It has already been established that the on-the-ground leader of the Islamic State’s atrocities on Paris on November 13, Abdelhamid Abaaoud (Abu Umar al-Baljiki), had already been promoted in IS’s media. Abaaoud appeared in the February 2015 edition of IS’s Dabiq magazine. It now seems likely that at least one more of the Paris attackers, Foued Mohamed Aggad (Abu Fu’ad al-Faransi), had appeared in IS media already—the November 2014 video that was the fifth (of seven) in the series fronted by Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”), IS’s British executioner. The November 2014 video showed the slaughter of around twenty men, supposedly soldiers and airmen of the Assad regime, in the village of Dabiq, and the beheading of American aid worker Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig. It is also possible that two further Paris attackers, Bilal Hadfi (Abu Mujahid al-Faransi) and Brahim Abdeslam (Abul-Qa’qa al-Baljiki), appeared in the November 2014 video.
Abaaoud, who was the operational leader of the Paris attacks. IS had faked Abaaoud’s death in October 2014, but Abaaoud was recognized as very much alive in January 2015 when he first came to attention in a major way after an IS cell was rolled up in Verviers, Belgium. In Dabiq 7, released on February 13, 2015, there was an interview with Abaaoud, under his kunya “Abu Umar al-Baljiki,” in which Abaaoud boasted of having outwitted the European security forces to return to Syria. Abaaoud explained that his picture had appeared in the European press after the Syrian rebels had begun their second uprising, against IS, and cleared them from most of Aleppo in January 2014, picking up Abaaoud’s cell phone in the process. The phone, which was passed to the French media, showed Abaaoud making heavy jokes over the mutilated corpses of Syrian opposition fighters he had murdered for “apostasy” and other “crimes” that amounted to standing in IS’s way.
Dabiq 7 included two pictures of Abaaoud:
This did not stop Abaaoud getting back into Europe. Abaaoud lived through November 13, before being killed in a police raid on an apartment not too far from the site of the attacks in central Paris on November 18. Also in the apartment was Abaaoud’s cousin, Hasna Aitboulahcen, who has no known role in the Paris attacks and who may or may not have blown herself up, and Chakib Akrouh, whose role in the Paris attacks is uncertain but might well have been as one of the shooters at the three cafes and restaurants. Akrouh detonated a suicide vest when the police arrived.
So the strain of the scale of IS’s operations in Europe had already been revealed by the Paris attacks. It now looks as if this problem was even worse. Note: this is not an intelligence problem; it is a political problem, and one that probably doesn’t have an answer in free countries. Western intelligence agencies are often quite well aware of radicals in their countries, but until laws are broken very little can be done about it, and there are so many radicals and such constrained budgets that choosing who is likely to move from radical thoughts to terrorism—thus who to put under surveillance—is always a decision that’s easier to make retrospectively.
IS put out a seventeen-minute video yesterday showing the last testament of nine of the men who carried out the Paris attacks. The video also showed that most of these men were murderers long before last November; six of them are shown either directly or in partnership beheading defenceless captives. A claim was soon made that two of the killers featured in yesterday’s video had appeared in the Kassig video in November 2014.
One of the Paris killers whom it was claimed had appeared in the Kassig video was Brahim Abdeslam, whose brother, Salah, is now Europe’s most-wanted man, the sole survivor of those who assaulted Paris. In yesterday’s video, Brahim is not shown clearly—he is on-screen for about 40 seconds, shooting at targets, and for the few seconds he does face the camera his whole face is never shown. Here is Brahim in yesterday’s video (appears around 11:15):
Here is the alleged shot of Brahim in the Kassig video (8:12):
To directly compare the two:
One of the few pictures we have of Brahim, courtesy of Le Monde, is:
I am simply not confident that this is the same person in the two videos. Another reason for my scepticism is Brahim’s known timeline: the Kassig video was put out on November 16, 2014; Brahim was confirmed as being in Molenbeek, Belgium, in October 2014, and was turned back at the Turkish border in January 2015 as he tried to enter Syria. That said, there is still a window there that means Brahim could have been inside Syria during the time the Kassig video was made. And Brahim’s family have since admitted that Brahim spent a “long time” in Syria before the Paris attacks, where it was initially believed Brahim had never been to Syria.
Two other Paris killers who might appear in the Kassig video are Aggad and Hadfi.
From 10:44 in the Kassig video, a man who resembles Hadfi on the left and a man who resembles Aggad on the right:
In Dabiq 13, released on January 19, there were pictures of Hadfi and Aggad, very closely resembling these men from the Kassig video, and both men also appeared in yesterday’s video, murdering hostages.
Aggad’s timeline would support the hypothesis that he was one of the murderers in the Kassig video. Aggad travelled to Syria in late 2013 with a group of eight people, including his own brother. By February 2014, the rest of Aggad’s group had either been killed or had fled back to France. But Aggad remained in Syria, as far as can be told until he moved back to France in preparation for the Paris attacks, where he was one of the three shooters/suicide bombers at the Bataclan, where eighty-nine people were murdered.
Hadfi, who was the first of three IS agents to blow themselves up outside the Stade de France, having tried to push through the turnstiles, has a more complicated timeline. Hadfi, “the baby-faced jihadi” who was given the incorrect kunya (“Dhul-Qarayn al-Faransi”) in Dabiq 13, which was corrected in yesterday’s IS video, was a French national living in Belgium, who is reported by his mother to have gone to Syria only in February 2015. But Belgian investigators are said to believe Hadfi had travelled to Syria in early 2014, too. Even if Hadfi made the earlier trip, it is still possible (even probable) that he had returned to Europe already by the time of the Kassig video.
In sum, it certain that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, likely that Foued Aggad, less likely that Bilal Hadfi, and unlikely that Brahim Abdeslam had already appeared in IS propaganda by the time they carried out the Paris attacks last November.
UPDATE: A reader suggested that rather than Aggad, the man in the November 2014 video was Maxime Hauchard (Abu Abdallah al-Faransi). This seems entirely plausible. But other sources (see here, here, here, and here) say that the picture below is Hauchard: