France launched “massive” air strikes on the Islamic State group’s de-facto capital in Syria Sunday night, destroying a terrorist training camp and a munitions dump in the city of Raqqa, where Iraqi intelligence officials say the attacks on Paris were planned.
Twelve aircraft including 10 fighter jets dropped a total of 20 bombs in the biggest air strikes since France extended its bombing campaign against the terrorist group to Syria in September, a Defense Ministry statement said. The jets launched from sites in Jordan and the Persian Gulf, in coordination with U.S. forces.
Meanwhile, as police announced seven arrests and hunted for more members of the sleeper cell that carried out the Paris attacks, French officials revealed to The Associated Press that several key suspects had been stopped and released by police after the attack.
The arrest warrant for Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old born in Brussels, calls him very dangerous and warns people not to intervene if they see him.
Yet police already had him in their grasp early Saturday, when they stopped a car carrying three men near the Belgian border. By then, hours had passed since authorities identified Abdeslam as the renter of a Volkswagen Polo that carried hostage takers to the Paris theater where so many died.
Three French police officials and a top French security official confirmed that officers let Abdeslam go after checking his ID. They spoke on condition of anonymity, lacking authorization to publicly disclose such details.
Clues about the extent of the plot have emerged from Baghdad, where senior Iraqi officials told the AP that France and other countries had been warned on Thursday of an imminent attack.
An Iraqi intelligence dispatch warned that Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had ordered his followers to immediately launch gun and bomb attacks and take hostages inside the countries of the coalition fighting them in Iraq and Syria.
The Iraqi dispatch, which was obtained by the AP, provided no details on when or where the attack would take place, and a senior French security official told the AP that French intelligence gets these kinds of warnings “all the time” and “every day.”
However, Iraqi intelligence officials told the AP that they also warned France about specific details. Among them, that the attackers were trained for this operation and sent back to France from Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de-facto capital.
The officials also said that a sleeper cell in France then met with the attackers after their training and helped them to execute the plan. There were 24 people involved in the operation, they said: 19 attackers and five others in charge of logistics and planning.
None of these details have been corroborated by officials of France or other Western intelligence agencies.
All these French and Iraqi security and intelligence officials spoke with the AP on condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing investigation.
Abdeslam is one of three brothers believed to be involved: One who crossed with him into Belgium was later arrested, and another blew himself up inside the Bataclan theater after taking the audience hostage and firing on them repeatedly. It was the worst of Friday’s synchronized attacks, leaving 89 fatalities and hundreds of people wounded inside.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility. Its statement mocked France’s air attacks on suspected IS targets in Syria and Iraq.
In all, three teams of attackers, including seven suicide bombers, attacked the national stadium, the concert hall and nearby nightspots. The attacks killed 132 people, wounded at least 350 people, 99 of them seriously.
As many as three of the seven suicide bombers were French citizens, as was at least one of the men arrested in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussells, which authorities consider to be a focal point for terrorists and fighters going to Syria from Belgium.
One was 29-year-old Frenchman Ismael Mostefai, who had a record of petty crime and had been flagged in 2010 for ties to Islamic radicalism, the Paris prosecutor said.
Police detained Mostefai’s father, a brother and other relatives Saturday night, and they were still being questioned Sunday.
These details stoked fears of homegrown terrorism in France, which has exported more jihadis than any other in Europe, and seen many return from the fight.
Paris remains on edge amid three days of official mourning. French troops have deployed by the thousands and tourist sites remain shuttered in one of the most visited cities on Earth.