Soverwhelming was the force used by French commandos at a residence in Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, early in the morning of November 18, that it took French authorities more than 24 hours to identify one of the deceased jihadis as the Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud. In a stunning development, it confirmed that the presumed ringleader of the Paris attacks had traveled to France to participate in the mission. Analysis of cell phone data indicated he visited the site of the Bataclan concert hall during the attack and several of the key sites in the hours after the attacks. (1)
Apparently, French commandos launched their raid just in time. Paris prosecutor Francois Molins later revealed that Abaaoud and an accomplice also killed in Saint-Denis were supposed to blow themselves up within a day in La Defense shopping (2) district. (3)
Abaaoud's trajectory is instructive and traces some familiar patterns on his path from a relatively comfortable childhood to radicalization and a violent death. A dual Belgian-Moroccan national, he was born on April 8, 1987 in the eastern Brussels district of Anderlecht, an area which, like nearby Molenbeek, housed the families of many Moroccan immigrants.
Abaaoud was a third-generation immigrant and the eldest of six children. His grandfather had come to Belgium to work in the coal mines, but his father Omar had climbed the economic ladder by opening his own clothing store near their home in Molenbeek, where Abaaoud helped out when he was young. (4)
His father was by his own account ambitious for his son. In 1999 at the age of 12, Abaaoud was enrolled in the Catholic College Saint Pierre, a prestigious Brussels school situated in the leafy Uccle district. (5) He only lasted a year there, however, before he was expelled for disruptive behavior and poor academic performance. (6)
What followed was a spiral into petty gangsterism and criminality. Like a significant number of youngsters living in "inner-city" areas like Molenbeek, Abaaoud fell in with a loosely organized gang of local youths, whose members included several future co-conspirators in the Paris attack, including the brothers Brahim and Salah Abdeslam. (7)
He soon built up a criminal record. In 2006, at the age of 19, Abaaoud received his first conviction for concealment of stolen goods, resulting in mandatory community service. Three years later, he was convicted for violence and resisting police officers. (8) In December 2010, he and Salah Abdeslam attempted to break into a garage in Ottignies, a town southeast of Brussels.
Fleeing from the police, Abaaoud jumped in a river, where he was found suffering from hypothermia. "Probably they were all a little bit drunk," his long-time lawyer Alexandre Chateau said about that incident. (9)
In 2011, Abaaoud was convicted for the attempted illegal entry and given a year of probation. (10) Later that year, he was sentenced to 18 months for theft with violence. (11)
The illegal and violent behavior continued. In 2012 he was convicted for hitting someone in the Flemish town of Dendermonde, which landed him in jail again. (12)
According to his father, it was during this last spell behind bars that he was radicalized. (13) Despite media speculation it remains unclear how or by whom. It appears, however, that Abaaoud was part of a generation of what the Belgian counterterrorism official and academic Alain Grignard has labeled "Islamized radicals." These are young men involved in petty crime, who were radical before they were religious, and whose violent respect-through-fear credo was later legitimized by the Islamic State. (14)
After his release from Forest prison on September 29, 2012, Abaaoud grew his beard and cut off some of his friendship ties. (15) He fell in with a Molenbeek-based network that had begun recruiting for the Syrian jihad.
The leader was a Moroccan veteran of the Afghan jihad, Khalid Zerkani, who was 42-years-old, known in the circle as Papa Noel because he doled out cash to his favorite acolytes, including 4,500 [euro] payments to those traveling to Syria. To assemble that money, Zerkani ordered his followers to commit burglaries and pickpocketing. He was arrested in 2013 and stood trial in July 2015. He was held responsible for sending at least 20 people to the Syrian war-including Abaaoud--for which the court described him as a "cynical guru." (16)
The group also had a kind of mother figure in 55-year-old Fatima Aberkan. (a) She is a protegee of the notorious Belgian female terrorist Malika el Aroud. (17) At the end of 2007, both women were detained on suspicion of plans to liberate the convicted al-Qa'ida terrorist Nizar Trabelsi from...