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Who is Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged mastermind behind the Paris attacks?

Abdelhamid Abaaoud grew up in Molenbeek, the Brussels suburb that has a reputation as a nexus of Islamist activity and has been linked to four recent terrorist plots.

No media-shy man, the alleged mastermind behind the Paris attacks gave an interview this year to a jihadi magazine in which he bragged about outwitting European law enforcement.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud also tipped his hat to those who had attacked Canada and other Western countries. "I ask Allah to accept the fruitful deeds of the shuhada [martyrs] who terrorized the crusaders of America, France, Canada, Australia, Germany and Belgium," he said at the end of the interview.

His remarks appeared in the February issue of Dabiq, the glossy propaganda magazine of the group calling itself the Islamic State. That interview and a gruesome video in which he can be seen in IS-controlled Syria at the wheel of a pickup truck, smiling as his vehicle dragged a pile of bodies behind him, are now in the spotlight again.

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As police in France and Belgium carried out a series of raids on Monday, attention turned to the connection of the suspects to IS, which has claimed responsibility for the night attacks that killed 129 people in Paris on Friday.

According to French media, investigators believe that the 27-year-old Mr. Abaaoud is a key figure in the plot, citing his ties to Salah Abdeslam, another Belgian national wanted by police as a suspect in the Nov. 13 attacks.

Both men have been in custody for their joint involvements in armed robberies in Belgium in 2010 and 2011, BFMTV and Le Monde reported.

Of the two, Mr. Abaaoud has the higher profile. He had already made the news for travelling to Syria to join the Islamic State, luring his teenaged brother to enlist and heading back to Belgium for a failed terror plot.

Mr. Abaaoud, one of six children of a Moroccan family, grew up in Molenbeek, the Brussels suburb that has a reputation as a nexus of Islamist activity and has been linked to four recent terrorist plots.

While a teen, he attended one of Brussels' fancier school, the Catholic Collège Saint-Pierre, in the district of Uccles, the Belgian newspaper La Capitale reported, adding that he was remembered as "an intelligent boy who wasn't very motivated by his classes."

Mr. Abaaoud's father, Omar, runs a clothing store and has repudiated Abdelhamid, saying he has dishonoured his family by joining the Islamic State and getting involved in a terror plot against Belgium. "Why in the name of God would he want to kill innocent Belgians? We owe everything to this country," Omar told the Belgian daily Het Laatste Nieuws in January.

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The family was also shocked when Abdelhamid persuaded his brother Younes, who was 13, to join him in Syria in 2014. "I will never forgive him for conscripting my other son, Younes," Omar told Het Laatste Nieuws.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud appeared in a video obtained last year by two journalists working for Paris Match.

By Mr. Abaaoud's own account, a fellow jihadi had lost his camera, which "a murtadd" (apostate) later sold to journalists.

The gory video shows a cheerful Mr. Abaaoud driving a truck, towing behind him about half a dozen stiffened bodies.

Wearing an Afghan pakol hat and with a GoPro camera strapped to his chest, Mr. Abaaoud jokes and tells the cameraman, "Before, we towed Jet Skis, quads, motorcycles, big trailers full of luggage and gifts for vacation. …  Now we tow the apostates and the non-believers. You can film now, brother, film my new trailer."

He then drives the bodies to a field while the man holding the camera mocks the dead and remarks on the bodies' stench.

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Mr. Abaaoud was in the news again after a police raid last January in the Belgian city of Verviers near the German border, where officers killed two suspected terrorists.

In his interview with Dabiq, he said he and the two men who were killed had gone to Belgium "to terrorize the crusaders waging war against the Muslims."

He said they spent months trying to find a way into Europe, then entered Belgium, found weapons and set up a safe house.

Because of the video, "my picture all over the media, but alhamdulillah [praise be to God], the kuffar [non-believers] were blinded by Allah," he said.

He said he was even stopped by an officer who failed to notice his resemblance to the face on the video.

(He is identified in the magazine by the pseudonym Abu Umar al-Baljiki, Father of Omar the Belgian.)

Mr. Abaaoud said he was able to make his way back to IS-held territory after the shootout in Verviers. "Allah blinded their vision and I was able to leave and come to Sham [the Levant] despite being chased after by so many intelligence agencies," he said.

In words that now carry more weight after the Paris attack, he ridiculed the efforts of European counterterrorism agencies.

"A Muslim should not fear the bloated image of the crusader intelligence," he said. "My name and picture were all over the news, yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them and leave safely when doing so became necessary."

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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