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More than a year after the Paris attacks, a Frenchwoman who risked her life to supply the security services with valuable intelligence that thwarted future attacks says she feels abandoned by the French state.
On January 19, the night editor at French radio station RMC received a very strange phone call.
It was a little over two months after the November 13, 2015, Paris attacks that had claimed 130 lives. France was on high alert, the nation was under a state of emergency and its citizens were still jumpy, trying to come to terms with the threat in their midst. The caller was an obviously distressed woman who claimed that, without her, “We would never have stopped the terrorists.”
In those jittery days after the Paris attacks, RMC and its sister TV station, BFM, were receiving a number of bizarre calls. But this one seemed particularly strange.
The radio station’s security correspondent, Claire Andrieux, was immediately put on the story. When she followed up on the exchange, she immediately realised that it was not another crank call from a disturbed person unraveling under the stress of the terror threats.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The woman who called RMC that night is now known as “Sonia” by the French press. Her real name and identity will never be revealed for security reasons.
Sonia was the woman who called the French security services and informed them that, just two days after the Paris attacks, she had met the infamous jihadist who planned and executed the deadly terror spree that chilling November night.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian national of Moroccan descent, was an attention-seeking jihadist who had figured in a number of Islamic State (IS) group videos conducting grisly acts in the Syrian wilds of the self-proclaimed caliphate.
He was the man Sonia claimed to have met near a Parisian suburb barely 48 hours after the attacks. At that time, it was an improbable story. Abaaoud was well known in counterterror circles. He was too high-profile to risk returning to Europe from Syria and there was no way Abaaoud himself would risk being in the Paris area shortly after the attacks.
And yet just five days after the November 13 attacks French security officials traced Abaaoud to barely 12 kilometres from Paris and eliminated the threat he posed. On November 18, French commandoes conducted a predawn raid on an apartment in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis that resulted in Abaaoud’s death.
Andrieux realised shortly after meeting the mysterious woman behind the phone call that none of this would have been possible without Sonia.
Ten months later Andrieux has just released a book, “Témoin” (Witness), which she co-authored with Sonia, recounting the story of how a brave, 40-year-old mother of two helped save France.
But Sonia’s story, the book notes, doesn’t end there. She is still trying to rebuild her life, and the hurdles she has encountered offer a glimpse into little-known aspects of the ongoing fight against the threat of Islamist radicalism in France.
A baffling response to the Paris attacks
The unlikely twist in Sonia’s fairly normal life began shortly after the Paris attacks, when she realised the young woman she was housing was Abaaoud’s cousin.
Hasna Aït Boulahcen was a disturbed woman in her early 20s from a broken family who often arrived at Sonia’s place when her life appeared to be spiraling out of control.
A 40-year-old mother of two living in public housing in one of Paris’s troubled banlieues, or suburbs, Sonia had an illegal job, earning around €2,000 per month in cash. But the friendly, extremely social Sonia had a reputation in the community for helping women in domestically abusive situations.
Sonia’s boyfriend – known as Tahar in the French press – and her two kids from another man periodically berated her for housing these hapless souls. But Sonia couldn’t just abandon her sisters in need.
On the night of November 13, as the first bomb exploded during a football match at the Stade de France, Sonia noticed that her houseguest, Hasna, was behaving very strangely. As the terrifying night unfolded, Hasna got more exuberant. Suddenly, all the nonsense Hasna had started expounding – improbable tales of a cousin fighting the jihad in Syria – didn’t seem so fantastical after all.
‘Do you have something to do with the attacks?’
Two days later, an agitated Hasna convinced Sonia and Tahar to drive her to the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers on a Sunday night since she didn’t have a car. Hasna had been receiving several phone calls from Belgian phone numbers and seemed extremely agitated.
The couple agreed to drive Hasna to a spot on the A86 highway, where they stopped at a dark shoulder. From the bushes, a figure appeared dressed in crumpled clothes with a woolen cap and orange sneakers.
Speaking to FRANCE 24, Andrieux recounted an encounter she has revisited with Sonia several times.
“Who are you?” Sonia apparently asked the young man.
“Abdelhamid Abaaoud,” replied the man.
“So you are not Younus, as Hasna said?” asked Sonia.
Her suspicions aroused, Sonia went directly to the point: “Do you have something to do with the attacks?”
He answered truthfully and seemed completely indifferent to Sonia’s accusations that he had sinned and that Islam does not call for killing people. She was so angry that she even goaded Abaaoud, noting that the Stade de France bomb had failed to kill anybody.
Yes, Abaaoud acknowledged, but he was about to change that. He had another plan, but he needed a place to hide. Could Hasna help him, he asked his infatuated cousin, ignoring her bothersome friend.
The phone call that sparked the raid
When Hasna briefly left her apartment the next morning, Sonia picked up the phone and called the police. It was an act of courage of the sort that many of us hope we have, if and when the time comes.
Her life, as she knew it, had changed forever.
She was called into the French domestic intelligence agency headquarters, debriefed by agents, and urged to locate the coordinates of the apartment that Hasna had secured for Abaaoud. It was not easy. Hasna had turned incredibly secretive in recent days and it took a lot of stealth for Sonia to uncover that information.
But the French security services were persistent. The stakes were high. They had tapped Hasna’s mobile phone and knew Abaaoud was planning an attack very soon in the business district of La Defense, west of Paris. They also knew his phone calls were coming from the suburb of Saint-Denis, but they needed more specific information – the exact apartment if they were to conduct a potentially lethal raid.
Sonia managed to extract all the information they needed. Based on the information she provided – as well as other surveillance measures they imposed on Hasna – French security forces stormed an apartment at 8 rue Corbillon, Saint-Denis, in a predawn raid.
Amid heavy gunfire Abaaoud was killed in the raid along with Hasna, who had stayed at the apartment that night.
Doing the right thing
The news made headlines across the world. Journalists who had rushed to the site in Saint-Denis following early reports of heavy gunfire were shocked to discover that Abaaoud himself had been killed.
After a miserable few days, the French security services finally had a success story of which they could be proud.
But for Sonia there wasn’t much rejoicing, or even recognition.
For one, she had lost a friend. Video of the November 18 raid caught Hasna screaming, “He’s not my boyfriend, he’s not my boyfriend. Let me leave, I want to leave.”
Sonia has repeatedly told Andrieux that she firmly believes she did the right thing and that she would do it again if she had to. “[Sonia] told me, ‘I asked [Hasna] to do one thing: call the police. She didn’t.’”
Reaching out to media
But Sonia’s life had suddenly changed. The mother of two was now in danger for informing on an IS group jihadist. She could not go back to her old life.
French security officials initially put her up, along with her boyfriend and two kids, in a hotel. She was then moved to an apartment somewhere in France; the details cannot be revealed for security purposes. She now needed a complete break from her past, which meant not keeping in touch with friends, quitting her former job and not using her real name.
And then she was effectively left to stew.
The mobile phone that French intelligence officials had provided her with suddenly went silent. Before the November 18 raid, agents were incessantly reaching Sonia on that phone, pushing her to extract more information, more details, more intelligence.
Now that they had achieved their mission and Sonia had served her purpose, security officials had no time for her.
Without a name, no income, in a state of incredible stress over recent events and living in constant fear for her life, Sonia was desperate.
On January 19, she picked up the phone to call the RMC radio station.
Only media attention, she reckoned, could change her situation.
Still seeking a new identity
In a way, she was right. Things did improve after Andrieux broke the story and the French media picked it up. Sonia was given a €2,000 monthly stipend and access to free psychological counselling.
But more than a year after the Paris attacks, she hasn’t yet received the one thing she desperately needs to build a new life: a new identity complete with ID papers, a fake background and a fabricated history.
That has not happened because the French justice system provides very limited protection to witnesses. Unlike in Italy, where “justice witness” status was introduced in 2001 in a bid to fight the mafia, French law has no such provisions.
Following the media coverage Sonia received in early 2016, a new witness protection bill was rushed through the National Assembly and signed into law in June. But for a French law to go into effect, it must be approved by the Conseil d’Etat, or council of state, which acts as a legal adviser to the executive and judicial branches. Finally, it must be published in the official state gazette before it takes effect.
Andrieux estimates that the process should be completed in January 2017. But until then there is little that French officials can do to help Sonia.
“Every security official I have spoken to has told me that this woman has saved lives. My police sources tell me they’re not happy with the way they have to deal with human intelligence sources,” said Andrieux. “Everyone knows that human intelligence is very important. But they have to be very careful with it. It’s the little circle of the family that is critical, and it’s here that human intelligence can change lives and save lives.”
Andrieux says she has renewed respect for the woman behind the story she broke and with whom she has co-written a book.
Recounting Sonia’s response to an early draft of “Témoin,” Andrieux noted that, “She asked me to change only two things. One was the name of her former employer. In my haste, I forgot to change that and Sonia caught it. The second was a quote by Abaaoud, when he said something really unpleasant about [French President] François Hollande. She asked me to delete it because she likes Hollande,” Andrieux said with a smile.
Neither the French president nor his interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, have ever publicly thanked Sonia for putting her life at risk to save other lives. But the history of counterterrorism is littered with informants and witnesses who have been courted by intelligence officials and then neglected once they are no longer of use. If the fight against radicalism is to be won, this is just one of the areas where states need to clean up their act.