Even Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s own family prayed for his death, and on Thursday they got their wish fulfilled when the Belgian jihadist behind the Paris attacks was confirmed killed in a French police raid in Saint-Denis.
Abaaoud was a one-time school bully and petty criminal from the Brussels immigrant district of Molenbeek who graduated to become a leading Islamic State (IS) militant with ties to a series of plots in Europe.
The 28-year-old of Moroccan origin had recently boasted of evading police dragnets in Europe, and taunted European authorities from what was assumed to be an IS base in Syria.
The effect on his family was profound, with his sister Yasmina telling Flemish newspapers last year that “we can only pray that he is really dead” after it was — mistakenly — reported that he was killed in Syria.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls hailed the death of the ringleader of last week’s atrocities, after prosecutors said Abaaoud body had been identified following Wednesday’s raid in Saint-Denis.
His female cousin was reported to have blown herself up.
‘Blessed with martyrdom’
In the past, Abbaoud liked to taunt the police, boasting of a close call he had when he passed through a European checkpoint as police studied a photo of him.
“The kuffar (unbelievers) were blinded by Allah. 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!” Abaaoud told the Islamic State group magazine Dabiq.
“This was nothing but a gift from Allah,” said a bearded Abaaoud, who appeared in an accompanying photo holding up a Koran in one hand and a black Islamic State flag in the other in front of a US-made Humvee.
Other pictures show him cracking a wide smile, wearing a turban-style scarf, woollen hat or military cap, as he poses with guns or alongside a comrade.
He also bragged about escaping from Europe after Belgian police shot dead two of his fellow militants in the eastern town of Verviers as they broke up a cell planning attacks on security personnel earlier this year.
“My name and picture were all over the news yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely when doing so became necessary,” he said.
His dead colleagues, he added, were “blessed with shahadah (martyrdom), which is what they had desired for so long.”
It was not yet clear when Abaaoud had returned to Europe from Syria to coordinate the Paris attacks.
Speaking after his death had been announced, France’s interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve told media that Abaaoud was implicated in four out of the six terror plots that had been foiled in France since Spring 2015.
Cazenueve pointed to the same modus operandi of each attack, the planning from abroad and the fact they were due to be carried out by jihadists from France.
He said they had received no intelligence from European powers to suggest Abaaoud could be in France.
Abaaoud had first popped up on the radar of Belgian security forces after featuring in an Islamic State video, laughing as he drove a car which dragged mutilated bodies behind it.
But it was after the Verviers raid, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January in Paris, that Abaaoud’s name began to widely circulate.
In February, Abaaoud, who was reported at one time to be in Greece, claimed responsibility for the plot against police officers and said he had joined IS in Syria.
Abaaoud — who hails from Molenbeek, a grimy Brussels district dubbed an extremist “hotbed” — was then sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison in July for running a network to recruit jihadists to Syria.
‘Our lives destroyed’
Born in Molenbeek in 1987, he goes by the noms de guerre Abou Omar Soussi, after the name of the family home in southwest region of Morocco, and Abou Omar al-Baljiki, meaning Abou Omar the Belgian.
“He was a little jerk,” recalled a former classmate from Brussels who told the Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure that Abaaoud used to harass fellow pupils and teachers and also got into trouble for stealing wallets.
Abaaoud apparently knows Salah Abdeslam, who also has roots in Molenbeek and who is wanted for allegedly involvement in the Paris attacks, and has appeared in Belgian police files linked to Abdeslam’s brother Brahim, who blew himself up outside a Paris bar.
After the cell in Verviers was smashed, Abaaoud’s father said his son had wrecked their lives.
His family were horrified when, in 2014, Abelhamid convinced his younger brother Younes, then 13 years old, to join him in Syria and the boy was dubbed the “the world’s youngest jihadist” by some newspapers.
“Why in the name of God, would he want to kill innocent Belgians? Our family owes everything to this country,” said Omar Abaaoud, whose family moved to Belgium 40 years ago from Morocco.
“Abdelhamid has brought shame on our family. Our lives have been destroyed… I never want to see him again.”