far from exemplary. They left behind documents at the scenes of murder and in their hideaways, as well as remnants of food and clothing which helped the investigators discover the identities of some of them within hours. 

Comparisons between the Paris attacks and those of 9/11 in the U.S. fifteen years ago don’t do justice to Al-Qaida, which sent experienced and well-educated operatives for flight-lessons and meticulously planned the complex hijacks of four passenger aircraft, three of which were crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, for many months. The Paris attackers were not of the same caliber and had been equipped mainly with Kalashnikovs, explosive vests and ideology. They needed a guiding hand from Abaaoud, who unlike what was previously believed, didn't direct the attacks from the Islamic State’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, but close by, at the heart of Europe. 

The big remaining question mark over the planning of the attacks is the identity of those in charge of the really complex side of the operation: The logistics of acquiring weapons and transporting them to Paris, and the preparation of the explosive vests the attackers used. It seems Abaaoud had a major part but he is unlikely to have been the only one behind the scenes, possibly meaning ISIS still has the operational and logistical infrastructure to carry out similar attacks in western Europe. 

Another disturbing question mark is the identity of the attacker who carried a fake Syrian passport with the name of a Syrian soldier killed earlier this year. Hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been streaming into Europe in recent months identified themselves and registered using similar documents, which seem to be easy to forge and acquire. This week, a refugee from Iraq who arrived a month ago at the “La Jungle” camp in Calais in north-western France, told of how he bought a fake Syrian passport in Turkey and used it to cross Europe. Now he ditched it for fear that it could mark him as a terror suspect. The issue of the fake passports further complicates the challenges facing western intelligence agencies in sharing information and coordinating surveillance of terror suspects: Both those born in Europe who are coming back from Syria after fighting with ISIS, and those who may have arrived in the continent under the guise of refugees. The fake passports issue is already making the argument between t
hose in Europe in favor of welcoming the refugees and those who want to close the borders to them much more bitter. 

There are coordination problems not only between the neighboring countries facing the same threat, like France and Belgium, but also between services and agencies of the same country. The only attacker currently known to have left the bombing and shooting scenes on Friday night (though there is no certainty that there were not other attackers which were not detected) Salah Abdesalam, was identified in the first two hours after the attack, but security service investigators kept the information to themselves instead of sending it to all police units. The police who questioned Abdesalam in a car near the Belgian border, with two other unidentified men, didn’t have his name or description, though these were already known to the security service. 

Police and soldiers in Paris this week weren’t carrying out body-searches or checking documents. They investigated the last attacks and remained on high-alert for further ones, but weren’t manning roadblocks or searching for suspects among passersby. The transformation the United States underwent following 9/11 isn’t happening yet in Paris, despite the waves of terror the city experienced this year, and probably won’t. An advisor to Prime Minister Manuel Valls upbraided a journalist on Monday for calling him on his phone - not for disturbing him in the middle of an emergency meeting, but having the effrontery to disrupt his lunch. This isn’t a country in midst of a war on terror and it is highly doubtful it will ever be. 

Every time a major terror attack takes place somewhere in the world, Israeli experts are quick to explain how it couldn’t happen here. They’re right. Attacks of the kind taking place in Europe since the Madrid train attacks in 2004 couldn’t take place in Israel. In a small country which for nearly seven decades has been surrounded by hostile entities, where members of minorities are subject to various levels of surveillance, where the proportion of gun-owners, citizens with military experience, security personnel among general population are some of the highest in the world. The chance a terror organization could carry out such a complex operation, simultaneously paralyzing a large city, is close to zero. But that’s not exactly something we should be proud about. 

Israeli media covered the Paris attacks with a breadth seldom seen in foreign events. Newspaper spreads, hours of broadcasts, entire teams of reporters, cameramen and producers sent by the commercial television channels to the French capital. The motive is clear – Paris is close to the heart of Israel’s middle class, which manages and consumes the news. They all love to visit it and want to feel that it is also a bit theirs. Paris of the last week, after the attacks, the darkening of the Eiffel Tower and the closing for two days of museums, wasn’t different from the hedonistic, raucous, eating and drinking Paris we know. In most places, including the central quarters, the 1,500 soldiers brought in as reinforcement were barely noticeable. Israelis look askance and mutter “don’t they know there’s a war on?” but how many of them would want to continue visiting a France that becomes a suspicious, closed counter-terrorist state – like Israel?