Unity sought to fight Islamic State extremists
Paris — France identified a 27-year-old Belgian who once boasted about killing “infidels” and fought for the Islamic State group in Syria as the mastermind of the Paris attacks, and President Francois Hollande vowed Monday to forge a united coalition capable of defeating the jihadists at home and abroad.
Addressing lawmakers after France observed a minute of silence honoring the 129 people killed and 350 wounded, Hollande said the victims came from at least 19 nations, and the international community, led by the United States and Russia, must overcome their deep-seated divisions over Syria to destroy Islamic State on its home turf.
Also Monday, President Barack Obama firmly rejected calls for a shift in U.S. strategy against the Islamic State following the attacks, saying Republicans who want to send ground troops into the volatile region are “talking as if they’re tough” but fail to understand the potentially grave consequences.
Hollande said the United States and Russia needed to set aside their policy divisions over Syria, adding that he hoped to meet soon with Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin “to unify our strength and achieve a result that has been too long in coming.”
“Friday’s acts of war were decided and planned in Syria. They were organized in Belgium and perpetrated on our soil with French complicity with one specific goal: to sow fear and to divide us,” Hollande told Parliament in a rare joint session convened at the Palace of Versailles.
“Syria has become the biggest factory of terrorism the world has ever known and the international community is still too divided and too incoherent.”
French and other Western intelligence agencies face an urgent challenge to track down the surviving members of the three Islamic State units who inflicted the unprecedented bloodshed in France and, perhaps more importantly, to target their distant commanders in Islamic State-controlled parts of Syria.
A French security official said anti-terror intelligence officials had identified Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, as chief architect of the Friday the 13th attacks on a rock concert, a soccer game and popular nightspots in one of Paris’ trendiest districts.
The official cited chatter from Islamic State figures that Abaaoud had recommended a concert as an ideal target for inflicting maximum casualties.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive investigation.
French police have used emergency powers to conduct 168 searches since Sunday night that netted 127 arrests.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said police seized a Kalashnikov assault rifle, three automatic pistols and a bulletproof vest from a suspected arms dealer with jihadist sympathies, and a rocket launcher and other military-grade gear from his parents’ home.
Intelligence officials in Europe and the U.S. were picking up “chatter” as early as September about a potential Islamic State-related attack on France but lost the ability to track the exchanges when the militants switched to encrypted communications, an American law enforcement official said Monday.
The discussions flowed from Islamic State leaders in Syria to recipients in Europe, apparently including the Brussels-based terror cell French authorities now believe carried out Friday’s attacks in Paris, said the official, who requested anonymity because of the delicacy of the investigation into the coordinated shootings and bombings.
But no specific time or place for an assault was mentioned, and the threat sounded similar to other signals picked up by European and American authorities, the official said.
And then the line went silent, because the militants switched in September from open communication sources to so-called PS4 embedded devices — such as Sony PlayStation 4 equipment — that use encryption and block authorities from tapping them, the official said.
“The French were trying to find out anything more about the chatter, and they got behind it,” the official said. “But it went bad.”
The Islamic State is plotting more operations similar to the Paris attacks, the CIA director said Monday, asserting that Western governments and intelligence agencies are hampered in monitoring terrorist suspects and thwarting plots.
Director John Brennan told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the world’s intelligence communities had been expecting attacks similar to those that struck Paris, but were unable to stop the attacks Friday. He attributed the failure to new terrorist tactics, new technology that enables secret communications and several leaks of classified information that he said have hampered governments.
“It’s not a surprise this attack was carried out, from the standpoint of, we did have strategic warning,” he said. “We knew that that this type of plotting was under way, looking at Europe in particular as the venue for these type of attacks.”
The Islamic State was planning the Paris attacks for “several months” as part of a series of attacks outside the self-declared caliphate, he said.
“I certainly would not consider it a one-off event,” Brennan said.
In a stinging rebuke, Obama condemned Republicans who have suggested U.S. assistance to refugees fleeing the Middle East should focus on Christians, not Muslims. GOP presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have made such suggestions, while some Republican governors want to ban all Syrian refugees from their states.
“That’s shameful,” he said. “That’s not American. It’s not who we are.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called Obama’s statements “excuse-laden and defensive.”
The huddle between Obama and Putin at the Group of 20 economic summit in Turkey on Sunday was heavy with significance.
The meeting on Syria lasting more than 30 minutes was the first since the Russian president surprised his American counterpart in September by sending in his warplanes to prop up Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader the U.S. wants deposed.
Core disagreement over the Russian support for Assad remains. While the two leaders agree on the strategic goal of combating Islamic State, they differ on the tactics, Putin’s foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, told state news service RIA Novosti.
Determined to root out jihadists within French communities, Hollande said he would present a bill Wednesday seeking to extend a state of emergency — granting the police and military greater powers of search and arrest, and local governments the right to ban demonstrations and impose curfews — for another three months.
He also pledged to hire 5,000 more police within the next two years, to freeze cuts in military personnel through 2019, and to introduce other bills that would stiffen jail terms for arms trafficking and make it easier to deport suspected terrorists.
Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News contributed.