One woman, standing among terrorists, decided not to let their evil plots prevail. This is an incredible story of courage.
All of Europe was looking for Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the planner of the 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. France had closed its borders and launched a massive manhunt. But Abaaoud emerged from behind a bush and strolled toward the women as if there were nothing unusual about this rendezvous.
One of the women, Abaaoud’s cousin, jumped into his arms, saying, “Hamid, you’re alive!”
But her companion, who had come without knowing who they were to meet, felt a shudder of recognition. “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 obtained by The Washington Post, set in motion a three-day sequence that culminated in a raid on an apartment in Saint-Denis, north of Paris. Abaaoud, 28, was killed in that operation by authorities who subsequently learned 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 named Hasna Aitboulahcen, 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 surrogate mother to Aitboulahcen for several years, secretly called and met with police, providing information that probably helped authorities stave 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 of the Islamic State.
In a Nov. 18 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.
But 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 the Islamic State’s haphazard approach to exporting terror. Abaaoud taunted 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.
But 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 Aitboulahcen, long enamored of him, 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 Islamic State operatives.
Abaaoud told the women that dozens of Islamic State militants had accompanied him into Europe by hiding among streams of refugees. Another of his suspected accomplices in the Paris attacks, Mohamed Abrini, wasarrested by authorities in Belgium on Friday.
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 Islamic State’s external operations branch, recruiting and grooming new arrivals in Syria for attacks against the West.From cocaine to the niqab
Abaaoud and Aitboulahcen 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.
Aitboulahcen 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.
“She lived with me from 2011 to 2014, on and off,” the woman who sheltered Aitboulahcen said in an interview. “She would run away for two weeks, come back a month, over and over again. She took a lot of drugs, mostly cocaine, and drank too much.”
But Aitboulahcen could also be endearing. She helped with chores, expressed heartfelt gratitude to her adopted family and entertained them with stories about her Paris nightlife. “She would always make us laugh,” the friend said.
In 2014, Aitboulahcen’s turbulent life appeared to take a new turn. She began expressing more strident views about religion and took to wearing a niqab — a garment worn by Muslim women to cover all but their eyes.
She also began “chatting with someone in Syria” using the smartphone application WhatsApp, according to transcripts of the friend’s interview with French counterterrorism investigators. Aitboulahcen didn’t reveal the identity of her correspondent to her friend, but her affection for her cousin and the timing of his trips to Syria make it likely that the message exchanges were with Abaaoud.
The two — whose mothers are sisters — grew up in separate cities but appear to have shared a romantic attachment. Aitboulahcen 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 the Islamic State.