Police Raid Apartment In French Suburb Looking For Terrorists

Nov 18, 2015
Originally published on November 18, 2015 10:39 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I'm David Greene in Paris this morning. And in this city it has been a frightening morning for residents who live in a suburb just north of here.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

GREENE: They woke up to that, explosions coming from an apartment in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris. Police surrounded an apartment before daybreak. When they burst in, a woman blew herself up using a suicide vest. This police operation, we are told, is over. There are conflicting reports about what exactly it accomplished. The target of this raid was a man police believe was behind last week's attacks, which killed 129 people in Paris. His name is Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Now, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is here in Paris with me in our studio. Dina, good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Let's just orient people here. You and I are in central Paris. And this neighborhood where all of this activity has been happening this morning, just about a 10-minute Metro ride from here. What exactly were police doing? Why try to go to this apartment? What was - who was in there?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they had information they thought was true, that this man you mentioned, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was in fact in the apartment. The Paris prosecutor, after this raid was over, came out and talked to police - to reporters. And he said that they thought Abaaoud would be there, but it's too soon to tell. So we don't know if he got him or not.

GREENE: Too soon to tell. So this - we have no idea what's going to happen now, but this police operation, for now, is over. Let's see what the scene is on the ground. Our colleague Eleanor Beardsley is in Saint-Denis. And Eleanor, how close are you to all of this action? And what have you been seeing there? And are things settling down?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I'll tell you what I just saw, which was sort of a surreal moment. The SWAT team pulled out. I was standing about 2 feet from it. They drove out in vans along the main boulevard into this town and then about 10 cars. And the sirens were just blaring. And what you saw in...

(EMERGENCY VEHICLE SIRENS)

GREENE: I guess that's the sound there...

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, that was right behind me.

GREENE: That you heard a little while ago.

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. And everyone just stood agog, David, because here there were cars being driven by - and as passengers - men with black masks and fully dressed in their gear, their shoulder pads, their bulletproof vests, and with, you know, these big headphones on and then black masks. So, like, 10 cars of black-masked men just drove out with such a show of force. It was a stunning show of force, and it's now left and definitely is over. Although, the city is still on lockdown, but residents are coming out. They're kind of in a state of shock. It's a beautiful, sunny day. But they're like, what is going on in our town?

GREENE: Wow, that is quite a scene. But hopefully, it was a scene suggesting that people can get back to their normal lives today. And Eleanor, we'll be coming back to you throughout the program. I know schools have been closed in Saint-Denis. And people have been told to stay in their homes. It sounds like things are calming down. Now, Dina Temple-Raston, let me turn back to you. Were the authorities going here, looking for this man we mentioned, to try and hold people responsible for these attacks in Paris accountable? Or were they thinking there could be more attacks that were being planned here?

TEMPLE-RASTON: They were worried that there were going to be follow-on attacks. Over a hundred police went to two buildings in this area of Saint-Denis. And they described the conditions as some that they have never been exposed to before. There was just a hail of gunfire. Their concern was that there was a second terror team there, a team that was preparing for a follow-on attack. This has not been confirmed, but this is certainly something that I've been hearing from my French sources, that the reason why it's been so tense here since Friday is because they were waiting for the other shoe to drop.

GREENE: And we should say, this man, Abdelhamid Abaaoud - who again, we don't know his location. We don't know what his - where he is right now. He is a from a largely North African neighborhood of Brussels - right? - which has actually had a lot of ties to extremism in the past.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's right. He's from this neighborhood called Molenbeek. He's in his 20s. He's of Moroccan origin. And a number of different terrorism plots have actually been connected to this neighborhood. So it's not that surprising that he's connected to it too.

GREENE: Well, let's actually learn more about him and this neighborhood. Our colleague Peter Kenyon has been in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels. And he has this report.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Abdelhamid Abaaoud lived here. So did Salah Abdelsalam, and his brother, Ibrahim, all said to be involved in the Paris killings. Past terror attacks on a high-speed train or at the Brussels Jewish museum also have a Molenbeek connection. It's not a good time to be an ordinary resident of this neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: At a corner cafe not far from the square where journalists have been massing since the Paris attacks, men sip glasses of tea loaded with fresh mint, Moroccan style. A large part of Molenbeek's Muslim population comes from Morocco. Outside the cafe, municipal official Haram Hawari (ph) argues that terrorism is a problem all over the world, not just in Molenbeek. But when reminded that people involved in multiple terrorist attacks came from here, Hawari says he doesn't have a good explanation. But he says the government in Brussels certainly isn't doing much to address obvious problems.

HARAM HAWARI: (Through interpreter) We get very few resources from the federal budget to deal with issues like radicalization. We've had more experience with issues like drug abuse. But the focus on radicalization is only two or three years old.

KENYON: If you wander away from the main square to Ransfort Street (ph), you'll come across a set of massive brick buildings that testify to Molenbeek's past as a thriving industrial hub. It's called La Fonderie, the foundry, a giant ironworks that once employed thousands of people here along with nearby woodworking, food and textile plants. These days, it's a museum. An employee, Audrey Dencille (ph), pauses from her cigarette break to explain that far from being depressed, this area was once part of the beating industrial heart of Belgium. Its nickname was Little Manchester, after the British industrial city. Dencille says it attracted large numbers of people seeking steady work and a better life.

AUDREY DENCILLE: We made the steel gates of the zoo of New York, and all the big statues that you can see in Brussels was made here. (Speaking French).

KENYON: Switching to French, Dencille says times changed, and the factories closed. And now newer Molenbeek residents - largely immigrants - struggle to find work. It's become almost a cliche to describe Molenbeek as a pocket of poverty in prosperous Brussels. In fact, parts of Molenbeek resemble other modest residential districts in the city. On a tidy, narrow street where the latest police raids took place Monday, Molenbeek resident Rose Cannon (ph) pushes a baby carriage with one hand while her 2-year-old son clutches the other. She says this image the world has of Molenbeek as a haven for murderous extremists is completely foreign to her.

ROSE CANNON: (Through interpreter) It was a big surprise. I was astonished. I've never had a problem here. It's a very quiet life. People look at Molenbeek now, and they only see terrorists. But that's not everyone. I'm from Molenbeek.

KENYON: But as the investigation into the Paris attacks unfolds, Molenbeek's proud industrial past will continue to be overshadowed by its troubled present. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Molenbeek.

GREENE: Now, even amid these tense raids this morning, we have been watching Paris try to get back on its feet. Each day, there seems to be a little more life. The Bataclan theater where over 89 people died is still closed. But last night, the Zenith concert hall opened up for the first time since Friday's attacks, as three official days of mourning in France came to a close. Bands like Motorhead and Marilyn Manson were forced to cancel shows there. But last night, the British pop band Simply Red played.

(FOOTSTEPS)

GREENE: And that is the sound of footsteps right there. A line of ticketholders was building up very quickly in a light rain.

(Speaking French).

MARILYN FOUCHE: (Speaking French).

JEAN-LUC FOUCHE: (Speaking French).

GREENE: I'm David.

M. FOUCHE: (Speaking French).

GREENE: That's Marilyn (ph) and Jean-Luc Fouche (ph). They were devouring these sandwiches as they waited for the venue to open up. And they seemed pretty excited.

Are you big fans?

M. FOUCHE: (Speaking French).

GREENE: Jean-Luc has actually been a fan of Simply Red since he was young, in the year 1989. Now, in the days after the attacks, some in Paris have been avoiding gathering anywhere with large numbers of people. And this couple said they had some doubts about coming to a concert this soon.

M. FOUCHE: (Speaking French).

GREENE: That's Marilyn saying there that these official days of mourning ended yesterday. And it was time, she said, to move on from what happened in Paris and to get back to their lives.

What's your favorite song?

J. FOUCHE: (Speaking French).

M. FOUCHE: (Singing) My love...

J. FOUCHE: (Speaking French).

GREENE: "Many favorite songs," he said. And she was singing her favorite, "My Love." So a bit closer to the entrance to the concert hall, Helen (ph) and Howell Price (ph) were there. And they came from Wales to see this band.

HELEN PRICE: We weren't going to come, but we're here.

GREENE: They were not going to come because of the attacks here on Friday. They came because the concert was going on, and also they wanted to send a message.

HELEN PRICE: To support Europe, the Western world, Christians, just to stand up and say, it's not going to affect our lives.

HOWELL PRICE: I think, as my wife said, it's a matter of giving in to terrorists or standing up and saying, well, if we want to live our lives the way we want to live them, we can't be governed and give in to them because they win.

HELEN PRICE: I can't speak for all Europeans. Certainly for us and our French friends, then yeah, we want to stick together and show a bit of solidarity and support.

GREENE: Let me ask you a question, maybe with an easy answer. When did you both start liking Simply Red music?

HELEN PRICE: Oh, my husband not so much. Me...

GREENE: (Laughter).

HOWELL PRICE: When my wife told me to (laughter).

GREENE: Yeah? You had to be convinced?

HELEN PRICE: Yeah.

HOWELL PRICE: I'm not convinced yet.

GREENE: (Laughter).

HOWELL PRICE: But maybe tonight I will be.

HELEN PRICE: I told him he'd have a great time, so there we are. We're here. So we'll see (laughter).

GREENE: Cool.

And so that couple headed in to see the British pop band Simply Red last night. It was one of the first concerts to take place in Paris since the Bataclan concert venue was attacked last Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLDING BACK THE YEARS")

SIMPLY RED: (Singing) I'll keep holding on. I'll keep holding on. I'll keep holding on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.