, November 18, 2015, began early for the Paris district of Saint-Denis.

Police raided a building in Rue du Corbillon at 4:16 a.m., thought to be where Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of the Paris attacks, was hiding.

He was thought to be in Syria, however, after the Bataclan massacre, police found a mobile phone at the theatre. The Telegraph reports:

The last text message sent from it, at 9.42pm, just as the assault on the Bataclan was starting, said: “Off we go, here we go again.” Analysis of the phone’s content and a tip-off from an eyewitness suggested Abaaoud was in Saint-Denis.

In addition, police had Abaaoud’s maternal cousin Hasna Aitboulahcen under surveillance. The two were thought to be in the same location.

The timing of the raid was sensitive. The neighbourhood is mixed demographically and residents keep unusual hours. People stay up late, returning home after a night out, whilst others get up before dawn for work.

Emphases mine below.

The raid

When police arrived at the block of flats where the two suspects were thought to be hiding, they had trouble breaking the door down:

a reinforced door … held out against the explosive charges placed against it.

Jean-Michel Fauvergue, head of the RAID police unit, told Le Parisien that the noise and lack of success woke up the suspects in the third-floor flat they wanted to target:

The door held, and we lost our element of surprise. As a result we had to adapt. We started slowly advancing behind a shield. We came under heavy fire from true professionals.

They fired in bursts or one shot at a time, taking turns so that the gunfire never stopped. That allowed them to save on their munitions. They also threw grenades. They were incredibly driven.

This first phase lasted 45 minutes. At around 4.45 three people came out onto the landing and gave themselves up. They were handcuffed and evacuated.

The prolonged gunfire woke up the rest of the residents in the street. Police told some of them to stay inside and away from their windows. Others, less fortunate in being closer to the action, were told to evacuate their homes.

Paris prosecutor François Molins said:

On the police side we fired almost 5,000 munitions.

At 5 a.m., police sent their dog, Diesel, inside the targeted building. The terrorists shot at — and fatally wounded — the Alsatian (German Shepherd).

Afterwards, a shoot-out took place between a terrorist who appeared in a window and a police sniper in the street. Although the sniper shot the terrorist, the latter continued to fire his Kalashnikov.

Then, Abaaoud’s cousin, Hasna Aitboulahcen, appeared at a window. She shouted for help. Suspecting her intentions, the police told her to stay where she was, otherwise they would shoot. Instead, she retreated from the window.

At 6:00, police began another assault. Some in the flat, including Aitboulahcen, were now wearing suicide vests. Aitboulahcen was the first of the terrorists to fire back. Police tried to talk to her, asking her where her ‘boyfriend’ — Abaaoud — was. She shouted that he was not her boyfriend. This confirmed that he was her cousin.

Seconds later, she detonated her suicide vest, which was packed so full of explosives that it caused

the floor of the apartment partly to collapse … her spine was later found lying in the street outside.

Police then threw 20 grenades in the window. They fired a volley of bullets. (In the ensuing hours after the raid, police were still studying DNA to determine whether Abaaoud, their target, died. The Washington Post reported that he was killed, but French authorities did not confirm that until November 19.)

Police then stopped firing. It was unclear how many more terrorists were in the building.

The siege continued for three more hours:

A drone was sent up to look in through the windows and a skylight, but could not provide a clear picture of what was inside.

Then two different robots equipped with cameras, similar to those used in bomb disposal, were sent into the building but their path was blocked by rubble.

By 7:30, 110 specialist officers were on the scene. Police began a new assault:

Five or six explosions were heard, followed by a 90-second pause, then another half dozen blasts.

Afterward, police entered the building and went into the flat directly below the one they had fired upon.

RAID’s chief Fauvergue said:

We saw that a body had fallen through the floor. The corpse was damaged as it had been hit by grenades and had been crushed by a beam. It was not identifiable.

Police mounted cameras on poles to see what was going on in the targeted flat above.

When they went to the flat a short time later, two men were hiding in laundry and debris. Police arrested them.

One of the photos shows a man naked from the waist down. It could be that police told him to strip in order to prove he had no explosives strapped to himself.

Police arrested three men.

More arrests took place nearby.

In total, eight people were taken in for questioning.

The siege ended at 11:30 a.m. The building had to have remedial supports installed in order for forensic teams to examine it. There was so much damage that, even when the area had been reopened, body parts and tissue lay in the street.

Five officers were injured. Fortunately, none of them died.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that French police had:

never before come under such gunfire.

President François Hollande:

described the raid as “a particularly perilous and heavy police operation”, and paid tribute to police who “knew the dangers, yet no doubt still underestimated the violence that they would come up against”.

Imminent danger averted

Police were right to act in the way they did.

Evidence gathered in the flat suggested two possible future attacks:

Weapons, explosives, suicide vests and plans were among the items seized.

In questioning the three men, police discovered the terrorists:

had reportedly been planning a fresh wave of attacks against La Défense, the financial district of Paris, and Charles de Gaulle airport, Europe’s second-busiest.

Prosecutor Molins stated:

Everything leads us to believe that, given their weaponry and level of preparation, they were ready to act.

Marianne interviewed Christophe Caupenne, who was the chief of RAID’s negotiation team for 12 years and co-ordinated French police negotiators. He now has his own consulting firm which deals with managing similar crises.

He said that it would have been impossible to try and negotiate with the terrorists in this case, explaining that those going to such extremes often prove to be sociopaths (translation mine):

They don’t have the emotions that you and I do. They don’t feel compassion. They have a manner that allows them to carry on after killing or slitting someone’s throat … This state of mind is reinforced by the taking of psychotropes, alcohol, hashish. As far as that is concerned, we could also talk of medicines such as Captagon [IS’s amphetamine of choice, only available in the Middle East] and dexedrine, both of which increase aggression and postpone fatigue.

Islamic warriors, he said, have smoked hashish throughout history:

Indisputably, it is a catalyst and an expediter of trouble. There are striking examples in history, such as the Nizarite sect (also called Hashashins or Assassins) from the 8th to the 14th centuries, Shi’ite extremists who believed in an esoteric reading of the Koran and whom Marco Polo described as completely drugged on hashish, especially during their training.

Who knew that?

Caupenne also said that people with this particular profile often suffer from mental health issues:

A war, such as the one they are waging, where they can torture and kill with no limits is ideal. This behaviour allows a levelling [deadening] of the emotions.

Weak passport checks

Another report in The Telegraph discusses the concern over ‘border controls’ that allowed Abaaoud and a couple of Friday’s suicide bombers into Europe from Syria. According to BFMTV on November 19, the debate over controls at national borders continues.

Surely, it has more to do with the actual passport control, because Abaaoud:

boasted of how he had travelled back and forth from Syria to his Belgian home several times as he plotted mass-murder.

He told an Isil magazine that a border guard failed to recognise him despite being hunted by intelligence agencies and his photograph being broadcast in the news.

Samy Amimour, who blew himself up at the Bataclan, was on a watchlist, yet, in 2013, he was:

still able to travel to Syria … triggering an international warrant for his arrest, before sneaking back to France to commit mass murder.

A news investigation on BFMTV shown on November 19, which featured an interview with the mayor of Drancy, where Amimour grew up, said that authorities took his passport away. Amimour contacted France’s passport office to say that he had lost it. A new passport was issued. Amimour told his parents — separated — that he wanted to go with friends to the south of France on holiday. They gave him permission.

Little did they know that he was headed for Turkey, then on to Syria. He got married in Syria. His widow is expecting their first child.

In the foiled Thalys train attack in August, Ayoub el-Khazzani:

was also on the SIS [no travel] list but is believed to have travelled to Syria and criss-crossed Europe with impunity.

What the heck is going on?

How could people not have noticed?

Marianne‘s chief crime reporter Frédéric Ploquin says this hideout and weapons cache is remarkably similar to that connected with the 1995 attacks on Paris by a group of Algerian terrorists. In fact, he writes, there might be some connection between this group and the nearby mosque in Saint-Denis, where the Algerian terrorists worshipped 20 years ago.

However, with so much weaponry and ammunition, he wonders how was it that no one along this thoroughfare, so busy and so close to today’s tourist attraction of the Basilica of Saint-Denis — where many French kings are buried — not to mention the Stade de France, noticed all these items being moved into a block of flats?

How could the terrorists manage to discreetly:

set down heavy, very heavy, suitcases loaded with several hundred bullets in a building situated a stone’s throw from the Périphérique and in a street where vehicles were forbidden? An explanation must be made as to why they were not stopped and how they managed to cross international borders like water flowing through a drain. It must admitted and [we must be] told how this little army, 15-people strong, could be deployed without anyone noticing or raising an alert … It was a veritable column which promised to terrorise Paris with the firm will of putting France on her knees in the name of Daesh. Finally, it must be explained how the residents of this lovely town of Saint-Denis were left on their own with traffickers of every description, an abandonment which formed the foundation for the ideal isolation of a commando of death.

There might be an answer. That will be discussed in a future post coming soon.

For now, another reason is that the vast majority of Saint-Denis’s residents vote for Socialists.

That is a huge part of the problem which dates back decades, even when the place was mostly French.

It is — and has been — a matter of Socialists seeking a voting clientèle. Nothing more, especially since François Mitterand’s presidency, starting in the 1980s.

In closing, a brief digression

Within recent memory (to me, anyway!) — I visited Saint-Denis briefly in the late 1970s. It was then a down-at-heel yet interesting part of Paris. It was just on the cusp of changing from a French working-class area to a more North African one. As my friend and I walked to the basilica, not far from where she was spending the weekend with a family — and not far from where the shoot-out took place — she told me that the lady of the house wanted her indoors before dark. As it was early Spring, that precluded our getting together for dinner in the centre of Paris.

We did not see many North Africans or any ethnic establishments. Everything was still French. It just looked rather grim and sad. Not a lot of people were about, and that was on a late Saturday afternoon.

I wanted to visit the basilica, but that was shut. My friend was getting anxious. Her hostess was in her late 50s and had heart problems, caused by her widowhood and the changes she perceived in the neighbourhood. She rarely left the house other than to buy groceries or go to Mass. She worried that her 20-something daughters might be assaulted or raped.

At the time, I did not see any reason for worry. I saw Saint-Denis as safe compared to the urban neighbourhoods I grew up in or near in the United States.

Yet, everyone’s traumas are relative. The place had no doubt changed a lot since she was a child living there in the 1920s.

I assume that this dear lady went to her rest many years ago. That said, I wonder if her daughters eventually moved out of Saint-Denis. I wish them and their families every blessing.

Since then, more and more immigrants from former French colonies have moved in to Saint-Denis, which, to be fair, also has its share of French hipsters — and faithful French working class.

One finds a mix of nationalities, religions and cultures. Please note, that although this is Paris, parts of Saint-Denis may be more accepting of Westerners than others.

Coming soon: Hasna Aitboulahcen and the man who accommodated the terrorists