PARIS -- A text message alert woke Bonnie Schaefer early Wednesday, warning her to stay inside her home in Saint-Denis, a suburban neighborhood 20 minutes north of here. Members of the terrorist cell allegedly responsible for the most deadly attack in Europe in a decade were hiding out in an apartment abouttwo metro stops from her home and police were about to carry out a raid there.
As she and the rest of the world now know, the raid -- which took out the alleged mastermind behind last Friday's attacks in Paris--was a major success for French counterterrorism forces, but it also fanned the worst fears of many Parisians: that there are more terrorists in the country, planning attacks likethe ones a week ago on six sites across the capital, which left 130 dead and dozens critically wounded.In Paris and Saint-Denis, most people think France’s policy in Syria, combined with a critical number of Islamic State group supporters in Paris’ Muslim-majority neighborhoods, are to blame for the heightened threat.
"The suspects could have been in any neighborhood,” Schaefer said. “I think everyone is concerned that new events may unfold in the near future at any place in the region.”
At least 1,000 French nationals have joined the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Iraq and Syria. Returning fighters who are experienced in combat pose the greatest threat to French national security, as was the case of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian national and alleged mastermind, who returned to Belgium after fighting with ISIS in Syria. After he was discovered by police hiding out in the flat in Saint-Denis, specialist officers orchestrated the seven-hour,Wednesday-morning raid thatresulted in his death along with two others, one of whomdetonated a suicide belt. Five other people associated with the group were taken in for questioning, most of them relatives of Abaaoud.
French mourners in Montpellier demonstrate in solidarity with Paris following Friday's terror attacks. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
“Small terror cells made up of mostly relatives or close friends are the greatest challenge for intelligence services seeking to infiltrate with human sources,” according to a report from the Soufan Group.
Abaaoud was well known to French intelligence, but a different threat comes from French citizens who have left, more than half who are still “unknown to the French intelligence services prior to their departures,” the nonpartisan Jamestown Foundation said in a report.
Underground networks of terrorists in France connected to fighters in Iraq and Syria have left many fearing fighters may return home, connect with local extremists and carry out other attacks. If Abaaoud did it, how many others just like him are currently still in France waiting to attack?
“It feels like it’s not done. That’s the worst. I can’t handle being scared,” said Amandine Barass, 29, of Lyon, France. “We were little spoiled kids before, and now we understand the rest of the world.”
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