28 Nov 2015

Paris attackers used real names, real IDs, and unencrypted, simple messaging to make plans.

Three days before the attacks that ripped through Paris, Djazira Boulanger handed the keys to her row house, across the street from a kindergarten, to a guest who had booked it over the website Homelidays.com. His name was Brahim Abdeslam.
She didn’t know that Mr. Abdeslam was a central figure in plotting the deadly assault. As Ms. Boulanger tended to her two young children at home, authorities say Mr. Abdeslam and a band of cohorts were down the street preparing weapons for an assault on the Stade de France and Paris’s nightlife district.
“Did I suspect something was wrong? Not at all,” Ms. Boulanger said.
A day after he checked in, Mr. Abdeslam’s younger brother, Salah, pulled up to the roadside hotel Appart’City on the southern outskirts of Paris, according to staff, to claim reservations he made on Booking.com—also under his own name. The rooms were for another set of gunmen in the attacks: those assigned to mow down spectators inside theBataclan concert hall
Prosecutors suspect the brothers were preparing the logistics for Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged architect of the massacres, to arrive in Paris and swiftly mount one of the deadliest terror attacks in French history. Brahim would later blow himself up during the attacks, while Salah is now the target of an international manhunt.
Mr. Abaaoud was the kind of adversary France had dreaded since the Syrian conflict began drawing European nationals in droves. Mr. Abaaoud—who would die several days after the Paris attacks in a police raid—drew on his experience as a battlefield logistical officer in Syria to launch a guerrilla-style ambush on unarmed civilians in the French capital.
The account emerging from French officials, witnesses and those who interacted with the suspected terrorists shows how the operation hinged on Mr. Abaaoud’s ability to use the tools of everyday modern life to lay the groundwork for the massacre. The ease with which he and his teams moved—all while avoiding detection by France’s security apparatus—suggests the challenges in identifying would-be terrorists and preventing further attacks in the fluid, digital and transnational world of today, especially when they are European citizens.
The array of car rentals, cellphones and online lodging reservations allowed Mr. Abaaoud to organize his militants as separate cells to ensure the plot wouldn’t unravel if one of the teams was compromised. Likewise, Mr. Abaaoud exploited Europe’s porous border system, sneaking stadium bombers into the continent amid the crush of Syrian refugeeswashing over Greece and tapping European nationals who could wield their own passports to move freely about the region
Mr. Abaaoud was a native of Molenbeek, a heavily Muslim, working-class neighborhood of Brussels. In 2010, he and Salah Abdeslam, who had lived a few blocks away, had been convicted of breaking into a garage. The men served a prison sentence together.
By 2013, Mr. Abaaoud had become a more observant Muslim, growing out his beard, saidAlexandre Chateau, his lawyer. The next January, he took off to northern Syria with his 13-year-old brother, Younes, according to his parents’ lawyer. German authorities flagged Mr. Abaaoud’s departure at Cologne-Bonn airport for Turkey, Europe’s gateway to Syria, because he was on an EU watch list. The entry, however, didn’t direct authorities to detain him.
In Syria, Mr. Abaaoud rose quickly as a recruiter of European fighters, according to French officials. He also honed a reputation for logistical prowess as the Islamic State official in charge of supplies for fighters in operations in Syria’s oil-rich province of Deir Ezzour, according to an Islamic State fighter who met Mr. Abaaoud in that role. He was in charge of procuring weapons and transport for front-line fighters, the fighter said.
In January 2015, Mr. Abaaoud surfaced in Athens, where he made a flurry of phone calls to Belgium, according to people familiar with the matter. In a purported interview with Islamic State’s in-house magazine Dabiq in February, Mr. Abaaoud said he was stockpiling a cache of automatic weapons at the time. Investigators suspect the purpose of the weaponry was to arm the crew of operatives he was assembling to carry out attacks on Europe.
Salah Abdeslam, Mr. Abaaoud’s acquaintance, handled logistics, traveling to the Italian port of Bari in early August where he and another man took a ferry to Patras, Greece, Italian officials said. “We are talking about citizens with regular European passports and with the right to travel freely,” Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said.
Mr. Abaaoud also tapped two French nationals who had both recently spent time in Syria: Samy Amimour, a former Paris bus driver, and Omar Ismail Mostefai, a petty criminal who had been on a watch list for radicalization since 2010. Both were assigned to shoot up the Bataclan concert hall.
For the planned suicide bombing at the Stade de France, Mr. Abaaoud turned to Bilal Hadfi, a French national who had run off to fight in Syria as a teenager. Mr. Hadfi had since returned to Europe without telling his parents, who wondered if he had died fighting in Syria.
The two other stadium bombers arrived in Europe taking a more clandestine route. On Oct. 3, two men arrived on the Greek island of Leros, blending in with the scores of refugees that were washing up on Greece’s shores. One of the men carried a phony passport bearing the name Ahmad Almohammad. Officials haven’t identified the two men.
Days earlier, the Abdeslam brothers had sold Les Beguines, a bar in Molenbeek known for brawling and drug use, according to public records.
The brothers, acting as the group’s bank, started spending on logistics in Brussels and Paris. With more than nine people involved in the operation, they faced a transportation and housing challenge. In addition to a Seat-brand car, Salah Abdeslam rented aVolkswagen and a Renault from two different rental agencies in Brussels. Rental companies in Belgium don’t vet clients as long as their driver’s license, government identification and credit cards are valid.
As the terrorists came together, the Abdeslam brothers arranged lodgings in the dilapidated outskirts of Paris. The brothers shuttled back and forth across a Franco-Belgian border that, under European Union treaties, is little more than a line on the map.
On Nov. 10, they arrived at Ms. Boulanger’s row house in the northeastern suburb of Bobigny, a 20-minute drive from the heart of Paris. The place came equipped with bunk-beds that easily accommodated the six operatives planning to attack the Stade de France and the capital’s busy nightlife district.
Across town, the Appart’City hotel was well-suited to allow the Bataclan team to move about without bringing attention to themselves. On Nov. 11, Salah Abdeslam checked into rooms 311 and 312 at the end of a hallway at the Appart’City hotel, where clients have access to a secondary stairwell that leads directly to a parking lot without ever passing the front desk. The two-star hotel doesn’t require guests to register their cars to use the parking lot. Nor does it have security cameras.
Salah Abdeslam didn’t stay in France for long. He raced back to Belgium to collect the attackers, according to video footage of him at a gas station outside Paris and, hours later, in Brussels. In the predawn hours of Nov. 12, a convoy of three cars left Brussels, setting a course for Paris.
On Friday, Nov. 13, Mr. Abaaoud’s terror cells launched the attacks. At 7:40 p.m. Messrs. Mostefai, Amimour and a third unidentified man steered the Volkswagen hatchback out of the Appart’City bound for the Bataclan concert hall.

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