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November 2015 attacks in France | A “providential” witness recounts her meeting with Abaaoud

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(Paris) She remembers the “inhuman” gaze of Abdelhamid Abaaoud: at the trial of the deadly attacks of November 13, 2015 in France, “Sonia”, key witness, told Friday how she had, at the risk of her life, denounced the operational leader of the attacks, a “heavy sacrifice” that she “does not regret”.

A protected witness, “Sonia” has changed her identity and her life since her crucial testimony, “providential” according to an investigator, which made it possible to locate Abdelhamid Abaaoud and avoid new attacks.

Hunted, the operational leader of the attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis, in the suburbs, was on the run after having machine-gunned the terraces of cafes and restaurants. “Public enemy number one”, the jihadist will be killed in a police assault on November 18, 2015.

Blurred face, modified voice, it is a spectrum that appears on the screens of the special assize court of Paris. “Sonia” says she is “48 years old”, is an “agent”.

More than six years after the events, she describes to the court that evening, two days after the attacks that left 130 dead, where she crossed paths with Abdelhamid Abaaoud, holed up in a bush, along the highway, in Aubervilliers, in the Paris region.

She accompanies a lost and unstable young woman whom she has taken under her wing and whom she is sheltering, Hasna Aït Boulahcen. She was just supposed to pick up “her 17-year-old cousin who has problems”, but finds herself facing Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a French figure in jihadism supposed to be in Syria.


Photo taken from the internet

The alleged mastermind of the attacks of November 13, 2015 in Paris, Abdelhamid Abaaoud

“He is there, in front of me. […] He shook my hand, which I regret,” says “Sonia,” who still has “nightmares” about it.

He introduces himself, she asks him if he took part in the attacks. “He answers me: ‘Yeah, the terraces, it’s me'”, reports the key witness. He assures “that he is here to finish what he started”.

“I tell him that he killed innocent people, that Islam is not that”, affirms the mother of the family.

She goes home and the next day, November 16, she waits for Hasna Aït Boulahcen to leave her home to call the special number set up by the police. “I explained who I had met, no one believed me,” she laments.

“Cataclysm”

She is summoned in the evening and delivers a lot of information, a physical description of the jihadist, the fact that he is wearing a jacket, a cream-colored hat and orange shoes, spotted on the video surveillance of the metro and only known to investigators.

For them, “caution remains in order”, indicates a commissioner also heard on Friday, former assistant to the counter-terrorism sub-directorate of the judicial police.

If Abdelhamid Abaaoud, “target number one” of European intelligence, is in France, it would be “a cataclysm”, explains the investigator. It could also be “an ambush by the Islamic State (IS)”.

Surveillance is set up, especially near the “bush” of Aubervilliers, and “Sonia” continues to give information to the anti-terrorist police, obtained from Hasna.

The latter is mandated to find accommodation for her cousin and “costumes” for new attacks planned in the business district of La Défense, near Paris, on November 19, targeting “a shopping center, a police station”.

“I couldn’t have let that happen”, underlines “Sonia”. Before dawn on November 18, 2015, the elite police unit, the Raid, launched an assault on the apartment in Saint-Denis where Abdelhamid Abaaoud took refuge with his accomplice Chakib Akrouh, another survivor of the commando of the terraces, and Hasna Aït Boulahcen. All three die.

After 48 hours in police custody, “Sonia” was released and taken into the care of a specialized department of the Ministry of the Interior.

In early 2016, she gave an interview in which she said she was “abandoned” by the state. She benefits a few months later from a new status, becoming the first “protected witness” in France.

Her testimony “cost her dearly, very dearly”, both for her and for her children and her companion, she told the court. “It’s a heavy sacrifice”, but “I don’t regret what I did, I will never regret it”.

The president of the court, Jean-Louis Périès, “welcomes [son] courageous gesture”, which “made it possible to avoid other attacks”.

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