“We can’t take more time. This is urgent,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
One week after the coordinated attacks claimed by ISIS that killed 129 people in Paris, Cazeneuve and the other EU interior and justice ministers opened an emergency meeting on the next steps to take to prevent more bloodshed. France and Belgium were expected to urge their EU partners to tighten gun laws, toughen border security and choke off funds to extremist groups.
“Terrorists are crossing the borders of the European Union,” said Cazeneuve, underlining why the 28-nation bloc must move forward on a long-delayed system for collecting and exchanging airline passenger information. That system would allow the EU to better track extremists and foreign fighters coming and going from Syria and Iraq, he said.
Britain’s interior minister, Theresa May, said the EU must quickly implement beefed-up border security measures already agreed on, saying there was a clear link between tightened borders and the safety of Europeans.
Ministers, however, were not expected to order any new measures that could be immediately introduced. Documents prepared for the meeting and seen by The Associated Press indicate the ministers instead will try to push forward on priorities already identified, but not acted on, by EU leaders following an earlier round of lethal attacks in Paris on a satirical newspaper and a kosher grocery in January.
The narrative provided by French officials on the brazen and carefully coordinated attacks a week ago on France’s national stadium and Paris cafes, restaurants and a theater raises disturbing questions about how a wanted militant already suspected of involvement in multiple plots could slip into Europe undetected.
French investigators quickly identified Belgian-born Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, as the architect of the attacks in Paris, but believed he had coordinated the assaults against a soccer stadium, cafes and a rock concert from the battlefields of Syria.
That situation changed drastically on Monday when France received a tip from a non-European country that Abaaoud had slipped back into Europe through Greece, Cazeneuve said Thursday.
“It was a big surprise when the intelligence came in,” one French police official told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information was sensitive. “There were many people who didn’t take it seriously, but effectively it was confirmed.”
How and when Abaaoud entered France before his death remained unclear. He had bragged in the Islamic State group’s English-language magazine that he was able to move in and out of Europe undetected.
As it turned out, not only was Abaaoud in Europe, but right under the noses of French investigators, a 15-minute walk from the Stade de France stadium where three suicide bombers blew themselves up during the Nov. 13 attacks that also wounded hundreds.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Abaaoud was traced to the apartment in Saint-Denis through phone taps and surveillance.
Following a lengthy assault, police said the suspected plot ringleader and his female cousin both died in a hail of bullets and explosions.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said Friday that three bodies had been found in the apartment, including suspected mastermind Abaaoud. It confirmed that the woman was Hasna Aitboulahcen, 26. The identity of the third body has not been announced.
Security officials told The Associated Press that Aitboulahcen is Abaaoud’s cousin.
Belgian authorities on Friday released seven people detained a day earlier, but continued to hold one person suspected of links to the Paris attacks and another linked to stadium bomber Bilal Hadfi but not directly to the Paris attacks.
Jean-Marc Falcone, speaking on France-Info radio, said he was unable to say if Salah Abdeslam, a friend of Abaaoud, could be back on French territory.
“We can’t say anything about the exact geographic situation of that individual,” he said.
European officials earlier acknowledged that French police stopped Abdeslam the morning after Friday’s attacks at the Belgian border but then let him go. His brother Brahim was one of the Paris suicide bombers.
Authorities initially gave Abaaoud’s age as 27, but on Thursday Paris prosecutors said he was 28. News of his death seemed to ease some tension in a country deeply shocked by the attacks.
“We now know that Abaaoud, the brain behind these attacks — one of the brains, because we must be particularly cautious, and we know what the threats are — was among the dead,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told the lower house of the French Parliament.
On Friday French President Francois Hollande’s office said he will lead a national ceremony Nov. 27 honoring the victims of the deadliest attacks on France in decades. The ceremony will be held at the gold-domed Hotel des Invalides, where Napoleon’s tomb lies and which is seen as a symbol of France’s military and international strength.
Of the more than 350 people wounded in the attacks, scores are in critical condition, and medical authorities have warned that the death toll is likely to rise.
Under gray skies and rain, Paris on Friday marked a week since the bloodbath with silence and reflection.
Most demonstrations have been banned in the city since the attacks, but Parisians have been spontaneously gathering all week outside the restaurants, cafes and concert halls hit in the attacks to leave flowers, light candles or hold quiet vigils.
A demonstration planned Friday at France’s oldest mosque to show inter-community solidarity after the attacks was canceled for security concerns.
Next week Hollande is going to Washington and Moscow to push for a stronger international coalition against IS. French military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said Thursday that French forces have destroyed 35 Islamic State targets in Syria since the attacks on Paris.