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Suspected Planner Of Paris Attacks Took Conventional Journey To Radicalization


I'm Robert Siegel in Paris. The Belgian militant believed to be at the center of last week's terrorist attacks here is dead. French officials confirmed today that Abdelhamid Abaaoud was killed in yesterday's raid in the Paris suburb of St. Denis. NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has been with me in Paris all this week.

And Dina, first, why did it take so long for the authorities to announce that they'd killed this man?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, the bodies in the apartment apparently were very difficult to identify after an explosion by a suicide vest and some 5,000 shots from police.

SIEGEL: You've been digging into this story of Abdelhamid Abaaoud. What have you learned about this man?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, even before these attacks, if you were following ISIS on Twitter or Facebook, he would've been very familiar to you.


ABDELHAMID ABAAOUD: (Speaking French).

TEMPLE-RASTON: Abaaoud is sitting in the driver's seat of a truck in Syria. He's a smiling, wearing an Afghan cap, and he's speaking in French about the doom that awaits nonbelievers.


ABAAOUD: (Speaking French).

TEMPLE-RASTON: As the truck pulls away, the camera captures a grisly picture. You can see the truck is dragging corpses to a mass grave.


ABAAOUD: (Speaking French).

TEMPLE-RASTON: Abdelhamid Abaaoud was born in Morocco, but he's a product of Belgium. He grew up in a gritty Brussels neighborhood called Molenbeek. His father owned a local clothing store, and he grew up in a house on Rue De L'Avenir - Future Street - near a police station.

ANDREW HUSSEY: Radicalization is not an easy process. It's long and complex, and I don't think enough work has been done on it. We're only beginning that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Andrew Hussey is a professor of culture at the University of London who's been living in Paris. He says it shouldn't be a surprise that Abaaoud ending up hiding in a place like St. Denis. It's a lot like Molenbeek.

HUSSEY: St. Denis is pretty typical of the kind of place where radicalization has been taking place. I've been working there a lot. It's a border zone, if you like. And I think that's what creates a lot of tensions there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In retrospect, Abaaoud's journey towards radical Islam seems textbook. He was marginalized in an immigrant neighborhood in Brussels, he dropped out of school, he began committing petty crimes and was incarcerated in 2010. And the process of radicalization for him may well have been finished in prison.

HUSSEY: One of the routes into radicalization in France is through the prison system - and I've done a lot of work in French prisons trying to understand this - and the radical Muslims organize themselves in the prison system like a kind of secret army.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And when they get out, that stays with them. The two brothers who launched the attacks against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January were also in prison, but they were in France, and that's where officials think they radicalized. It's unclear if Abaaoud followed a similar path in Belgium. What is known is that by early 2014, he was out of prison and living in Syria with ISIS. There's another connection intelligence officials are exploring. They're focused on a Frenchman whose nom de guerre is Abu Mohamed al-Faransi.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

TEMPLE-RASTON: ISIS interviewed al-Faransi for a propaganda video, and it seemed like a call to action.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

TEMPLE-RASTON: "Go and kill the unbelievers if you can," he says to any followers who might be listening. "We already have people in place to do that," he adds. U.S. intelligence officials say that al-Faransi is in charge of ISIS's French-speaking recruits. They think he dispatched Abaaoud to Europe to attack, which means Abaaoud wasn't the mastermind of last week's rampage as much as he was the man assigned to carry it out.

Marc Hecker is a research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. He says that Abaaoud got a lot of attention a couple months ago when he appeared in an interview in Dabiq magazine. That's ISIS's official online publication.

MARC HECKER: In the issue number seven that was published a few months ago, he gave an interview boasting that he was present in Belgium when there was a terrorist attack foiled by the police just after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Abaaoud claimed the police closed in on his group, but he said he managed to escape and go back to Syria. Some officials wonder if he actually never left.

HECKER: The first hypothesis is that this interview is just a ruse, stratagem that would be very clever from his part.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, Marc Hecker.

HECKER: The second hypothesis is that he indeed managed to escape and go back to Syria, but he would mean that he managed to come back from Syria.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Intelligence officials are trying to determine whether he might've been hiding in plain sight. Just days after the attacks, the community in Molenbeek wanted to show the world that they were as stunned by the events in the past week as the rest of us so they held a unity march.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking French).

TEMPLE-RASTON: There is one other known suspect at large. He's a man police have been hunting for days. His name is Saleh Abdeslam, and he grew up around the corner from Abaaoud in Molenbeek. The last time police saw him was three hours after the attacks. He was in a car headed for Belgium. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.