The assault began before dawn Wednesday at a decrepit building in a close suburb of Paris when scores of French police officers stormed a third-floor apartment in search of their elusive quarry: Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian suspected of organizing last week’s deadly attacks by the Islamic State in Paris.
To get through a reinforced door, the police had to set explosives, giving the people inside time to prepare. A furious firefight ensued, with the police unleashing 5,000 rounds over the next hour and employing snipers and grenades. A female suicide bomber exploded her vest, collapsing the floor.
When it was all over, the police had swept eight people into custody and found at least two mangled bodies. Abaaoud had not been taken alive, the authorities said — and it was not clear whether one of the bodies was his.
“I am not able to give you the definitive number and identities of the people who were killed,” the Paris prosecutor, François Molins, said, adding that neither Abaaoud nor Salah Abdeslam, another suspected Paris attacker who has been on the loose, was among those arrested.
The day of further violence left Paris on edge once again and much of the world transfixed as the manhunt for Abaaoud and his accomplices played out. Evening brought only uncertainty about whether the threat had been eradicated or whether Abaaoud, who has boasted of eluding capture, remained at large.
Adding to the confusion was the identity of the female suicide bomber, believed to be the first woman affiliated with the Islamic State to have blown herself up, other than those with Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group in Nigeria. Two French intelligence officials briefed on the investigation said she was believed to be a cousin of Abaaoud, Hasna Aitboulahcen, 26, who worked for a nearby company.
Molins suggested that the raid might have averted another terrorist attack, given the determination and organization shown by the group and the extent of its weaponry.
“This commando group was ready to act,” he said.
The breakthrough appeared to have come with a tip on Monday night: Abaaoud, an Islamic State militant linked to a series of previous attacks, was not in Syria, as some intelligence officials had thought, or his native Belgium. If the tip was to be believed, he was in France.
The authorities pored over telephone and banking records, Molins said. One clue led to another, until the authorities concluded that it was likely that Abaaoud was holed up in St.-Denis, the suburb on the northern edge of Paris where the attacks began last Friday night at 9:20 p.m. with a suicide explosion at the nearby national soccer stadium.
At 4:20 a.m. Paris time on Wednesday, police assault teams stormed the three-story building on the Rue du Corbillon, which local officials and neighbors described as a drug-infested and dangerous street that has many squatters.
As the raids were being carried out, the police shouted at pedestrians to get off the street or seek cover; officers even broke through the door of a small church, St.-Denys de l’Estrée, chasing down what turned out to be a false alarm.
At 11:47 a.m., after more than seven hours, government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll declared that the operation was over. Five police officers were slightly wounded, and a 7-year-old police dog, a Malinois named Diesel, was killed.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Justice Minister Christiane Taubira had joined President François Hollande and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve at the Élysée Palace to monitor the operation.
The raid was just the most spectacular of an aggressive counterterrorism campaign the French government has been conducting since Friday night. Officials said Wednesday that they had identified all 129 of the people who were killed Friday.
Cazeneuve said Wednesday that the police had conducted 414 raids across the country over the past three nights.
Sixty people have been arrested and detained, and 75 weapons seized, including 11 heavy weapons, 33 long firearms and 31 handguns, the statement said. An additional 118 people were put under house arrest.
After the raids, Hollande told a conference of French mayors that the operation “confirms that we are at war.” He said he would travel to Washington next week to meet President Barack Obama, and to Moscow two days later to meet President Vladimir Putin of Russia, to discuss the formation of “a large coalition” to act “decisively” against the Islamic State.