Once a happy-go-lucky student at one of Brussels’ most prestigious high schools, Abdelhamid Abaaoud morphed into Belgium’s most notorious jihadi, a zealot so devoted to the cause of holy war that he recruited his 13-year-old brother to join him in Syria.
The child of Moroccan immigrants was identified Monday by French authorities as the presumed mastermind behind Friday’s attacks in Paris that killed 129 people.
In addition, one French official said, the fugitive 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.”
Meanwhile Monday, three days after declaring that France was at war with the Islamic State, French President Francois Hollande called on the rest of the civilized world to join in turning up the heat on “these despicable cowards.”
Whether other nations would join his call was uncertain. In a speech delivered at the same time in Turkey, President Barack Obama said at the conclusion of the G-20 conference that the current U.S. strategy against the Islamic State had been successful. He made clear he was not going to send U.S. ground troops to Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, also at the G-20 conference, said the world had to work together to stop the terrorist state, but he emphasized attacking its financing, not its military structure.
Hollande, however, made it clear he was seeking collective action. He urged Russia and the United States to put aside their differences over Syria to work together against the Islamic State.
“Our democracy has triumphed over much more dangerous opponents,” Hollande told the French National Assembly at Versailles Palace.
“We are not a involved in a war of civilizations, because these murderers represent no civilization,” he said. “We are at war against jihadist terrorism, which is a threat to the whole world.”
Across Europe on Monday, officials were beginning to piece together a network of attackers with ties that radiated back to Abaaoud.
Abaaoud is thought to have arrived in Syria sometime in 2013 or 2014 and slipped in and out of Europe since. He is now thought to be back in Syria, according to two European officials.
Belgian authorities suspect Abaaoud of also helping organize and finance a terror cell in Verviers, Belgium, that was broken up in an armed police raid in January in which two of his presumed accomplices were killed.
The following month, Abaaoud was quoted by the Islamic State group’s English-language magazine 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.
“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.
Abaaoud’s image became 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.”
Reaction in Washington
The Paris terror attacks yielded fresh urgency in Washington over the need to defeat the Islamic State, but no clear strategy emerged Monday even after a chilling prediction from CIA director John Brennan that similar terror attacks are likely in store for the United States.
Republican lawmakers redoubed their claims that Obama has pursued weak and indecisive policies against the Islamic State.
“The urgency of confronting this threat before attacks reach our own shores is self-evident,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican.
Accusing Obama of sticking to “a failed strategy,” McCain added: “The slaughter in Paris was not a ‘setback,’ as the president said today. It was an act of war. It is long past time for President Obama to wake up to reality, change course, and adopt a new strategy to achieve the decisive and lasting defeat of ISIL.”
McCain, however, offered no suggestions for a modified strategy, and most GOP presidential candidates did not budge from their longstanding agreement with Obama that American combat troops should not be sent back into Iraq or into Syria for the first time.
In a display of pique, Obama responded defensively to reporters pressing him on whether his response to the Islamic State has been adequate.
“Let’s assume that we were to send 50,000 troops into Syria,” Obama said at the G-20 summit. “What happens when there’s a terrorist attack generated from Yemen? Do we then send more troops into there? Or Libya, perhaps?”
Meanwhile, the administration’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year came under assault Monday from Republican politicians as reports circulated that at least one of the suspects in the Paris attacks may have slipped into Europe from Syria.
Republican governors from states including Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin joined in opposition to relocating any Syrian refugees to their states. They were joined by the Democratic governor of New Hampshire.
For example, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday ordered his state’s refugee resettlement program not to accept any more Syrians. And Alabama’s Gov. Robert Bentley announced Sunday that he would refuse Syrian refugees because “I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm’s way.”
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, said he had signed an executive order barring any state agency from helping resettle Syrian refugees.
“We must be sure that we are not admitting terrorists as we try to help the innocents who desire the opportunity for a better life and the basic liberty of religious freedom,” a Brownback statement said.
Brownback’s statement did not say he would absolutely prohibit refugees from settling in the state. It’s possible no governor has the authority to impose a ban on federal resettlement of refugees.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, also issued a statement on the topic.
“The screening process for refugees is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and I call on our federal partners to implement the strongest possible safeguards to protect our state and nation,” said the statement from Nixon.
Not all governors opposed the Syrians; Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania said his administration will keep working with the federal government to properly screen and resettle Syrian refugees.
The Kansas City Star’s Dave Helling contributed to this report, as did McClatchy Washington Bureau, The Associated Press and The Washington Post.