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France confirms suspected leader of Paris attacks was killed in police raid

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 11/19/2015 Anthony Faiola, Souad Mekhennet and William Booth
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PARIS —French prosecutors confirmed Thursday that the ringleader of the terrorist attacks in Paris was killed in a massive pre-dawn police raid a day earlier, as nations moved to toughen counter-terrorism measures amid fears of more strikes against European targets, including Vatican City.

The death of the Belgian militant capped one of the most high-profile manhunts after last week’s bloodshed in the French capital, but at least two other suspects believed closely linked to the carnage remain at large.

The confirmation of the killing of Abdelhamid Abaaoud also did not allay concerns surrounding his ability to apparently move undetected from Syria back to Europe.

“It is very good that the spider in the center of web was eliminated,” said Belgium’s justice minister, Koen Geens, whose nation was the base for several of the Paris assailants and where a series of fresh police raids were carried out Thursday.

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In Paris, the French prosecutor’s office said Abaaoud was killed during a seven-hour siege on Wednesday and was identified after fingerprint analysis.

It gave no specific details on how Abaaoud died, saying only that his “impact-riddled body was discovered in the building” in the suburb of Saint-Denis, apparently hit by both bullets and bomb blasts.

The Washington Post on Wednesday, citing two European officials, reported that French authorities had passed along news Abaaoud’s death. It was not immediately clear why French officials waited to make the public announcement.

Forensic officials combed the damaged apartment shortly after the raid — which netted eight suspects and included a suicide blast by a woman believed to be Abaaoud’s cousin.

“These people cannot cause any more harm,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Thursday. “The Europe we love, the Europe we have developed and built, must do everything it can to combat terrorism.”

The Belgian minister Geens called the death “a major breakthrough.”

“It is clear in Paris they were planning a second round of attacks,” he added. “The net is closing bit by bit around the different commando cells. I don’t think the trail stops here. Our work continues.”

Responding to a rising threat, France’s National Assembly gave its backing to extend state-of-emergency powers for three months even as more terror sweeps were underway in Belgium. Italian officials, meanwhile, said the FBI had warned of a specific threat in Vatican City, Rome and Milan.

In Belgium, Prime Minister Charles Michel asked parliament to pass sweeping new measures to expand detention and surveillance powers, and tighten border controls.

Remaining unanswered are many questions about the movements of Abaaoud, a Belgian national of Moroccan descent. He apparently fled to Islamic State strongholds in Syria, possibly earlier this year after raids in Belgium.

Investigators are now trying to piece together how he slipped past intelligence agencies to return to Europe — perhaps hiding amid the unprecedented wave of asylum seekers and others flooding into Greece from war-battered places such as Syria and Iraq.

In an ominous address — echoing the debate in the U.S. Congress after the 9/11 attacks — France’s prime minister said authorities must think about all contingencies.

“We know and bear in mind that there is also a risk of chemical or bacteriological weapons,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told parliament during debate on extending the country’s state of emergency, enacted immediately following Friday’s deadly multi-pronged attacks on Paris that killed at least 129 people and wounded more than 350.

After approval in the National Assembly, the measure now goes to the French Senate for expected final backing Friday.

[Why French airstrikes on ISIS’s ‘capital’ probably haven’t done much ]

The move came as fears ratcheted up across Europe of more hidden terror cells preparing similar strikes.

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said Italian security forces were “working to identify five people” who may be planning possible attacks on St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, Milan’s Duomo or the La Scala opera house.

The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning to American citizens traveling in Italy, calling those landmarks “potential targets” but also flagging possible threats to “churches, synagogues, restaurants, theaters, and hotels” in Rome and Milan.

Gentiloni told the Italian state television RAI that the FBI provided information about the five possible suspects.

The three-month extension of emergency laws grants the French government powers to conduct stops and searches, ban large gatherings in public places and place suspected extremists under house arrest.

In Belgium, police searched at least six homes in connection with Paris suicide bomber Bilal Hadfi, 20. No arrests were made. Hadfi blew himself up outside the Stade de France in Paris as part of the wave of deadly attacks that left seven assailants dead.

In separate sweeps, Belgian Federal Police searched two addition residences associated with Salah Abdelslam, the fugitive who is believed to have taken part in the People in Munich hold candles during a memorial service for the victims of the attacks in Paris on Nov. 19, 2015. Terror attacks in central Paris Paris attacks but slipped away amid the chaos. Two arrests were made and police said they would determine whether the detainees are ultimately considered suspects or witnesses, said Eric Van Der Sypt, spokesman for Belgium’s federal prosecutor.

Michel, the Belgian prime minister, has asked parliament for changes that would require immediate jailing for citizens returning from presumed militant activity in Syria, where the Islamic State has some of its main strongholds. Under the request, those on terrorist watch lists — about 800 residents in Belgium currently — would be forced to wear ankle bracelets to track their movements.

Further proposed measures called for the deployment of 300 troops; authorization to hold terrorist suspects without charges for 72 hours, and the granting of wider latitude to law enforcement in the use of wire taps and house raids.

Michel also called for stronger border controls — an appeal that highlights wider debates across the European Union on how to reconcile its policies of control-free travel and demands to combat the Islamic State and other militant factions.

Some of the proposed rules would impact ordinary citizens, including mandatory registration of all passengers boarding high-speed trains and planes.

The European Union planned an extraordinary meeting Friday to focus on how to stem the traffic in firearms, much of it coming from the formerly conflict-ridden Balkans, and on setting common standards for deactivating old guns.

E.U. officials will also discuss ways to enable border police to check passports against a police data base. Another issue for the European Union is whether to allow security services to have access to passenger lists, as they do in the United States.

In Germany, where the threat of a terrorist attack forced the cancellation of an international soccer match Tuesday, politicians studied plans to deploy the army to aid the police and protect possible terrorist targets, including train stations and stadiums. The proposal was dividing the German government.

The raid Wednesday north of Paris was in part a response to what French officials thought was a plan to stage a follow-up terrorist attack in La Defense, a financial district northwest of Paris, two police officials and an investigator close to the investigation said. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief members of the media.

President Obama, during a visit to the Philippines, spoke by phone with French President François Hollande, the White House said. They two leaders plan to meet next week in Washington to review strategies against the Islamic State.

Booth reported from Brussels. Steven Mufson in Brussels, Brian Murphy and David Nakamura in Washington, Daniela Deane in London, and Virgile Demoustier, Emily Badger and Karla Adam in Paris contributed to this report.

Read more:

In a neighborhood under siege, ‘it seemed like real war’

Suspected architect of Paris attacks is dead, according to two senior intelligence officials

The long war against Islamist extremism has become more complicated than ever

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