Paris attacks: Another attack could have been hours away

Published 5:12 AM EST, Wed November 25, 2015
02:05 - Source: CNN
Fugitive Paris driver spent time in Syria

Story highlights

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Paris CNN —  

French authorities working to dismantle the network of terrorists behind the Paris attacks on Tuesday revealed a troubling find.

Suspected ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud and another man were planning a suicide attack on the Paris financial district of La Defense on November 18 or 19, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said. Instead, both men were killed during the dramatic raid in Saint-Denis that shook a neighborhood and collapsed an entire floor of an apartment building.

Two suspects in last week’s attack remain on the run, however. They are Salah Abdeslam, whose brother died in the attack, and Mohamed Abrini – whom police named as a suspect Tuesday.

Police say Abrini – now the subject of an international arrest warrant – drove a car that was abandoned in the Paris neighborhood where one of the November 13 shootings occurred, according to police.

Cameras at a gas station in Resson, France – on a highway between Brussels and Paris – captured images of Abrini and Abdeslam two days before the attacks, the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office said.

According to a source close to the investigation, Abrini went to Syria in 2014, but it was unclear when he returned to Europe. That would make him the latest of at least six of the alleged Paris attackers believed to have traveled to war-torn Syria.

Here’s a look at some of the threads authorities are following as they investigate the attacks and shape their response:

France steps up ISIS fight

French warplanes struck eight targets Tuesday in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa and new targets in Mosul, Iraq, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in an address Wednesday to French lawmakers.

“This brings the number of attacks to more than 300 since the beginning of our involvement in the Levant,” Valls said, referring to the region of the Middle East that includes Syria.

He vowed the country will further increase the volume of attacks, relying heavily on the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to strike at targets in Iraq and Syria.

“There is no alternative. We have to destroy Daesh,” he said, using another term for ISIS.

Paris tourism suffers huge slump after terror attack

Belgium lockdown begins to ease

Brussels, which has been under partial lockdown since Friday night, is to remain at the highest terror alert level until at least the start of next week.

Much of the metro reopened Wednesday, though two lines remained closed.

Belgium, and specifically a Brussels suburb that has a history of links with terrorism plots, have been a focus of the investigation. Brussels, which has been under partial lockdown since Friday night, is to remain at the highest terror alert level until at least the start of next week. Schools and the metro will stay closed until Wednesday at the earliest, Prime Minister Charles Michel has said.

Mohamed Abrini
Belgian Police
Mohamed Abrini

Sources in France close to the ongoing investigation believe Abdeslam could not have survived so long on the run without help, and that a support network in Belgium might be what’s helping him avoid capture. They say that extensive raids in Belgium on Sunday and Monday, in which 21 people were detained in several locations, targeted individuals suspected of a role in the network that organized the attacks.

Opinion: The hardest questions about fighting ISIS

The suicide vest

As far as Abdeslam, a suicide vest found in a garbage bin could give investigators new clues about his whereabouts and his possible role in the attacks.

CNN affiliate BFMTV reported that the vest contained bolts and TATP, the same explosive found in the suicide belts used by the Paris attackers.

Questions have already been raised over whether Abdeslam aborted part of the attacks before fleeing toward Belgium. The Paris prosecutor suggested that could have been the case, noting that an ISIS message claiming responsibility for the attacks mentioned the 18th arrondissement, a Paris neighborhood where no attack occurred.

“Our investigation on that is still ongoing, to determine if Salah was planning on a suicide attack in the 18th arrondissement and why it didn’t happen,” Molins said.

There are other questions, too, CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank said. If it is a suicide vest belonging to Abdeslam, why would it have been discovered as late as Monday, 10 days after the attacks? And if it doesn’t belong to him, then whose is it?

But CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank asked why, if the suicide vest belonged to Abdeslam, would it have been discovered 10 days after the attacks?

“It is possible that somebody else may have jettisoned it, an attacker that we don’t know much about at this point,” Cruickshank said. “So they’ll be doing all sorts of forensics, trying to establish who this belonged to, and that will be a huge priority for French investigators.”

Local authorities in Montrouge said that the garbage cans in the area are emptied “once or twice a week,” Le Monde reported, underscoring the puzzle over how and when the possible suicide vest ended up in one of them.

The global battle against ISIS

While investigators search for suspects, French President Francois Hollande is in the midst of a week of whirlwind diplomacy aimed at building a broader global coalition to fight ISIS in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

A French fighter jet takes off from the carrier Charles de Gaulle on Monday.
ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images
A French fighter jet takes off from the carrier Charles de Gaulle on Monday.

After hosting British Prime Minister David Cameron in Paris on Monday, Hollande met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday, then will hold talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday and travel to Moscow to see Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday.

That meeting comes two days after Hollande hosted British Prime Minister David Cameron in Paris on Monday and met Tuesday with President Barack Obama in Washington. Hollande travels Thursday to Moscow to see Russian President Vladimir Putin.

France and Britain are already part of a U.S.-led coalition that’s been bombing ISIS targets. Russia has been conducting its own separate airstrikes against ISIS and other groups in coordination with the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Any efforts to form an alliance that includes both Russia and the United States are likely to run into thorny issues like Assad’s future role in Syria and international sanctions against Moscow for its interference in Ukraine.

Complete coverage of Paris attacks

CNN’s Margot Haddad reported from Paris, while Catherine E. Shoichet reported and wrote from Atlanta and Don Melvin wrote from London. CNN’s Ashley Fantz, Jethro Mullen, Tim Lister, Ralph Ellis, Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz contributed to this report.