Abdelhamid Abaaoud, named by French investigators as the commander who organised Friday’s terror strikes in Paris, spoke in February of his success in penetrating European border defences and obtaining weapons for a terrorist strike.
In an interview to Islamic State’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, Abaaoud said, “We spent months trying to find a way into Europe, and by Allah’s strength, we succeeded in finally making our way to Belgium. We were then able to obtain weapons and set up a safe house while we planned to carry out operations against the crusaders.”
Born to Moroccan immigrant parents, the 27-year-old Belgian citizen is alleged to have organised an attempted attack on an Amsterdam-Paris high-speed train and a strike on a church in Paris earlier this year.
But police shot dead two men in a safehouse thought to be controlled by Abaaoud, ahead of what they said was an imminent terrorist strike. Following the shootout, Abaaoud is believed to have returned to Syria.
Police have cordoned of large swathes of the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, where Abaaoud hails from. Belgian authorities have also made several arrests linked to individuals who are believed to have facilitated the attacks.
“Allah chose me, Abu Zubayr al-Baljiki (Khalid), and Abu Khalid al-Baljiki (Sufyan) to travel to Europe in order to terrorise the crusaders waging war against the Muslims,” Abaaoud said in the interview.
In another interview given to a Belgian newspaper earlier this year, Abdelhamid’s father Omar Abaaoud said he had disowned his older son. “Abdelhamid has brought shame to our family. Why would he want to kill innocent Belgians? Our family owes everything to this country,” Omar said.
French nationals in Belgium named as members of the cell that carried out Friday’s strikes include Ibrahim Abdeslam, a 1984-born French citizen who participated in the suicide attack on the Comptoir Voltaire, and his 1989-born brother Abdeslam Salah, who hired the Volkswagen Polo used at the Bataclan theatre shooting.
Salah, it has emerged, was stopped by police on his way home to Belgium after the attacks, but allowed to go after nothing suspicious was seen.
Home to more than 500,000 Muslims, mostly French-speaking North Africans, Belgium has seen high levels of discontent among young, unemployed children of immigrants in post-industrial towns like Verviers, once a major centre for wool and other textiles.
Belgium has the highest number of citizens per-capita fighting with the Islamic State. The government officially estimates over 100 have come back with combat experience.