PARIS: The Belgian man suspected of being the plotter of the Paris terrorist attacks was a target of Western airstrikes on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, as recently as last month, according to a European security official.
The man, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 27, a fighter for the Islamic State, is believed to have escaped to Syria after the authorities in January foiled another terrorist plot, which had targeted the eastern Belgian city of Verviers, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details.
The search for Abaaoud intensified as both French and Russian warplanes pounded Raqqa.
Federal prosecutors in Belgium on Tuesday charged two Belgian citizens – Hamza Attou, 21, a Brussels native; and Mohamed Amri, 27, who was born in Morocco – with participation in a terrorist activity or organization, in connection with Friday’s attacks. They were among seven men arrested on Saturday; the other five have been released.
Both men live in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, which was a base for Abaaoud and for two brothers: Ibrahim Abdeslam, who blew himself up inside a restaurant on Friday; and his brother Salah, now the target of a manhunt.
Salah Abdeslam was stopped at a traffic check in the French town of Cambrai on Saturday morning, as he headed toward the Belgian border, but was waved through after an identity check.
On Tuesday, the Austrian police disclosed that Salah Abdeslam was also stopped during a routine police check in northern Austria on Sept. 9 – four days after Germany and Austria opened their borders to refugees streaming in via Hungary. Abdeslam crossed into Austria from Germany in a car with two other men who have not been identified, an Interior Ministry spokesman said. Abdeslam told the police that he would be spending a few days on vacation in Austria, the spokesman said.
On Tuesday, the European Union took the extraordinary step of invoking an article of the bloc’s Lisbon Treaty that states: “If a member state is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other member states shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power.”
The practical effect of that move – which had been sought by President Francois Hollande of France – was not immediately clear, but the decision formally commits the 27 other members of the European Union to support France.