Involvement of foreign fighters in Paris attacks highlights evolving threat posed by jihadist returnees to Europe

Police officers prepare cover protection outside a building in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris on 18 November 2015. Officials say seven people have been arrested in a raid on an apartment rented by suspects in last week's Paris attacks. Source: PA

Key Points

  • According to police statements on the investigation, at least five of the eight attackers had conducted militant training with the Islamic State in Syria. Abaaoud, a prominent Islamic State operative with long-established contacts in jihadist circles in Brussels, is suspected to have played a key role in masterminding, if not recruiting, all the attackers involved in the operation.

  • Abaaoud's alleged role highlights the networked nature of the Paris attack, that is, an attack plotted by foreign fighters receiving direction from the Islamic State's leadership, while using local recruits to execute the operation.

  • There are several European jihadists holding prominent positions in the Islamic State and likely maintaining contacts with jihadist support networks in their home countries. As Russia and the US-led coalition against the Islamic State intensify their military campaign against the group in Syria and Iraq, the risk of similar attacks carried out by European and Russian nationals is likely to increase in the 12-month outlook.


On 16 November 2015, French authorities identified the alleged mastermind of the 13 November Paris attacks as Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 28-year-old Belgian national of Moroccan descent who had joined the Islamic State in Syria sometime in 2013 or 2014.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud's profile

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, also known as Abu Omar al-Baljiki, or Abu Omar Soussi, was born in Belgium and spent his youth in the Brussels' district of Molenbeek, a notorious hotbed of Salafist indoctrination and jihadist recruitment for Syria and Iraq. He has been described by French authorities as the key facilitator and plotter of the Paris attacks. According to two European intelligence officials quoted by the Washington Post , Abaaoud arrived in Syria sometime in 2013 or 2014, where he joined the Islamic State. In a database on European foreign fighters compiled by IHS in September 2014, he was identified as one of the key figures in the Belgian contingent 

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