New evidence emerging from the investigation into the Paris attacks points to a conspiracy significantly wider than the nine jihadi thought to have carried out the killings and that was orchestrated primarily by disaffected young Europeans.
Seven men and a woman were detained in the aftermath of Wednesday morning’s shootout in the Paris suburb of St-Denis, including the tenant of the apartment that was the focus of the police raid, Jawad Bendaoud, who told journalists he had been asked by a friend to put up “two of his mates for a few days”. He said all he knew is “they came from Belgium”.
The St-Denis detentions bring the number of people being held in connection with Friday night’s assault on Paris to 10. Two Belgians, Mohammed Amri and Hamza Attou, have been charged in Brussels with complicity in the attacks and participation in terrorist activity.
They have admitted driving to Paris to pick up one of the attackers, a friend from the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels, and escorting him back home.
That attacker, Salah Abdeslam, is still at large, but French police distributed to their European counterparts the details and number plate of a Citroen Xsara they believe he may be driving. Dutch police also revealed he had been arrested in the Netherlands in February for possession of cannabis.
The arrests in Paris and Brussels point to the existence of a circle of sympathetic “enablers” willing to help out without asking too many questions even if they had a limited idea of the plot. But the new evidence also strengthens investigators’ belief that the synchronised multiple attacks were coordinated by a control point in Paris.
A mobile phone found in a dustbin near the Bataclan theatre, where 89 people were killed, contained a floor plan of the theatre and a text message signalling the start of the attacks, which was sent to another phone at a hotel room booked by Abdeslam in the southern Paris suburb of Alfortville.
Another safe house had been rented by his brother, Brahim, and the third hideout, in St-Denis, was located through a combination of a witness testimony, surveillance and phone tapping, according to the French state prosecutor, François Molins.
On Wednesday evening, it was still unclear whether this coordinator was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian jihadi wanted before the Paris slaughter for a series of attacks in Belgium and France.
He was previously thought to been in contact with the gunmen from Syria and Greece, but the tip that helped lead to the St-Denis raid suggested he was hiding there, but Molins did not confirm press reports on Wednesday that he was one of the dead. He only said that neither Abaaoud nor Salah were among those detained.
On Tuesday night, French police distributed the photograph of one of the three dead attackers from the Stade de France, who is believed to have travelled through Greece and the rest of the Balkans in the two months before the attacks carrying a passport in the name of Ahmad Almohammad, with the details of a long-dead Syrian soldier.
All the other known attackers, as well as Abaaoud, are of French and Belgian nationality with similar life stories of limited petty crime or drug taking, and radicalisation in their late teens or early twenties. At least four are known to have spent time in Syria with Islamic State extremists.
As European citizens, there was no need to resort to subterfuge or risk Mediterranean sea crossings to reach their target. They could travel freely around the continent even when the authorities in their home countries were aware of their extreme views and foreign travels.
The Belgian prosecutor’s office said on Wednesday that the Abdeslam brothers had been interrogated earlier this year, but had not been detained because they were not seen as a threat.
Brahim, who blew himself up outside a Paris bar on Friday night, was questioned in February, after Turkish authorities stopped him on suspicion of attempting to go to Syria to fight, and sent him back to Brussels.
“He denied to us that he wanted to go to Syria. When he was interrogated, he just said he had been trying to go on holiday to Turkey,” said Eric Van der Sypt, the spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office. “There were no signs he was participating in terrorist activities. He was just a radicalised youngster, and there were no reasons to hold him.”
Salah was also questioned at about the same time, although he had not gone on the Turkish trip and the prosecutor’s office found no evidence he had gone to Syria. “Not to our knowledge,” Van der Sypt said. He too was not deemed a threat.
The prosecutor added: “We have over 130 who we know have come back from Syria, and spent a certain amount of time there, and we can hardly follow up on them. We can’t keep an eye on everyone.”
Simply increasing the resources of the police and the prosecutors would not solve the problem, Van der Sypt argued.
“It’s impossible,” he said. “You could double the effectiveness of the police and the prosecutors which would mean you could keep an eye on more people but would this mean such attacks can be prevented?”
European interior ministers are meeting in Brussels on Friday to discuss better intelligence sharing, tighter controls on Schengen area borders, and the dissemination of advance passenger lists on commercial flights to help spot foreign fighters returning from Syria and other flagged security risks.
Most of the plotters involved in the Paris killings would, however, have been able to sidestep such enhanced measures. Even if information had been shared about the Abdeslam brothers it is far from clear it would have led to their arrests or to the prevention of the attacks.
Van der Sypt said no details of the brothers’ background had been shared with the French authorities before the attacks because they were simply seen as being too insignificant.
“Imagine if we had spread the information to the whole world. Do you have any idea of the amount of information that would be spread? No one in the world can handle so much information. There are 135 [returned foreign fighters] that we know of. France has many more. You can share the information, but the question is can you handle the information?” the prosecutor said.
He would not comment on a proposal being discussed in the Belgian cabinet to put electronic tagging bracelets on radicals who return from fighting in Syria.
“To start with it is a social problem. That is the basis to it all,” Van der Sypt said. “The judicial answer is the last answer. More important is prevention of people getting radicalised. There will never, ever be a watertight system to catch people who are going to Syria.”
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