Abstract: Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 28-year-old Belgian-Moroccan Islamic State recruit killed by French commandos in a raid in Saint-Denis on November 18, has been described by authorities as the “ringleader” of the Paris attacks. This profile, based partly on Belgian court documents, examines how a young Belgian who once attended a prestigious Catholic school became involved with petty crime, spent time in prison, was radicalized, joined the Islamic State, and then rose to lead the worst mass casualty attack on French territory in decades.

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So overwhelming was the force used by French commandos at a residence in Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, early in the morning of November 18, that it took French authorities more than 24 hours to identify one of the deceased jihadis as the Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud. In a stunning development, it confirmed that the presumed ringleader of the Paris attacks had traveled to France to participate in the mission. Analysis of cell phone data indicated he visited the site of the Bataclan concert hall during the attack and several of the key sites in the hours after the attacks.[1]

Apparently, French commandos launched their raid just in time. Paris prosecutor François Molins later revealed that Abaaoud and an accomplice also killed in Saint-Denis were supposed to blow themselves up within a day in La Défense shopping[2] district.[3]

Abaaoud’s trajectory is instructive and traces some familiar patterns on his path from a relatively comfortable childhood to radicalization and a violent death. A dual Belgian-Moroccan national, he was born on April 8, 1987 in the eastern Brussels district of Anderlecht, an area which, like nearby Molenbeek, housed the families of many Moroccan immigrants.

Abaaoud was a third-generation immigrant and the eldest of six children. His grandfather had come to Belgium to work in the coal mines, but his father Omar had climbed the economic ladder by opening his own clothing store near their home in Molenbeek, where Abaaoud helped out when he was young.[4]

His father was by his own account ambitious for his son. In 1999 at the age of 12, Abaaoud was enrolled in the Catholic Collège Saint-Pierre, a prestigious Brussels school situated in the leafy Uccle district.[5] He only lasted a year there, however, before he was expelled for disruptive behavior and poor academic performance.[6]

What followed was a spiral into petty gangsterism and criminality. Like a significant number of youngsters living in “inner-city” areas like Molenbeek, Abaaoud fell in with a loosely organized gang of local youths, whose members included several future co-conspirators in the Paris attack, including the brothers Brahim and Salah Abdeslam.[7]

He soon built up a criminal record. In 2006, at the age of 19, Abaaoud received his first conviction for concealment of stolen goods, resulting in mandatory community service. Three years later, he was convicted for violence and resisting police officers.[8] In December 2010, he and Salah Abdeslam attempted to break into a garage in Ottignies, a town southeast of Brussels.

Fleeing from the police, Abaaoud jumped in a river, where he was found suffering from hypothermia. “Probably they were all a little bit drunk,” his long-time lawyer Alexandre Chateau said about that incident.[9]

In 2011, Abaaoud was convicted for the attempted illegal entry and given a year of probation.[10] Later that year, he was sentenced to 18 months for theft with violence.[11] The illegal and violent behavior continued. In 2012 he was convicted for hitting someone in the Flemish town of Dendermonde, which landed him in jail again.[12]

According to his father, it was during this last spell behind bars that he was radicalized.[13] Despite media speculation it remains unclear how or by whom. It appears, however, that Abaaoud was part of a generation of what the Belgian counterterrorism official and academic Alain Grignard has labeled “Islamized radicals.” These are young men involved in petty crime, who were radical before they were religious, and whose violent respect-through-fear credo was later legitimized by the Islamic State.[14]

After his release from Forest prison on September 29, 2012, Abaaoud grew his beard and cut off some of his friendship ties.[15] He fell in with a Molenbeek-based network that had begun recruiting for the Syrian jihad.

The leader was a Moroccan veteran of the Afghan jihad, Khalid Zerkani, who was 42-years-old, known in the circle as Papa Noel because he doled out cash to his favorite acolytes, including €4,500 payments to those traveling to Syria. To assemble that money, Zerkani ordered his followers to commit burglaries and pickpocketing. He was arrested in 2013 and stood trial in July 2015. He was held responsible for sending at least 20 people to the Syrian war—including Abaaoud—for which the court described him as a “cynical guru.”[16]

The group also had a kind of mother figure in 55-year-old Fatima Aberkan.[a] She is a protégée of the notorious Belgian female terrorist Malika el Aroud.[17] At the end of 2007, both women were detained on suspicion of plans to liberate the convicted al-Qa`ida terrorist Nizar Trabelsi from prison, although Aberkan was released without being charged.[b]

In March 2013, Abaaoud set off for Syria via Egypt with six others from Belgium. Very little is known about his first trip, but it was relatively short, with the consensus being that he returned around September. On January 20, 2014, Abaaoud left for Syria again, on a flight from Cologne to Istanbul, this time with his 13-year-old brother Younes, whom he had abducted at his school gates.[18] Abaaoud was not the only recruit in the Zerkani network who left for Syria more than once. Soufiane Alilou, one of the sons of Fatima Aberkan, did so a stunning five times. He was only intercepted once in Turkey, and only arrested in Belgium when he came back the fifth time. On May 25, 2014, another member of the network came back to Belgium “armed and nervous,” according to a note of State Security issued three weeks later. The man, Ilias Mohammadi, finally was apprehended on June 25 with a large amount of ammunition stashed in his house.[19]

Most of the recruits in the Zerkani cell—mainly French-speaking people—had initially joined Katibat al-Muhajireen, a Salafi group dominated by Chechen fighters at that time.[c] Early in 2014, when their brigade became a part of the newly established Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, most of the Belgians left for Jabhat al-Nusra—the chapter of al-Qa`ida in Syria—but soon many of them switched back. It is not clear if Abaaoud spent time with Jabhat al-Nusra though. At the end of January 2014, he called Dawla (the Arabic abbreviation Islamic State members often use to describe themselves) and Jabhat al-Nusra “our brothers” on his Facebook page[d]—indicating that he belonged to neither. In March 2014, however, as infighting increased between the groups, he had made it clear he was part of the Islamic State. By then he had become known by the fighting names Abou Omar al Soussi and Abu Omar al Belgiki.

On March 23, 2014, Abaaoud posted a video on his Facebook account showing himself on the front lines. He can be heard saying, “It’s not fun seeing blood spilled, but it gives me pleasure from time to time to see blood of the disbelievers run because we grew up watching the blood of Muslims being spilled in the whole world on TV.”[20]

His most notorious video appearance came to light soon after, when footage emerged of him towing mutilated corpses of Free Syrian Army soldiers behind a pickup truck. “Before, we towed jet skis, motorcycles, and trailers filled with gifts for our vacations in Morocco,” he laughed. “Now, thank God, we are following His path while towing disbelievers who are fighting us.” The video, which was saved on Abaaoud’s mobile phone, fell into the hands of moderate rebels, who sold it to a French journalist in March 2014. Shortly after it was aired on television, Abaaoud vented his anger on Facebook. “Those videos were stolen by an apostate,” he wrote. “You should know that there were no civilians in it. All the dead were apostate rebels, encouraged to fight us by disbelievers in the whole world. They were killed by the anger of Allah.”[21]

It appears Abaaoud fell in with Katibat al-Battar, an Islamic State brigade initially founded by Libyan fighters.[22] The first indication he had joined the grouping came in June 2014, when a Frenchman often seen together with him, started using the al-Battar banner as his profile picture on his Facebook page.[23] In October 2014, a prominent Islamic State supporter on Twitter distributed a list in Arabic of al-Battar members who were recently killed.[24] Apart from Abaaoud himself—who faked his death apparently to evade security services—it mentioned several names of people clearly associated with him.[e] Monitoring of social media postings revealed several other Belgian and French jihadis[f] were at least close with members of the brigade, including Bilal Hadfi (fighting name Bilal al Mouhajir) a trainee electrician from Brussels who was one of the suicide bombers at the Stade de France in the November 13 attacks.[g] It is possible Hadfi and Abaaoud met while fighting with the group in Syria.

Belgian counterterrorism officials believe that Abaaoud faked his death so he could travel more easily to Europe to coordinate a terrorist plot in Belgium. That terrorist plot was thwarted on January 15, 2015 in the eastern Belgian town of Verviers when Belgian commandos killed two Belgian Islamic State operatives—later named as Sofiane Amghar and Khalid Ben Larbi[25]—and arrested an apparent logistician in a safe house. According to Belgian counterterrorism officials, Abaaoud had been organizing the plot through cell phone contact with the trio from Greece. Police found AK-47s and the precursors for triacetone triperoxide (TATP), the same explosive used in the Paris attack, along with GoPro cameras and police uniforms, suggesting the group planned to try to gain access to a sensitive site.[26] High-ranking sources in government circles told the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws that the plot included the beheading of a police officer that was to be filmed.[27]

Belgian investigators believed Abaaoud was the ringleader of the cell in Verviers, who communicated with senior Islamic State leaders in Syria. For security reasons, the cell members had an elaborate system to make the phone calls and used coded language. At the time of the attack, Abaaoud was in Greece and communicated by phone. The Belgians brought in U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, to try to locate the cell phone in Greece, but neither the Americans nor Greek police were able to locate him. The Islamic State claimed Abaaoud returned safely to Syria and in February, an interview with him appeared in its English language magazine Dabiq. The article included a picture of Abaaoud standing alongside Amghar and Larbi, and in the interview he insinuated that he had been in Belgium himself.[28 ] “I was able to leave and come to Sham despite being chased after by so many intelligence agencies. My name and picture were all over the news yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely when doing so became necessary,” Abaaoud claimed.[29]

Some media outlets continue to describe Abaaoud as the “mastermind” behind the Paris attacks.[30] As investigations have progressed, it has become clear that Abaaoud is better described as the commander in the field of the cell dispatched by senior Islamic State operatives. It appears that he was coordinating the attacks in real-time from his phone the night of November 13, including the stadium and Bataclan teams.[31] On November 19, the French Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve declared that the Belgian terrorist also was implicated in four plots in France before the Paris attacks, including a planned attack against a Paris church foiled in April 2015.[32] The news site Mediapart reported that there is no proof of that plot, however, after gaining access to the judicial files of that case. The only indication, it says, is a certain Abu Omar giving orders to the terrorist who had to carry out the attack. “There are many Abu Omars in those circles”, a judicial source told Mediapart—while the description that the arrested Sid Ahmed Ghlam provided, did not match Abaaoud.[33]

Some analysts, including the French jihadi observer Romain Caillet, believe Abaaoud’s role was limited to recruitment and logistics—which still could be the case in some of the multiple plots. He believes the Belgian simply wasn’t smart enough to be a mastermind.[34] Long-time lawyer Alexandre Chateau described Abaaoud as “not a leader type” and “more a kind of scatterbrain.”[35] A senior Belgian counterterrorism official told CNN that intelligence services suspected Abaaoud had been working in tandem with French Islamic State operative Fabien Clain in and around al-Raqqa to recruit fresh French and Belgian recruits and send them back to launch attacks after limited training.[36] Clain is a veteran French jihadi whose voice was recognized in the audio message claiming the Paris attacks on behalf of the Islamic State and who increasingly is suspected of being an important architect of the Paris attack.[h]

Guy Van Vlierden is a journalist for the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws. He specializes in issues relating to terrorism and extremism and also covers these in English on his blog emmejihad.wordpress.com which tracks Belgian jihadis in Syria. You can follow him: @GuyVanVlierden.

* This article was written in conjunction with Paul Cruickshank who provided information from his reporting for CNN.

Substantive Notes
[a] During the past two years Aberkan has been in Syria at least two times, and she lost one of three sons fighting there. Apart from recruiting, Aberkan’s role seems to have been a logistical one. When she was not in Syria in 2013 and 2014, she often stayed in Turkey, arranging the flow of goods and money to members of the network fighting in Syria. “She often facilitated their travel and she took care of the finances of the little colony of expats that she had created there,” the judgment says. “She was a passionaria of the hijra and the jihad.” Tribunal de Première Instance Francophone de Bruxelles, “Judgment in the trial against the so-called cell-Zerkani,” July 29, 2015.

[b] Aberkan at least admitted to being in touch with Trabelsi when he was in prison. Tribunal de Première Instance Francophone de Bruxelles, “Judgment in the trial against the so-called cell-Zerkani,” July 29, 2015. In the end, Zerkani was sentenced to 12 years in jail. Aberkan received eight years, and Abaaoud got 20 years. Abaaoud’s conviction was a consequence of former criminal activity and the abduction of his minor brother to Syria. Wouter Hertogs & Guy Van Vlierden, “Kerstman van jihad stuurde 20 jongeren naar de dood,” Het Laatste Nieuws, July 30, 2015.

[c] They were active near Aleppo and sided with the militia Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, in which most of the Dutch speaking Belgians recruited by Shariah4Belgium were fighting at that time. Prior to their departure, most of the Zerkani recruits—including Abaaoud—had no connection with Shariah4Belgium. But in Syria, members of the two Belgian groups certainly have met.

[d] The Facebook account has since disappeared, but a screenshot of the message is archived by the author.

[e] This includes the Belgian Khalid Hachti Bernan (Abu Qa’qa), seen with Abaaoud and compatriot Zacharia Iddoub (Abu Yahya) in the infamous video showing them while pulling corpses through a field behind a pick-up truck. See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rGTyY-uV0U

[f] Based on the author’s monitoring of social media accounts. At the end of 2014, the social media connections of Europeans who had joined al-Battar showed a remarkable mix of French speaking and Libyan friends.

[g] Hadfi posted this on his Facebook page from Syria in July 2015: “By Allah, brothers living in the lands of disbelievers. Those dogs attack our civilians in ar-Raqqah, al-Bab, Damascus, Baghdad, Fallujah, and so on. Work within their communities of pigs, so that they never feel safe anymore, even not in their dreams.” The Facebook account has since disappeared, but a screenshot of the message is archived by the author.

[h] As CNN Terrorism Analyst Paul Cruickshank has pointed out, Clain in the audio claim stated that the targets in Paris were meticulously selected, pointing to his involvement. He also spoke of an attack which did not happen in the 18th arrondisement again pointing to his possible knowledge of the targets before the attack. Otherwise he would simply have mirrored what was reported in the media. Based on his movements, Salah Abdeslam may have been going to carry out the attack in the 18th arrondisment before he aborted his attack and dumped his suicide vest. See Tim Lister, “The Mystery of France’s Most Wanted Man,” CNN, November 22, 2015. Also see Christopher Dickey, “Is ISIS’s Voice of Death Hiding in France?,” The Daily Beast, November 22, 2015.

[1] Press Conference by Paris Prosecutor Francois Mollins, November 24, 2015.

[2] “Attentats de Paris: Abaaoud projetait de se faire exploser à La Défense,” Le Figaro, November 24, 2015.

[3] Abaaoud had also envisaged hitting other targets including Jewish sites, schools, and transportation. “Ringleader of Paris attacks planned more strikes, mocked open borders – sources,” Reuters, November 27, 2015.

[4] Elise Vincent, “Ce que les services belges savaient d’Abdelhamid Abaaoud,” Le Monde, November 20, 2015; Interview with Omar Abaaoud: Dirk Coosemans, “Ik moet zoon nooit meer zien. Vader van ‘s lands meest gezochte terrorist is wanhoop nabij,” Het Laatste Nieuws, January 20, 2015.

[5] “Abdelhamid Abaaoud, l’homme le plus recherché de Belgique a fréquenté une école huppée,” SudInfo, January 21, 2015.

[6] Andrew Higgins and Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “An ISIS Militant From Belgium Whose Own Family Wanted Him Dead,” New York Times, November 17, 2015.

[7] “Abaaoud, c’était les pieds nickelés”, se souvient son ex-avocat,” La Libre Belgique, November 19, 2015; a Belgian counterterrorism official told Paul Cruickshank in November 2015 that all three moved in the same petty criminal circles growing up.

[8] Christophe Lamfalussy, “Abaaoud, le petit voleur devenu l’ennemi public n°1,” La Libre Belgique, November 19, 2015.

[9] Christophe Lamfalussy, “De la petite délinquance qui ne révélait en rien de qui allait arriver,” La Dernière Heure, November 20, 2015.

[10] Mark Eeckhaut, “Vrees voor nieuwe terreur,” De Standaard, November 20, 2015.

[11] Christophe Lamfalussy, “Abaaoud, le petit voleur devenu l’ennemi public n°1,” La Libre Belgique, November 19, 2015.

[12] “Abaaoud, c’était les pieds nickelés”, se souvient son ex-avocat Insert,” La Libre Belgique, November 19, 2015; Elise Vincent, “Ce que les services belges savaient d’Abdelhamid Abaaoud,” Le Monde, November 20, 2015.

[13] His father was quoted in Belgian court documents seen by the author. Tribunal de Première Instance Francophone de Bruxelles, “Judgment in the trial against the so-called cell-Zerkani,” July 29, 2015.

[14] “A View From the CT Foxhole: An Interview with Alain Grignard, Brussels Federal Police,” CTC Sentinel 8:8, (August 2015).

[15] Elise Vincent, “Ce que les services belges savaient d’Abdelhamid Abaaoud,” Le Monde, November 20, 2015.

[16] Wouter Hertogs & Guy Van Vlierden, “Kerstman van jihad stuurde 20 jongeren naar de dood,” Het Laatste Nieuws, July 30, 2015.

[17] See Elaine Sciolino and Souad Mekhennet, “Al Qaeda Warrior Uses Internet to Rally Women,” New York Times, May 28, 2008. For more on Malika el Aroud see Paul Cruickshank, “Love in the Time of Terror,” Marie Claire, May 15, 2009.

[18] Elise Vincent, “Ce que les services belges savaient d’Abdelhamid Abaaoud,” Le Monde, November 20, 2015.

[19] Patrick Lefelon & Guy Van Vlierden, “Abaaoud pendelde tussen Syrië en België,” De Morgen, December 5, 2015. A short version of that article in Dutch can be seen here: http://www.hln.be/hln/nl/33982/Islamitische-Staat/article/detail/2546881/2015/12/05/Zo-kunnen-internationaal-geseinde-IS-strijders-naar-hartenlust-rondreizen.dhtml

[20] The Facebook account has since disappeared, but a screenshot of the message is archived by the author.

[21] The author downloaded this video on March 23, 2014. See also Paul Cruickshank, “Inside the ISIS plot to attack the heart of Europe,” CNN, February 13, 2015.

[22] A screenshot of Abaaoud’s message has been archived by the author.

[23] More about the origins of Katibat al-Battar can be read here: http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/muhajireen-battalions-syria-part-two/

[24] The Facebook account has since disappeared, but a screenshot of the message is archived by the author.

[25] The list is published and discussed here: https://pietervanostaeyen.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/katibat-al-battar-and-the-belgian-fighters-in-syria/

[26] Paul Cruickshank, “Inside the ISIS plot to attack the heart of Europe,” CNN, February 13, 2015.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Bjorn Maeckelbergh, “Het plan: Belg ontvoeren en onthoofden,” Het Laatste Nieuws, January 16, 2015.

[29] Cruickshank, “Inside the ISIS plot to attack the heart of Europe.”

[30] “Mastermind of Terror Attacks Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Daily Mail, November 22, 2015.

[31] Jean-Charles Brisard, “The Paris Attacks and the Evolving Islamic State Threat to France,” CTC Sentinel, 8:11, (November/December 2015),

[32] “Cazeneuve souligne le “rôle déterminant” d’Abaaoud dans les attentats,” Le Point, November 19, 2015.

[33] Louise Fessard, “Attentat manqué de Villejuif: des réseaux en France et en Syrie,” Mediapart, November 26, 2015.

[34] “R. Caillet: “Abaaoud n’a pas les capacités intellectuelles de monter de tels attentats,” iTELE, November 19, 2015.

[35] Mark Eeckhaut, “Vrees voor nieuwe terreur,” De Standaard, November 20, 2015.

[36] See Paul Cruickshank, “Senior European Official ISIS wants to hit UK; trail for Salah Abeslam is cold,” CNN, December 5, 2015; Paul Cruickshank, “At This Hour,” November 19, 2015. http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1511/19/ath.01.html


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