Initially, officials assumed the alleged “mastermind” behind last Friday’s attacks in Paris was already back in Syria.
After all, Abdelhamid Abaaoud had already alluded authorities once this year when, in the wake of the January raid in Verviers, Belgium that killed two of his operatives, the 27-year old escaped to “Sham” when “Allah blinded the vision” of the legions of intelligence operatives that he imagines were chasing him.
To whatever extent Abaaoud dramatized his great Belgian escape in an interview that appeared in the February issue of Dabiq, this time around he really was one of the most wanted men in the world and as it turns out, Allah might have forgotten to “blind” the infidels in the four days since the attacks in France.
Although details are still sparse, we know that Abaaoud was the target of a pre-dawn raid in the Paris suburb of St. Denis and we also know that French police had "intelligence" which led them directly to the flat where they believed Abaaoud was likely to be hiding.
Just before 4:30 am local time, SWAT and anti-terror units descended on an apartment about 2km from the Stade de France.
Five people were barricaded inside the flat and when police moved in, a gun battle ensued, as neighbors reported prolonged exchanges of automatic gunfire and explosions.
"We could see bullets flying and laser beams out of the window. There were explosions. You could feel the whole building shake," a neighbor told Reuters. "I tried to hide my son beneath me but each time there was shooting he was clawing at my skin,” she added.
The raid lasted some seven hours and in the end, two people were killed and seven people were arrested, three in the apartment itself, two nearby, the landlord, and the landlord’s female “friend.” At least one French media source says the landord had a previous eight-year murder sentence.
One of those killed was a woman, who detonated a suicide vest. According to BFMTV, police sources had placed a woman under surveillance “days ago” who they thought might be hiding Abaaoud. BFM also says she may have been Abaaoud's cousin. For his part, interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters that police had intelligence which led them to believe that “Abu Oud was likely to be [at the apartment].”
Cazeneuve also said there were 110 total security personnel involved in the raid.
According to French prosecutor Francois Molins, police also had tapped phone conversations which corroborated the surveillance which initially led them to believe that Abaaoud was in the building. Still, Molins was non-committal about whether he was indeed there when police arrived. "Paris prosecutor Francois Molins has told journalists that it is still unclear whether alleged mastermind of the Paris attacks, Abdel-Hamid Abu Oud, was in the apartment after the seven-hour police raid," The Guardian says.
For his part, St. Denis mayor Didier Paillard was shocked: “We were not prepared for this discovery. This is a city that has 130 different nationalities, including people who come from war zones. We are a population that needs serenity. This is an old area which is in the process of being renovated." Well Mr. Paillard, ISIS and SWAT did a bit of free demolition work for you overnight, so feel free to "renovate" that flat.
While it's still too early to draw any conclusions, it would certainly appear as though Abaaoud might have gotten away again. After all, it's probably safe to assume that police have determined he was not one of the two people killed nor one of the seven people arrested, so either he's hiding in a closet somewhere or he escaped.
But who knows, we suppose it's possible authorities just aren't ready to make an announcement yet, although given the atmosphere in France, one would certainly think that if Abaaoud were either killed or captured, officials would want to inform Parisians immediately as it would presumably serve as a morale booster for a civilian population still reeling from Friday's massacre. But again, that's just speculation as Molins told reporters that "it is currently impossible to give the identify of those arrested, which is being verified. Everything will be done to work out who is who and thanks to forensics who was in the apartment."
Just moments ago The Telegraph, citing Le Monde, says Abaaoud was not among those arrested this morning. "Was he among the dead? It is unclear [and although] details are sketchy, experts suggest this could have been a cell in the final stages of preparing another strike."
We shall see, but one thing is for sure, if Abaaoud was there and is now loose in Paris, you can bet you'll see more raids just like this one in the days and weeks ahead.