Yves Herman / Reuters

French, Belgian authorities launch multiple raids in hunt for suspects

Police carried out more than 160 raids as French officials named a Belgian national as alleged mastermind of the attacks

French and Belgian authorities launched raids across both countries on Monday and arrested several people in connection with last week's deadly attacks in Paris, as officials named a Belgian national the alleged mastermind.

French police raided 168 locations across the country and detained nearly two dozen people, as authorities identified more members of an Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) sleeper cell said to be behind the bombing and shooting attacks that killed 129 people and injured hundreds of others.

France's Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said police arrested 23 people and recovered a Kalashnikov, a rocket launcher and other weapons during the overnight raids.

In Belgium, heavily armed police on Monday morning launched a major operation in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, which authorities consider to be a focal point for fighters traveling to Syria from Belgium.

The suspected mastermind behind the attacks is Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who is also believed to be linked to a foiled attack on a Paris area church earlier this year.

Abaaoud came to public attention last year by boasting in an ISIL propaganda video about his pride in piling the dead bodies of "infidel" enemies into a trailer. Anti-terror agencies previously linked him to a series of abortive shooting plots this year in Belgium and France, including a planned attack on a passenger train that was thwarted by American passengers who overpowered the lone gunman.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that more attacks could hit “in the coming days, in the coming weeks.”

“We know that operations were being prepared and are still being prepared, not only against France but other European countries too,” Valls said Monday morning.

It is believed that the eight attackers who targeted a stadium, concert hall and numerous restaurants and cafes in Paris on Friday worked in three coordinated teams, and that the seven who blew themselves up wore identical explosives vests. 

In addition to arresting 23 people and seizing a variety of weapons, France has put another 104 people under house arrest, Cazeneuve said.

“Let this be clear to everyone, this is just the beginning, these actions are going to continue,” Cazeneuve said.

Identifying the culprits

One attacker who died in the assault on the Bataclan concert hall, the scene of the deadliest attack, was identified earlier as Paris-native Omar Ismail Mostefai. French media described the 29-year-old Frenchman as being of Algerian descent. Paris prosecutor François Molins said Mostefai had a security file for radicalization, adding that he had a criminal record but had not spent time in jail.

A Turkish official told wire services on Monday that Turkish authorities identified Mostefai as a possible “terror suspect” in October 2014, and notified French authorities in December 2014 and June 2015. The official said Turkey received no response from France until after the Paris attacks when it requested information on Mostefai. The Paris prosecutor's office said Mostefai had been flagged as having ties to radical groups five years ago.

Paris prosecutors said Monday that another attacker who targeted Bataclan was Samy Amimour, a 28-year-old Frenchman who had been charged in a terrorism investigation in 2012. He had been placed under judicial supervision, but dropped off the radar and became the subject of an international arrest warrant.

The body of a suicide bomber who detonated his explosives outside the national soccer stadium was found nearby a Syrian passport belonging to Ahmad al-Mohammad, a 25-year-old Syrian refugee from the city of Idlib.

Greek police said in a statement Sunday that Mohammad had registered as a refugee in Greece, but added it was possible the passport had changed hands since then.

Earlier, French police released a photo of a fugitive who is on the run and described as dangerous.  

The man, identified as Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old born in Brussels, the Belgian capital, is one of three brothers believed to be involved in the Paris attacks. He allegedly rented a black Volkswagen Polo used by a group of gunmen who left at least 89 people dead inside the Bataclan, one official said.

Abdeslam was questioned by police and released hours after the Paris attacks, French officials told The Associated Press. 

He was one of three people in a car stopped by police Saturday morning, after authorities had already identified Abdeslam as the renter of the vehicle abandoned at the scene of the attack. Police released him after checking his ID.

It is not clear why the local police did not take him into custody. 

Security officials indicated that there was an ongoing search operation in Brussels for Abdeslam and other suspects.

Belgian officials said they had arrested seven people in Brussels after two Belgian-registered cars were discovered in Paris, both suspected of being used by attackers.

"I do not want any preachers of hatred on Belgian soil! There is no place for them in Belgium," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said on Twitter.

Also on Sunday, it was reported that a Seat car suspected to be linked to Friday's massacre was found by police in Montreuil, a suburb nearly 4 miles east of the French capital. Several automatic weapons, of the sort used in the attacks, were found in the abandoned vehicle, a judicial source said.

International response

French authorities believe Friday's coordinated attacks were planned abroad by ISIL, and on Sunday retaliated by launching its largest airstrikes in Syria to date, targeting Raqqa, the armed group’s de facto capital.

Hollande vowed Monday to forge a united coalition capable of defeating the attackers at home and abroad.

Addressing lawmakers after France observed a minute of silence honoring the 129 people killed and 350 wounded, Hollande said the victims came from at least 19 nations, and the international community, led by the United States and Russia, must overcome their deep-seated divisions over Syria to destroy ISIL on its home turf.

"Friday's acts of war were decided and planned in Syria. They were organized in Belgium and perpetrated on our soil with French complicity with one specific goal: to sow fear and to divide us," Hollande told Parliament in a rare joint session convened at the Palace of Versailles.

As he spoke, thousands gathered around candlelit memorials at the Place de la Republique square and beneath the Eiffel Tower, which like many top attractions in one of the world's most-visited cities reopened for business Monday in a defiant spirit. The tower was bathed in red, white and blue floodlights of the French tricolor, with the city's centuries-old slogan — "Tossed but not sunk," suggesting an unsinkable city braving stormy seas — projected in white lights near its base.

ISIL on Saturday claimed responsibility for Friday's assault, saying its fighters, armed with explosive vests and machine guns, carried out the attacks at locations that had been carefully studied beforehand. The attack was designed to show France that it would remain a top target for the group as long as it continues its current polices, the statement said. 

French Muslim groups were quick to condemn the Friday attacks, and also expressed concern that it could prompt a backlash against members of the country's Muslim community.

Hungary's prime minister, the strongly anti-immigration, Viktor Orban, told lawmakers Monday that the EU plan to distribute migrants among member countries is unlawful and will "spread terrorism around Europe."

Orban said no one could say for certain how many terrorists entered Europe by blending in with migrants, but "one terrorist is too many."

Orban said the EU needs to "forget political correctness ... and return to common sense" by adopting policies to protect its external borders, its culture and its economic interests and ensure that people are given the right to influence EU decisions.

Hungary has built fences on its borders with Serbia and Croatia to divert the flow of migrants.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front party, has called for a tightening of the country's borders in response to the attacks. "By spreading out migrants through the villages and towns of France, there is a fear that terrorists will take advantage of these population flows to hit out at us," she said after meeting the French president on Sunday.

Europe is already sharply divided over how to handle the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees from wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere, and the possibility that one of the attackers may have entered Europe among the thousands of asylum-seekers could have far-reaching political consequences on the continent and elsewhere.

Bavarian allies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a reversal of her "open-door" refugee policy, saying the Paris attacks underlined the need for tougher controls.

"The days of uncontrolled immigration and illegal entry can't continue just like that. Paris changes everything," Bavarian finance minister Markus Soeder told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

Meanwhile, a G-20 summit in Turkey took on more urgency. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday urged the gathered world leaders to prioritize the fight against ISIL, saying the Paris attacks showed the time for words is over.

Hollande pulled out of the summit to stay in Paris. On Saturday he vowed that France would be “merciless” in its efforts against “these barbarians from Daesh,” using an Arabic acronym for ISIL.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter made during his first public appearance since the Paris attacks, saying "We're looking for opportunities to get at them, and we'll continue to do that until they're defeated." 

Those methods include strikes on oil infrastructure and identifying and aiding ground forces, Carter said.

President Barack Obama on Sunday pledged solidarity with France and said the U.S. would “redouble” its fight against ISIL.

The armed group on Sunday evening released a video in which one of its fighters in Iraq vowed to attack Washington in the same manner as Paris.

The fighter warned nations that are taking part in the "Crusaders' campaign" against the group, saying that as "we struck France on its ground in Paris we will strike America on its ground in Washington."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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