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What does alleged Paris “mastermind” Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s death mean for IS?

The militant's killing has propaganda and strategy ramifications—but the group won't be too worried

By Josh Lowe  

Twenty-five Syrian soldiers about to be executed by Islamic State in the Roman amphitheatre in Palmyra, western Syria, in July

In the frenzied search for the culprits behind last week’s attacks in Paris, which killed 129 people, one name has been pre-eminent: that of Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Suspected of being the “mastermind” behind the shootings and bombings, 28-year-old Abaaoud, born in Belgium, took on a sudden and, as it turned out, brief infamy. Today, French prosecutors have confirmed that the militant was killed yesterday in a police raid on a flat in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis. He died alongside his cousin Hasna Aitboulahcen, who blew herself up, thereby becoming the first female suicide bomber in western European history.

Born in Brussels to a family of Moroccan immigrants, Abaaoud is also known to fellow militants by the nom de guerre Abu Umar al-Belgiki. He is thought to have enjoyed a relatively comfortable upbringing—his father owned a clothing store and he attended Saint-Pierre d’Uccle, one of Belgium’s top secondary schools. But he reportedly turned to drugs and petty crime when he grew older, then at some unknown point was radicalised. He moved to Syria in 2014, and later declared in a video that “all my life I have seen the blood of Muslims flow. I pray that God breaks the backs of those who oppose him” and “that he exterminates them.” According to the New York Times, his family have turned away from him, and rejoiced at false news of his death in a Syrian raid last autumn. But will his former comrades in the Islamic State (IS) miss him?

The carnage in Paris attracted particular attention because it was unusually well-coordinated for an IS plot, featuring three teams of gunmen and bombers enacting multiple atrocities across Paris to a tight timescale. Abaaoud has allegedly taken a strategic role in terror plots before, including recent thwarted plans to attack a Paris-bound train and a church in the French capital. He was suspected of involvement in a radical cell based in the Belgian town of Verviers, and fled to Syria after it was broken up this year. In all he has been allegedly implicated in four of the six terror attacks foiled in France this year.

While the exact nature of Abaaoud’s contribution to the plot and in IS more widely remains to be seen, Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), thinks he may have had a mid-level, fixer-type role in the group. “The fact that he’s been linked to so many plots suggests to me that he’s a bit of a connector and player,” he says, “when you remove someone like that, usually it’s the network of contacts they have that evaporates, and that’s where the group loss comes in.” But the death won’t be too devastating for IS. “My guesstimate would be if he was really key to the organisation, they wouldn’t let him run around Europe… they’d make sure he was safe,” says Pantucci.

But the propaganda machine upon which IS relies for its funding and recruitment may also take a hit. The group has previously paraded Abaaoud as evidence of its outsmarting western intelligence agencies; he was quoted in February in the group’s magazine Dabiq, boasting of being able to travel from Syria to Belgium and back unscathed despite his photo being distributed to police following his suspected involvement in a terror plot: “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,” he said.

But here again, IS may not be too worried. “In terms of the propaganda benefit of his death, they get it if he lives, they get it if he dies,” says Pantucci. “If he [lives] he shows up in Dabiq in the next issue saying ‘screw you people, I made it,’ if he dies, he shows up in a video.”

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