The likely mastermind of the Paris attacks on Friday is 27-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, say French authorities.
Mr. Abaaoud also has been linked to at least two other unsuccessful recent terror attacks: one against a Paris-bound train that was thwarted by three Americans in August, and the other against a church in the city's suburbs in April.
The child of Moroccan immigrants to Belgium, Abaaoud grew up in the ethnically diverse Molenbeek-Saint-Jean neighborhood in Brussels. He turned from a carefree student at one of Brussels' most prestigious high schools, Saint-Pierre d'Uccle, into a zealous jihadi, reports the Associated Press. Belgian media reported that he recruited his 13-year-old brother to fight for ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State.
"All my life, I have seen the blood of Muslims flow," Abaaoud said in a 2014 video. "I pray that Allah will break the backs of those who oppose him, his soldiers and his admirers, and that he will exterminate them."
Belgian security sources say that Abaaoud, also known as Abu Umar al-Baljiki, according to The Guardian, is currently in Syria.
He was first identified as a wanted extremist after a gun battle in the eastern Belgian town of Verviers in January during a police raid on an ISIS cell that was suspected of plotting to assassinate Belgian police officers, reported the Guardian. Two of his accomplices were killed in that raid.
Abaaoud is thought to have orchestrated that plot from Belgium, but was expected to have traveled to Syria after the raid to fight with ISIS, say authorities. He was quoted in the Islamic State’s English-language magazine, Dabiq, claiming that he had secretly returned to Belgium to lead the terror cell and then was able to escape to Syria after the January police raid despite having his picture broadcast over Belgian news.
"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 boasted.
A source close to the French investigation told Reuters that Abaaoud is investigators’ best lead in the Paris attacks. "He appears to be the brains behind several planned attacks in Europe," the source told Reuters.
But Belgian officials aren't ready to name him the mastermind: "Those are rumors, it's not confirmed at all and we won't comment on this," Brussels prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt told Reuters.