France launches new airstrikes amid reports that Paris attacks were directed in Syria
As the investigation into the deadly attacks on this city spiraled into a Europe-wide effort, French warplanes pounded the headquarters of Islamic State on Sunday in retaliation for what the government here said was the group’s orchestration of the terrorist assault from its base in northern Syria.
The airstrikes by a dozen aircraft, including 10 fighter jets, destroyed a militant training camp and a command and weapons center in Islamic State’s declared capital of Raqqah in Syria, the French Defense Ministry said.
It was the biggest such bombardment by France since the country expanded its aerial campaign against Islamic State in September, and was carried out with targeting information supplied by U.S. intelligence.
Practically as the warplanes were taking off from launch sites in Jordan and the Persian Gulf, the French government publicly accused Islamic State of masterminding from Syria the audacious string of bombings and shootings in Paris on Friday that have killed at least 129 people.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in a television interview that Islamic State hatched the idea of a terrorist attack on French soil, then commissioned “some persons located in Belgium” to execute it.
Belgian prosecutors have identified two of the attackers as French citizens who lived in and around Brussels. The two men were among the seven assailants who blew themselves up or were shot dead by police in Paris on Friday night.
French authorities issued an arrest warrant Sunday for an eighth suspect, Salah Abdeslam, 26, who was born in Brussels.
Abdeslam is one of three brothers believed to have played a role in the attacks; media reports said he rented the black Volkswagen Polo used to transport the three gunmen who massacred at least 89 people in the historic Bataclan concert hall. The car was found parked near the theater.
Police described Abdeslam as dangerous. “Above all, do not intervene yourself,” they cautioned the public in a tweet.
Authorities also found a second abandoned car, reportedly with three automatic rifles inside, that appeared linked to the attacks. The discovery of the black SEAT Leon, in a suburb of Paris just a few miles from where most of the shootings took place, raised the possibility that one or more assailants had managed to get away.
If the French government is correct in ascribing the attacks’ origin to Islamic State headquarters in Syria, it would be another disturbing display of the extremist group’s growing reach and sophistication in hitting targets outside the swath of territory it has seized in Syria and Iraq.
Shortly before Friday’s attacks, senior intelligence sources in Iraq warned several foreign countries participating in the U.S.-led coalition there that Islamic State was plotting another strike somewhere outside the Middle East, the official said.
But the alert was deemed routine, one of the many that Baghdad has relayed since Islamic State began its expansion in Iraq and Syria several years ago.
“It was nonspecific,” the official said. “It did not say Paris was next.”
It appears that most of the attackers were not on the radar of French intelligence, despite the fact that France has some of the most sweeping surveillance powers of any Western nation.
One man who was known to French authorities, 29-year-old Ismael Omar Mostefai, has been named as one of the gunmen inside the Bataclan concert hall. Mostefai, born just outside Paris, was identified from a print taken from his severed finger, which was found in the hall.
Mostefai had reportedly been on a watch list as someone susceptible to radicalization but not yet requiring extensive surveillance. He was known to police as a small-time criminal whose offenses included driving without a license and insulting behavior toward authority. The daily newspaper Le Monde said Mostefai probably spent the winter of 2013-14 in Syria.
He had recently lived in the city of Chartres, about 50 miles southwest of Paris. Neighbors reported that he started becoming radicalized about five years ago.
Several of Mostefai’s relatives were detained by police for questioning, including a brother who surrendered himself to authorities voluntarily and who told Agence France-Presse that he and Mostefai were estranged.
In Belgium, federal prosecutors announced that seven people had been arrested in connection with the attacks on Paris. Several of them lived in Molenbeek, a Brussels suburb with a reputation as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism.
Le Monde said that those arrested include one of the three Abdeslam brothers. The third brother is believed to have been one of the dead suicide bombers.
Associated Press reported that Salah Abdeslam, for whom the warrant had been issued, slipped through authorities’ fingers at the French-Belgian border. Citing unnamed French officials, AP said that Abdeslam was allowed to continue his journey with two other men after their car was stopped at a police checkpoint. Officers checked Abdeslam’s ID and let him move on.
There were also reports that a Syrian passport found near the body of one of the attackers belonged to a man who had entered Europe via Greece last month and then followed the well-worn trail to Northern Europe that hundreds of thousands of migrants have trekked along this year.
Greek officials have confirmed that the passport-holder was registered on the island of Leros, and officials in Serbia and Croatia have said that the holder of the passport came through their countries.
Whether the passport is authentic or one of the many fake Syrian passports in circulation is unclear.
Paris remained a city in grief Sunday despite brilliant blue skies and balmier weather.
In response to two major terrorist attacks in less than a year, the government is deploying 3,000 additional troops to secure the French capital, above the detachment already stationed here after the massacre in January that targeted the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a related attack.
In a sign of how on edge the city is, a spontaneous rally of thousands of Parisians in the Place de la Republique descended into chaos Sunday when a car was left running near the square. People scattered in panic, and police swept through the square with their guns drawn. It turned out to be a false alarm.
Authorities have banned public gatherings after the attacks. But residents started streaming into the square Sunday afternoon as a gesture of defiance against the fear the attackers had sought to unleash.
There have already been calls in some European countries to tighten the flow of asylum seekers as a result of the Paris attacks. But Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, rejected the idea.
“Those who organized these attacks, and those who carried them out, are exactly those who the refugees are fleeing,” Juncker said in Antalya, Turkey, where he was attending the G-20 summit.
Chu reported from Paris, Serrano from Washington and Zavis from Los Angeles. Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.
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