Police staged a ferocious seven-hour assault in the north of Paris on Wednesday after intelligence led investigators to an apartment where the Belgian suspected of orchestrating the worst ever militant attack on French soil was thought to be hiding.
At least two people were killed in the raid — a woman thought to have blown herself up with a suicide vest and another body that was found riddled with bullets — according to Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.
Eight people were arrested, but neither Abaaoud nor 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam — suspected of taking part with his suicide-bomber brother Brahim in the attacks last Friday that killed 129 people — were among those held.
French lawmakers will on Thursday begin debating whether to extend the state of emergency declared after last week’s attacks by three months to February, and expand it to allow suspects to be placed under house arrest.
Molins said the raid had thwarted a “team of terrorists that… could have struck”.
Police rained more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition on the building after terrified residents living in the area near the Stade de France stadium were evacuated.
A series of explosions rang out as the police closed in on the dwelling and one suspect was seen being dragged away, his bare buttocks exposed.
Severe damage to the building and the state of the bodies found inside made it impossible to know exactly how many people had been killed and who they were, the prosecutor said.
“I am not able to give you a precise number and identity of those killed. There are at least two dead and verifications will likely take longer than expected,” Molins added.
“A new team of terrorists was neutralised and all indications are that given their arms, their organisational structure and their determination, the commando could have struck.”
– US warning –
As details were still emerging of the shootout, US intelligence published a report showing it warned in May that IS was capable of carrying out the kind of large-scale, coordinated attacks seen in Paris.
The assessment from the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, in coordination with the FBI, specifically refers to Abaaoud as a ringleader of Belgian plotters and warned Europe was more at risk of attack than the US.
A plot uncovered by Belgian authorities in January “may indicate that the (IS) group has developed the capability to launch more complex operations in the West,” it said.
Abaaoud is a 28-year-old Islamic State fighter who was previously thought to be in Syria after fleeing raids in his native Belgium earlier this year.
Residents of the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis said they had been caught in a terrifying exchange of fire at dawn on Wednesday as police closed in on the apartment where he was thought to be hiding.
Hayat, 26, who only gave one name, had been leaving a friend’s apartment where she had spent the night when the shots erupted.
“I heard gunfire,” she said. “I could have been hit by a bullet. I never thought terrorists could have hidden here.”
A man arrested during the assault told AFP he had leant his apartment to two people from Belgium.
“A friend asked me to put up two of his friends for a few days,” Jawad Bendaoud said, before he was arrested.
– Jewish teacher stabbed –
Seven jihadists were killed or blew themselves up in Friday’s attacks and several European countries have launched an international operation to hunt down any other plotters.
In Belgium, where some of the attackers lived, it emerged prosecutors had questioned the two Abdeslam brothers before the attacks “but they had shown no signs of being a potential threat”.
Hundreds of Belgians joined a candlelight vigil in solidarity with the victims of the Paris attacks on Wednesday in Molenbeek, the troubled Brussels neighbourhood where the brothers lived.
In Sweden, police Wednesday were hunting for a man suspected of “planning a terrorist act”, who media reported was an Iraqi who had fought in Syria.
IS, meanwhile, released a new video threatening New York, and specifically Times Square, although police said there was no “current and specific” threat.
The attacks were unprecedented in France, which was shaken to its core for the second time in a year after 17 people were shot dead by jihadists at Charlie Hebdo magazine, on the streets and in a Jewish supermarket in January.
Citing security fears, the government has cancelled two mass rallies scheduled to take place on November 29 and December 12, the days before and after a key UN climate summit.
President Francois Hollande said the “particularly perilous” operation in Saint-Denis proved France was involved in a “war against terrorism”.
But he urged the nation not to “give in to fear” or reprisals in the wake of the attacks.
“No anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim act can be tolerated,” he said.
Hours later, a Jewish teacher in the southern city of Marseille was stabbed by three people shouting anti-Semitic obscenities and expressing support for the Islamic State group, local police said.
The 57-year-old man was wounded in the arms, legs and stomach but was not in a life-threatening condition.