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Paris mastermind: a bully and escape artist

Abdelhamid Abaaoud was on police watchlists in Europe, but was apparently able to return from Syria to plot the Paris attacks
Abdelhamid Abaaoud was believed to have been in Syria at the time of the Paris attacks

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected Paris attacks mastermind reportedly killed during a French police raid on Wednesday, was a schoolyard bully who had recently taunted the West from an Islamic State base in Syria.

Abaaoud, a 28-year-old from Brussels of Moroccan origin, had been linked to a series of plots and recruitment efforts in Europe over the past two years and had bragged of how he had avoided arrest.

He had spoken of living under the noses of Belgian police and, up until Wednesday, was believed to have been in Syria.

Abaaoud in the past spoke of a close call he had when he passed through a European checkpoint as police studied a photo of him.

"The kuffar (unbelievers) were blinded by Allah. I was even stopped by an officer who contemplated me so as to compare me to the picture, but he let me go, as he did not see the resemblance!" Abaaoud told the Islamic State magazine Dabiq.

"This was nothing but a gift from Allah," he said in the interview earlier this year.

The great escape

He also bragged about escaping from Europe after Belgian police killed two of his accomplices as they broke up an IS cell in Verviers in January shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.

Mocking the "bloated image" of "crusader intelligence", he said: "My name and picture were all over the news yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely when doing so became necessary."

As early as last year, Abaaoud was known to security forces after appearing in an IS video at the wheel of a car laden with dead bodies.

His name was widely circulated after the Verviers raid but he was believed to have fled to Syria in February.

Abaaoud - who was born in Molenbeek, a grimy Brussels district dubbed a militant "hotbed" - was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison in July for running an IS recruitment network.

He went by the nom de guerres Abou Omar Soussi, after the name of the family home in the southwest region of Morocco, and Abou Omar al-Baljiki, meaning Abou Omar the Belgian.

Abaaoud's upbringing was by all accounts comfortable. The New York Times reported that he was given a place as a pupil in the well-regarded Catholic, Collège Saint-Pierre d’Uccle in Brussels, but stayed only one year. 

An assistant to Saint-Pierre’s director told the newspaper that he had failed his exams. Others say he was dismissed for poor behaviour.

"He was a little jerk," recalled a former classmate from Brussels who told the Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure that Abaaoud used to harass fellow pupils and teachers and also got into trouble for stealing wallets.

Abaaoud apparently knew Salah and Brahim Abdeslam, both from Molenbeek. Salah is wanted by police for the Paris attacks, while Brahim was one of the suicide bombers in the French capital.

'He destroyed our lives'

After the cell in Verviers was smashed, Abaaoud's father said his son had wrecked their lives.

In 2014, Abelhamid convinced his younger brother Younes, then 13, to join him in Syria and the boy was dubbed the "the world's youngest jihadist" by some newspapers.

"Why in the name of God, would he want to kill innocent Belgians? Our family owes everything to this country," Omar Abaaoud, whose family moved to Belgium 40 years ago from Morocco, said in January after the Verviers plot.

"Abdelhamid has brought shame on our family. Our lives have been destroyed... I never want to see him again. We had a wonderful life, yes, even a fantastic life here. 

"Abdelhamid was not a difficult child and became a good businessman. But suddenly he left for Syria. I wondered every day how he became radicalised to this point. I never got an answer."

Reports earlier this year suggested Abaaoud had been killed fighting in Syria. His older sister Yasmina said at the time: "We are praying that Abdelhamid really is dead."

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