Days at the wheel, months of planning for Paris attack fugitive

PARIS -- At the height of Europe's vacation season, a young man with French and Belgian IDs caught a ferry from southern Italy to Greece.

See Full Article

He and a companion returned to Italy four days later, then hit the road for France. The beginning of August marked the first known steps in a mission that crisscrossed Europe - taking advantage of the continent's open borders - to lay the groundwork for the Paris attacks.

Over the next three months, authorities believe Salah Abdeslam drove thousands of kilometers across Europe to buy gear, rent cars, book rooms, scout locations and move people into place for the Nov. 13 carnage that killed 130 people. Sometimes his older brother helped out. At least twice he was accompanied by a friend from Brussels' Molenbeek neighborhood, where many of the attackers had roots.

Abdeslam's itinerary across Europe, pieced together by The Associated Press, shows the crucial role he played in the Nov. 13 attacks on France's national stadium, Paris bars and restaurants, and the Bataclan concert hall. It also shows how extensively the attackers planned for the assault, which brought together three teams of suicide bombers and gunmen largely bound by common language, blood ties, childhood friendships, delinquency and alienation.

Of the 10 dead attackers and accomplices, three remain unidentified, their DNA yielding no matches in any criminal database. Two more attackers, including Abdeslam, are still on the run.

CRISSCROSSING EUROPE

In early September, a month after he traveled 1,700 kilometers along the length of Italy on his way home to Belgium, Abdeslam was back on the road.

He took a rental car twice in September to Budapest, 1,400 kilometers to the east, according to Belgium's federal prosecutor. At the train station in Budapest, he picked up two men. Hungarian authorities say the men were among the thousands of refugees traveling up through the Balkans in search of a new life in Europe, but that the two refused to register their asylum claims.

On Sept. 9, apparently on one of the return trips, he was stopped at a checkpoint on the Austrian border in a rental Mercedes, accompanied by two people with Belgian ID cards that later turned out to be fake, the Belgian federal prosecutor said. He was waved on through.

A month later, far to the south in Greece, two more men with Syrian passports joined the throngs of migrants passing through. There was no time to look closely at their travel documents, which French authorities now believe were also fakes. Weeks later, these two men would blow themselves up in Paris.

As the two future suicide attackers traveled north, Abdeslam is believed to have journeyed from his home base in Brussels to the Paris suburbs to buy detonators from a store that specializes in fireworks, according to a French intelligence official, who like most authorities linked to the investigation was not authorized to divulge details of the investigation and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Under his own name, Abdeslam rented the suburban Paris rooms that would be the departure points for the attack teams. Two would drive in from Bobigny in the north, and one from Alfortville in the south, to converge on their targets.

Abdeslam sometimes had help from his older brother, Brahim, notorious among his friends for his daily routine of hashish and betting on cards. Around the time Salah was buying detonators and renting rooms, Brahim's friends and a surviving brother say, the elder Abdeslam had taken up regular prayer in Molenbeek, known as a haven for Islamic State recruiters. He continued to indulge at least some of his vices as well.

Zaid, a player in the daily card game, was with Brahim the night of Nov. 10, two nights before the attack cars wheeled into Paris from Brussels at precise, 10-minute intervals.

"There was nothing unusual about him. He talked about mundane things," said Zaid, who did not want his last name used for fear of reprisals. "If I knew what he planned to do a few days later, I would have called the police."

On Nov. 11, Salah Abdeslam and a small-time criminal, Mohamed Abrini, pulled into a gas station north of Paris in their newly rented Renault Clio, perhaps for a final reconnaissance mission. At around 3 a.m. on Nov. 12, the two men were again in the car together, according to the Paris prosecutor. That's the last time Abrini, whose brother died in Syria in 2014, was spotted. He and Salah are the lone fugitives linked to the attacks.

TIES OF BLOOD AND CRIME

All the attackers and accomplices so far identified were raised in Europe, native French speakers with roots in the marginalized immigrant communities of France and Belgium. Minor players - like the man who rented a room to the attacks' mastermind, Abdelhamid Abaaoud - have a degree or two of separation in an underworld of drugs, fraud and theft.

Brahim Abdeslam had put a conviction for stealing ID cards behind him and opened a cafe, appearing "to be on the right road," said his lawyer, Olivier Martins. But less than two weeks before the attacks, the cafe was shut down over concerns that drugs were being sold there.

The Abdeslam brothers were close to Abaaoud, another Molenbeek resident who turned to jihad after a series of convictions for low-level crime.

Abaaoud's younger cousin, Hasna Ait Boulhacen, was herself caught up in the underworld. She was the target of a drug-trafficking investigation in France that failed to reveal her ties to Abaaoud, a man considered to be among Europe's most dangerous fugitives even before the Nov. 13 attacks, according to French investigators. It was to Ait Boulhacen - Abaaoud's first cousin on his mother's side - that the young man turned to for shelter as the attackers he directed transformed Paris into a city of blood and chaos.

Ait Boulhacen, 26, took up the veil this year after a troubled youth of alcohol and violence, according to a Samir Kilouli, a former grocer in the apartment bloc who knew the family.

"She took up with the bearded ones," Kilouli said, using the French colloquialism for fervent Muslim men. "For sure they know how to spot the weak ones."

The Bataclan team was made up of two Frenchmen who left for Syria in 2013, Ismael Omar Mostefai and Samy Amimour, whose father himself went to Syria to try to persuade him to come home, and a third unidentified attacker.

The squad of suicide bombers at the Stade de France included the youngest of the attackers, 20-year-old Bilal Hadfi, and the two others who entered Europe by way of Greece, with apparently forged passports.

The team of three commandos that attacked bars and restaurants included Abaaoud, an explosives-rigged Brahim Abdeslam and another unidentified man. Salah Abdeslam, who is also believed to have been wearing an explosives vest, may have dropped off the bombers at the stadium before heading into Paris.

In all, 130 people died in the brutality unleashed by the attackers. Most were killed in a time window from 9:17 p.m. - when the first suicide attacker detonated his vest at the stadium - to 9:53, when the last explosion went off. The plan that was months in the making had unfolded in matter of minutes.

THE AFTERMATH

Abaaoud's phone signals indicate he ditched his car in the eastern outskirts of Paris and returned by metro to the city center, now filling quickly with police, ambulances and panic, according to the French prosecutor.

Abaaoud was not the only attacker to abandon his attack vehicle. In northern Paris, Salah Abdeslam parked one of the rentals in Paris' northern 18th arrondissement, bought a SIM card and immediately phoned two friends in Brussels, asking them to drive through the night to fetch him. Authorities said an explosives vest believed to be his was found discarded in the trash. The Islamic State claim of responsibility, released about 12 hours later, specified not just attacks on the stadium, Bataclan and bars and restaurants, but also one in the 18th arrondissement that never happened.

Ait Boulhacen, meanwhile, had gotten a tense call from her cousin. He needed a place to stay. Fast.

She in turn reached out to her drug dealer, according to French police officials. Here, the world of Islamic extremism and petty crime intersected once more. Ait Boulhacen's contact reached out to Jawad Bendaoud, a street thug and petty criminal convicted in the accidental killing of his best friend over a stolen cell phone, according to judicial officials.

On Nov. 17, someone using the same fake ID as Salah's traveling companion back in September wired 750 euros to Ait Boulhacen from Brussels, according to the Belgian federal prosecutor. The cousins reunited on a deserted industrial side road, then made their way late that night to an apartment building in Saint-Denis, a stone's throw from the stadium. As day broke, they were killed in a hail of gunfire and explosions. Bendaoud was arrested, protesting as he was led away on live television that he was just "doing a favor."

Ait Boulhacen's mother gave a terse comment to The Associated Press: "Hasna is dead. That's all I have to say.'"

As for Salah, he was on the road again.



Advertisements

Latest Canada & World News

  • Sex assault trial to begin for former Alpine Canada ski coach Bertrand Charest

    Canada News CTV News
    SAINT-JEROME, Que. -- A trial is set to begin north of Montreal today for a former national ski coach who faces dozens of sex-related charges involving allegations from girls as young as 12. The 57 charges against Bertrand Charest include sexual assault and breach of trust. Source
  • Elderly anti-Donald Trump protester shoved to the ground by Tuscon police; Body camera footage released

    World News Toronto Sun
    Police in Tuscon are under fire following the release of body camera footage that appears to show officers shoving an elderly woman to the ground. The body camera footage of the protest against President Donald Trump's immigration policies in Tucson, Arizona, two weeks ago shows an 86-year-old woman, weighing less than 100 pounds and standing about 4 feet and 5 inches tall, approaching police officers and pointing her finger at them as she shouted indiscernible words. Source
  • North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un orders execution of five senior officials by anti-aircraft guns: South Korea

    World News Toronto Sun
    SEOUL, KOREA, REPUBLIC OF - Kim Jong Un's reign of terror resumed this week as South Korea's spy agency reported the North Korean dictator ordered more executions. According to the report, North Korea executed five senior officials using anti-aircraft guns because they made false reports that “enraged” leader Kim Jong Un, South Korea’s spy agency said Monday. Source
  • Jurgen Kantner beheaded by Philippine militants, who release video of the German's horrifying murder

    World News Toronto Sun
    MANILA, PHILIPPINES - Blood-thirsty extremists belonging to the Abu Sayyaf group shouted 'Allahu Akbar' as they murdered their German prisoner in a grisly video that surfaced Monday. The brief video circulated Monday by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi websites, is the first sign that the brutal militants proceeded with their threat to kill Jurgen Gustav Kantner in the southern Philippines after a Sunday ransom deadline lapsed. Source
  • Philippines condemns 'barbaric' killing of German hostage

    World News CBC News
    The Philippines on Monday condemned the "barbaric beheading" of a German captive by ISIS-linked Abu Sayyaf militants, who posted a video of the killing after a deadline for a $600,000 ransom passed. The video showed a machete-wielding militant behead the elderly German hostage, Jurgen Kantner, who had appealed for help twice in short video messages, saying he would be killed if ransom was not paid. Source
  • Fort McMurray homeowners to be compensated for hiked drywall duties

    Canada News CTV News
    OTTAWA -- Families forced to rebuild their homes after wildfires devastated Fort McMurray, Alta. last spring will be compensated for having to pay duties on drywall coming into Canada from the United States Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau was expected to make the announcement Monday. Source
  • Convicted British Columbia killer Kelly Ellard to ask for parole again

    Canada News CTV News
    ABBOTSFORD, B.C. -- Convicted killer Kelly Ellard is expected to once again ask for escorted releases today, nearly 20 years after she killed a teenage girl near Victoria. Ellard made the same request last month, saying she wanted to leave a prison in Abbotsford, B.C. Source
  • CSIS saw 'no high privacy risks' with metadata crunching now under fire: docs

    Canada News CTV News
    OTTAWA -- The national spy service saw little risk to the personal privacy of Canadians in a self-penned evaluation of its secret data-crunching centre -- a shadowy program now at the centre of intense controversy, newly released documents show. Source
  • Prison violence leaves Ottawa with growing legal burden: 'It's an awful lot'

    Canada News CTV News
    HALIFAX -- Canada's prison service faced 1,200 legal actions at the end of last March -- a figure the federal prison ombudsman says is enough to keep an entire law firm busy. "It's an awful lot . Source
  • UN lawyer to visit Manitoba to observe influx of asylum seekers

    Canada News CBC News
    The United Nations will send a human rights lawyer to Manitoba on an observation mission in the coming weeks dealing with the recent influx of refugees who have trickled into the province on foot after fleeing the United States. Source