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One Woman Helped Abdel Hamid Abaaoud in Paris Attacks… The Other Turned Him in | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The apartment, which Hasna Ait Boulahcen and Abdel Hamid Abaaoud died in Saint-Denis, north of Paris

Paris-All of Europe was looking for Abdel Hamid Abaaoud, the planner of Paris attacks, when two women approached his roadside hiding place, guided by the voice of someone secretly watching from a distance and giving directions by phone.

“Go forward. Walk. Stop,” the voice said. “He can see you. He’s coming.”

It was 9:30 p.m., two days after the bombings and shootings in November that left 130 people dead.

Back then, France closed its borders and launched a massive manhunt, yet Abaaoud appeared from behind a bush and walked toward the women as if there were nothing unusual.

One of the women, Abaaoud’s cousin was surprised to see Hamid still alive.

However, her companion, who had come without knowing who they were to meet, seemed to have seen him before. “I’d seen him on TV,” she later told police, referring to videos from Syria that showed Abaaoud dragging dead bodies behind a truck.

The meeting, which was described by the woman in an interview and confirmed in French investigative files, which were later obtained by “The Washington Post”, set in motion a three-day sequence that ended in a raid on an apartment in Saint-Denis, north of Paris.

Abaaoud, 28, was killed in that operation by authorities who subsequently knew that he was plotting additional attacks.

His plans were derailed largely because of his decision to involve two women whose impulses when faced with the choice of trying to help him or stop him were immediately at odds.

His cousin, a troubled 26-year-old woman called Hasna Ait Boulahcen, helped Abaaoud elude authorities for days and died with him in the Saint-Denis apartment, where one of the cornered militants detonated a suicide bomb.

The other woman, who had served as a substitute mother to Ait Boulahcen for several years, secretly called and met with police, providing information that probably helped authorities hold off another wave of attacks.

The relationship between the two women in many ways reflects broader tensions in Muslim communities across Europe over interpretations of their religion, degrees of loyalty to their countries and the insidious appeal to ISIS.

In a November 18’s news conference, François Molins, the Paris prosecutor, said that a key witness helped identify Abaaoud on French territory and that investigators were led to this apartment by that crucial source.

French police declined to elaborate or comment further on the case.

Nevertheless, until now, the public has been unaware that the critical tip in the hunt for Abaaoud came from a Muslim, one of millions who now face a backlash in Europe fueled by anger over the attacks in Paris and Brussels, as well as fear and resentment of a rising tide of refugees.

“It’s important the world knows that I am Muslim myself,” the woman said, citing that as a reason for being willing to speak to “The Post”.

“It’s important to me that people know what Abaaoud and the others did is not what Islam is teaching.”

The case also provides insights into ISIS’s chaotic approach to exporting terror. Abaaoud ridiculed Western security agencies about his ability to move between Syria and Europe for two years without getting caught.

He led the planning of a multistage attack, using cellphones to coordinate the strikes and to make sure that his subordinates followed through.

He is believed to have fired his own weapon into packed Paris restaurants before taking the subway to survey the carnage at the Bataclan Theater.

Nonetheless, for all of his preparations, he appears to have had no plan for the aftermath and no misgivings about pulling family members into his violent wake.

After hiding among roadside shrubs, he enlisted Ait Boulahcen to help procure food, clothes and a better place to plot his next move.

This account is drawn from dozens of French investigative documents obtained by “The Post”.

The surviving woman, in her 40s, discussed her involvement in the case but asked not to be identified, citing concern for her safety as security officials across Europe continue searching for ISIS operatives.

The attacks in Brussels last month were carried out by remnants of a network assembled by Abaaoud.

A native of Belgium, he is believed to have been a key figure in the ISIS’s external operations branch, recruiting and grooming new arrivals in Syria for attacks against the West.

Abaaoud and Ait Boulahcen came from similarly checkered backgrounds. By his late teens, Abaaoud had been expelled from a prestigious school, become involved in neighborhood gangs and been convicted of a series of small-time crimes.

Whereas Ait Boulahcen, spent much of her childhood in a foster home that provided an escape from an abusive mother and absent father, according to the French files. Her brief adulthood was marked by binges on drugs and alcohol, offset by halting attempts to adhere to strict interpretations of her Muslim faith.

The two, whose mothers are sisters, grew up in separate cities but appear to have shared a romantic story.

Ait Boulahcen told friends at times that she expected one day to marry Abaaoud, who was two years older, although it’s not clear that the prospect of such a marriage ever moved beyond daydream status.

Abaaoud made his first trip to Syria in 2013 along with six other militants from Belgium, part of a wave of thousands of foreign fighters who left Europe to fight alongside al-Qaeda or ISIS.

The Washington Post