Once a happy-go-lucky student at one of Brussels’ most prestigious high schools -- Saint-Pierre d’Uccle, Abdelhamid Abaaoud morphed into Belgium’s most notorious jihadi, a zealot so devoted to the cause of the so-called holy war that he recruited his 13-year-old brother to join him in Syria.
The child of Moroccan immigrants who grew up in the Belgian capital’s scruffy and multiethnic Molenbeek-Saint-Jean neighborhood, the fugitive, in his late 20s, was identified by French authorities on Monday as the presumed mastermind of the attacks last Friday in Paris that killed 129 people and injured hundreds.
“He appears to be the brains behind several planned attacks in Europe,” a source said of Abaaoud, adding he was investigators’ best lead as the person likely behind the killings in Paris on Friday.
According to RTL Radio, Abaaoud is a 27-year-old from the Brussels suburb Molenbeek, home to other members of the militant Islamist cell suspected of having carried out the attacks.
One French official said Abaaoud is believed to have links to earlier terror attacks that were thwarted: one against a Paris-bound high-speed train that was foiled by three young Americans in August, and the other against a church in the French capital’s suburbs.
“All my life, I have seen the blood of Muslims flow,” Abaaoud said in a video made public in 2014. “I pray that Allah will break the backs of those who oppose him, his soldiers and his admirers, and that he will exterminate them.”
Belgian authorities suspect him of also helping organise and finance a terror cell in the eastern city of Verviers that was broken up in an armed police raid on January 15, in which two of his presumed accomplices were killed.
At the time, Belgian police in the town of Verviers killed two men who opened fire on them during one of about a dozen raids against an Islamist group that federal prosecutors said was about to launch “terrorist attacks on a grand scale”.
At the moment of the Verviers events, Abaaoud’s cellphone was reportedly located in Greece. While there was no clear link established, French prosecutors said fingerprints from one of the suicide bombers matched the prints of a man registered in Greece in October.
The following month, Abaaoud was quoted by the Islamic State group’s English-language magazine, Dabiq, as saying that he had secretly returned to Belgium to lead the terror cell and then escaped to Syria in the aftermath of the raid despite having his picture broadcast across the news.
He boasted of having travelled through Europe unnoticed by security forces to organise attacks and procure weapons.
“I was even stopped by an officer who contemplated me so as to compare me to the picture, but he let me go, as he did not see the resemblance!” Abaaoud boasted.
He was also named in various media last year as the elder brother of a 13-year-old boy who left Belgium to become a child-fighter in Syria.
Interviewed by Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws earlier this year, their father Omar Abaaoud disowned his older son.
“Abdelhamid has brought shame to our family. Our lives are equally destroyed. Why would he want to kill innocent Belgians? Our family owes everything to this country,” he said.
There was no official comment from the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office about Abaaoud’s reported role in the Paris attacks, but Belgian police over the weekend announced the arrest of three suspects in Molenbeek, his old neighbourhood, and were carrying out numerous searches there Monday.
The hardscrabble area in the west of Brussels has long been considered a focal point of Islamic radicalism and recruitment of foreign fighters to go to Iraq and Syria.
Abaaoud’s image became even grimmer after independent journalists Etienne Huver and Guillaume Lhotellier, visiting the Turkish-Syrian frontier, obtained photos and video last year of Abaaoud’s exploits across Syria. The material included footage of him and his friends loading a pickup truck and a makeshift trailer with a mound of bloodied corpses.
Before driving off, a grinning Abaaoud tells the camera: “Before we towed jet skis, motorcycles, quad bikes, big trailers filled with gifts for vacation in Morocco. Now, thank God, following God’s path, we’re towing apostates, infidels who are fighting us.”
Huver said on Monday the video was too fragmentary to say much about Abaaoud’s character, but that he detected some signs the Belgian was moving into a leadership role.
“On the one hand I’m surprised,” Huver said of Abaaoud’s prominence. “On the other hand, I saw that there were beginnings of something. You can see that he’s giving orders. You can feel a charismatic guy who’s going up in the world ... You can see a combatant who’s ready to climb the ranks.”