Who Is Abdelhamid Abaaoud? The Belgian Has Been Identified As The Suspected Mastermind Of The Paris Attacks

The suspected mastermind of the Paris attacks has been identified by a French official as Abdelhamid Abaaoud. The 27-year-old Belgian has been linked to other terrorist activities in both France and Belgium, including attacks on trains, churches, and police officers. Police across Europe have been working to catch Abaaoud since at least January, after he was implicated as the leader of another terror cell, which was tracked and then raided in Belgium and France.

In January, just weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, Belgian officials raided more than a dozen sites around the country, trying to round up militants who had been planning an attack on police officers. Two suspects were killed in a shootout with police in the city of Verviers. Thirteen more suspected radicals were arrested around the country, and two more were picked up after having escaped to France. Abaaoud was named as the cell's ringleader, but he escaped police, who continued the search for him as far as Greece.

Abaaoud grew up in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, where at least two of the Paris attackers had been living — including Salah Abdeslam, who is currently on the run. He was reportedly stopped by officers near the France-Belgian border after the attack, but then let go. Molenbeek has a long history of terror links, and seven more of its residents were taken in by Belgian authorities Sunday in connection with the Paris attacks. The Associated Press reported that the search continued there Monday morning for more suspects. Masked police sealed off a section of one neighborhood, telling neighbors to stay away.

Abaaoud spent time in Syria fighting alongside ISIS, and was seen in a propaganda video at the wheel of a car transporting mutilated bodies to a mass grave. He even recruited his 13-year-old brother to join him, shocking family members. In January, The New York Times reported that Abaaoud got into some trouble with the law, and then had been radicalized in a Belgian jail. Family members told The Times that the brothers showed little religious interest before leaving for Syria.

Abaaoud's whereabouts are unknown. In January, he had been tracked to Turkey and Greece, where he made phone calls to his fellow operatives, who were then arrested or killed in the January raid. The Times reported that his sister claimed the family had received a call that Abaaoud had died as a "martyr" and had been killed in battle for ISIS. Officials now believe that story to be a trick to allow Abaaoud to sneak back into Europe.

Before being tied to European terror cells, Abaaoud also drew attention for a recruiting video he filmed for ISIS, pushing other Muslims in Europe to join him in Syria to fight. In the video, he claimed that the fighters enjoyed luxurious food and housing, but his main argument tapped a feeling of exclusion and isolation felt by some young Muslim people in Western countries. "Are you satisfied with this life, with this life of humiliation?” he says in the video. He promises that fighting in Syria would be a way back to "pride and honor."