The Paris prosecutor's office confirmed Thursday that earlier rumors that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the man whom authorities believe orchestrated and led the attacks in Paris last week, was killed in a raid early Wednesday morning. So what does Abaaoud's death mean for ISIS? He had close ties to a top leader in Syria, so his death is likely a loss for the organization.
Around 4 a.m. Wednesday, French police stormed an apartment building in Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris. Two people were killed: a woman who blew herself up and a man whom police couldn't identify at the time. The woman turned out to be Hasna Aitboulahcen, Abaaoud's cousin, and the man was Abaaoud himself. Eight additional people were arrested in the raid, but French authorities quickly confirmed that none of them were either Abaaoud, who was the target of the raid, or Salah Abdeslam, the eighth person believed to be involved in last week's attacks.
Counterterrorism investigators believe Abaaoud had close ties to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an ISIS leader in Syria. Abaaoud worked closely with al-Baghdadi to connect ISIS to its European operatives. He also helped find and train foreign fighters, so he was instrumental in ISIS' recruiting operations outside of Syria.
Previously, Abaaoud, who was from Molenbeek, Belgium was in charge of a terrorist cell in Verviers, Belgium. But the cell was broken up by Belgian authorities in January 2014. As a result, Abaaoud and 32 other jihadists were sentenced to 20 years in absentia. Since then, Abaaoud has been closely involved with the planning or recruiting for a number of major terror attacks. For example, authorities believe he had contact with Sid Ahmed Ghlam, whom police suspect planned an attack on a church in Villejuif, France in April. Abaaoud was also linked to Ayoub El Khazzani, who opened fire on a train traveling between Brussels and Paris in August, but was thwarted by three Americans — two of them U.S. service members.
Abaaoud also tried to recruit women in Spain to ISIS, Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz told the Telegraph. Diaz said that Abaaoud wasn't recruiting women to carry out terror attacks in Spain, as far as they know; rather, he wanted to recruit women who could help "repopulate the caliphate" in Syria and Iraq.
Abaaoud has been featured heavily in ISIS' recruitment and propaganda videos, in which he's bragged about not being caught by authorities in Europe:
All this proves that a Muslim should not fear the bloated image of the crusader intelligence. My name and picture were all over the news yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely when doing so became necessary.
French President Francois Hollande has not yet indicated whether Abaaoud's death will change France's strategy in Syria. France's Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said during a press conference Thursday that France wasn't even aware that Abaaoud had returned to Europe until after the Paris attacks. Cazeneuve said that France was relying solely on its own intelligence, and didn't receive any other intelligence or warnings from other countries about his presence in Europe. In all, Cazeneuve said that Abaaoud was involved in four of the six attacks that ISIS has attempted in France since the spring.
Though France's response to Abaaoud's death probably won't change the country's strategy in the Middle East, it wouldn't be surprising if ISIS plans some kind of retaliatory attack in the name of someone who was so key to its European operations. ISIS hasn't released any statement yet about Abaaoud's death, but his pivotal role as a recruiter and planner is something the group wouldn't be happy to lose.