France Intensifies Assault on Islamic State at Home and Abroad

Paris: ‘I Can't Believe People Are Making Bombs’
  • Officials still verifying if ringleader among those killed
  • Aircraft carrier leaves port, heralds heavier strikes in Syria

France escalated its retaliation against Islamic State both at home and on the global stage.

A predawn police raid in a Paris suburb led to the deaths of at least two extremists and eight arrests, and revealed that the terrorists were likely planning another attack, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins told a news conference late Wednesday. Meanwhile, a French aircraft carrier headed to the eastern Mediterranean to intensify the bombardment of the terror group’s positions in Syria.

Members of French police special forces in Saint Denis
Members of French police special forces in Saint Denis
Photographer: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

“We must annihilate an army that threatens the whole world,” President Francois Hollande said after SWAT teams stormed the hideout. From the southern port of Toulon, a French aircraft carrier headed to the eastern Mediterranean to intensify the bombardment of the terror group’s positions in Syria.

Hollande is scheduled to meet President Barack Obama in Washington and President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next week to strengthen the anti-Islamic State campaign. Russia and France, long at loggerheads over their approach to the war in Syria, took steps toward a united military front in response to the massacre in Paris and a downed Russian plane in Egypt. Hollande’s efforts to stitch together alliances to battle the militant group came as the raid brought the focus back to the streets of the Paris region.

Police Raid

Witness accounts and a mobile phone found in a garbage can near the Le Bataclan concert hall in central Paris, where 89 people were slain on Friday, led investigators to an apartment in the very suburb where the night’s violence began outside the Stade de France, the prosecutor said. Investigators believed that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the attacks, might be holed up in Saint Denis.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud
Abdelhamid Abaaoud
Source: Twitter

Shortly after the raid finished, Hollande addressed a conference of French mayors, where he once again said France is in a “war” with Islamic State.

Abaaoud was not among those arrested, Molins said. The prosecutor, however, said it was too early to say if he was among those slain. The attacks at seven sites in the Paris area claimed 129 lives and left more than 300 people injured.

"Given their arms and their determination, this group was ready to go into action," Molins said. 

In the raid that began at 4:20 a.m., one young woman blew herself up, and another extremist was killed by bullets and hand grenades. Five police officers were wounded as the SWAT teams met what Molins called "ferocious resistance," and fired 5,000 rounds. The identities of those arrested had yet to be established, he said.

Police forensics work in Saint Denis
Police forensics work in Saint Denis
Photographer: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

‘Terrorist Tourist’

Abaaoud, a 28-year-old Belgian and the son of a Moroccan shopkeeper, joined the ranks of the Islamic State a few years ago. Calling himself a terrorist tourist on his Facebook page, Abaaoud was also linked by French officials to a failed assault on a Paris-bound high-speed train in August and a plot to attack a church in the city in April.

Belgian security officials began tracking him in March 2014 after he appeared in a video behind the wheel of a pickup truck dragging mutilated bodies to a mass grave.

The attacks in the Paris area triggered a dragnet across the country and hundreds of police raids and searches.

In the Saint Denis raid, five people were barricaded in the apartment as the area was surrounded by police, soldiers and vehicles, including military trucks. As the standoff dragged on, with schools and shops shut, the bells from the basilica where French kings were entombed chimed every 15 minutes. 

A man near the scene of the raid who gave his name only as Said, and described himself as a French Muslim, welcomed the police operation. “It’s about time the police come to Saint Denis to get rid of these supposed Muslims,” he said. “Hopefully this is the beginning of the solution for the neighborhood and for France.”

‘Major Role’

In his speech Wednesday to a meeting of mayors, Hollande said France “will play a major role in the resolution of this conflict both militarily and diplomatically,” and that air strikes in Syria would last “as long as necessary.”

In a sign that heavier strikes are imminent, Hollande said that the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle had set off from the Mediterranean port of Toulon. The deployment will boost the number of French jets available for strikes in Syria to 48 from the current 12.

France has stepped up bombing of Islamic State targets at the terror group’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria. Families of Islamic State leaders and fighters have started leaving the city and are headed to Mosul, in northern Iraq, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war through activists on the ground.

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