French intelligence officials have named the alleged mastermind of a deadly string of suicide bombings and shootings in Paris as the Belgian extremist Abdelhamid Abaaoud, after French police made more than 20 arrests and seized arms and ammunition in a series of anti-terror raids across the country
A major raid was also underway in Brussels aimed at arresting Salah Abdeslam, one of the three French brothers living in Belgium alleged to have been involved in the attacks.
As details emerged of an elaborate international terror operation run from Syria and carried out by a sleeper cell based in Belgium, officials told French media Abaaoud, seen as one of Islamic State’s most active operatives, was “investigators’ best bet” as the main organiser of the attacks, which killed at least 129 people on Friday.
Originally from the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, home to several other members of the militant Islamist cell that carried out the attacks on the Stade de France, the packed Bataclan concert hall and a string of crowded bars and restaurants, Abaaoud is suspected of involvement in a narrowly averted attack on a Thalys high-speed Amsterdam-Brussels train in August.
He is also said to have carried out several armed robberies with one of the three French brothers alleged to have been involved in Friday’s attacks. A French jihadi arrested after returning from Syria this summer reportedly told police Abaaoud had told him to attack a concert hall.
The development came as the French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said police had searched 168 addresses in dawn raids across France, taking 23 people into custody and placing 104 more under house arrest.
“It’s just a start, these operations are going to continue,” Cazeneuve said. “The response of the Republic will be huge and total. He who targets the Republic will find the Republic will catch him, will be implacable.”
Prosecutors also named two more of the seven suicide bombers. One, among the three who blew themselves up at the Bataclan, where 89 people died, was identified as Samy Amimour, 28, a French national who was the subject of an international arrest warrant.
Another, who detonated his explosive vest outside the Stade de France stadium, was carrying a Syrian passport in the name of Ahmad Almohammad, aged 25, from Idlib. His fingerprints matched those of someone who entered Europe through the Greek island of Leros in October, prosecutors said.
As a shocked nation returned to work after the bloodiest attack on French soil since the second world war, President François Hollande joined a crowd of students from the Sorbonne university in Paris for a minute’s sombre silence at midday, observed by thousands at similar gatherings around the country.
France urged its European partners to move swiftly to improve intelligence sharing, fight arms trafficking and terror financing, and strengthen border security as a result of the attacks.
“Clearly, decisions must be taken,” the senior official in charge of European affairs, Harlem Désir, said ahead of talks with European Union foreign ministers. “France was attacked, but all of Europe was hit. We were hit together, and we will respond together.”