French police and special forces conducted a massive raid in Paris’ suburb Saint-Denis in the early hours on Wednesday morning. Heavy gunfire and explosions were heard near an apartment building where individuals suspected of being linked to the Paris attacks were hiding, including the person who may have planned the November 13th assault on Paris. Two people died in the ensuing fight, including a woman who detonated a vest containing explosives, and the primary target of the attack.
Interestingly, the information that helped police conduct this particular raid and potentially avoid a second disaster in Paris came from an unencrypted, unlocked smartphone found in a dumpster near the Bataclan concert hall where terrorists killed 89 people on Friday.
French newspaper Liberation said the phone contained a message that read “On est parti on commence,” or “Let’s go, we’re starting.” On the same phone, the police also located a map of the Bataclan venue.
While police were unable to identify the recipient of the phone message, investigators retrieved the cell tower history from the phone, and then located a hotel in Alfortville just outside Paris where a bank card belonging to Salah Abdeslam was used – he was on of the suspects still at large after the attack. Abdeslam was not arrested during the raid.
The discarded phone helped investigators track down other safe houses belonging to the attackers, The Washington Post said. Paris prosecutor François Molins said the terrorists conducted a “huge logistics plan, meticulously carried out,” having relied on three safe houses around Paris and three rental cars to launch the attack.
As for the suspected mastermind behind these particular attacks, senior European officials speaking anonymously have now confirmed that was dead. The Guardian reports that Molins’ office confirmed Abaaoud died during the raid. Apparently he was hit by multiple gunshots and a grenade. The woman was identified as Abaaoud’s 26-year-old cousin.
“A brief exchange between Aitboulahcen, a 26-year-old French-Moroccan national, and a Swat team was recorded during the standoff, with a police officer asking: ‘Where is your boyfriend?'” The Guardian writes. “Seconds before a huge explosion was heard, she replied: ‘He’s not my boyfriend!’ Parts of her spine reportedly landed on a police car.”
Meanwhile, governments in western countries are already considering taking various steps that would potentially sabotage encryption for regular Internet users – by implementing backdoors into encryption algorithms that would supposedly be available to spy agencies only.
This particular smartphone discovery in the Paris investigation is remarkable, but it raises some questions. First of all, unencrypted, unlocked devices can be used to extract information easily – nobody can dispute that. But even if locked, the phone would have allowed investigators to obtain cell tower data from the SIM card inside it, which is information that gives away the location history of any smartphone user.
Secondly, it seems rather strange that something like this actually happened. Not only was the phone thrown out near the place where the attacks happened, but it was unlocked and unencrypted. Does that mean the owner was simply careless in the last hours before his death or is this typical of ISIS radicals? Did the other ISIS terrorists who hit Paris use encryption at all?
Finally, if ISIS terrorists indeed used secure chat apps on mobile devices, police should know by now what kind of encrypted apps they may have used, if any. These details have not been shared with the public at this time, and it’s not clear what other data was retrieved from the unprotected phone.