PARIS (AP) — A former French Legionnaire who rose through the ranks of the Islamic State extremist group has been named by the United States as a key figure in the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris and the leader of a 300-strong brigade of foreign jihadis.
The French are circumspect on the alleged role of Abdelilah Himich, who was among three Islamic State figures designated Tuesday as terrorists by the U.S. government. Himich's name does not appear in the legal file on the coordinated attacks that killed 130 people, according to the Paris prosecutor's office.
Himich is believed to be the 'Abu Souleymane' referred to by some of the Nov. 13 attackers, according to a French terrorism expert who also noted there was disagreement in the intelligence community over his possible role.
The expert, Jean-Charles Brisard, thinks Himich's position was significant within the Islamic State group, but that he fell into disfavor and was jailed by the group soon after the March attacks by three suicide bombers in Brussels that left 32 people dead.
Brisard, whose Nov. 10 report for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point detailed the role of Himich and a Belgian Islamic State operative named Osama Atar, said it wasn't known why Himich was jailed. But, Brisard said, his role has almost certainly been taken up by others.
"They showed their desire to hit the West. There has been a multiplication of calls for that," Brisard said.
Himich is a Moroccan citizen who lived for a decade in the French town of Lunel, best known lately as center for jihadi recruiting.
At the age of 19, according to Le Monde newspaper, Himich enlisted in the Foreign Legion under a false name, as is typical for the irregular force. He served for two years, including a stint in Afghanistan, then returned to Lunel.
After a short prison stint for drug trafficking, Himich joined a wave of some 20 young people who left Lunel for Syria and Iraq. Most ended up with the Islamic State group. Eight are dead, at least one is jailed in France, and many now hope to return home, according to Philippe Moissonnier, a member of the municipal council.
Himich didn't stand out in Lunel as a leader, and Moissonnier said he was surprised to learn the U.S. believes he founded an Islamic State battalion with as many as 300 Europeans at its height. The U.S. State Department has said Himich led a brigade "that has provided operatives for ISIL attacks in Iraq, Syria and abroad."
During the Nov. 13 attacks at a rock concert, the national stadium and bustling sidewalk cafes, hostages inside the Bataclan concert hall heard the attackers ask each other, "Should we call Abu Souleymane?"
That name, in various forms, appears as one of Himich's aliases in the U.S. statement.