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Homeland Security

EU Tightens Border Controls in Aftermath of Paris Attacks

by Lisa Bryant November 20, 2015

The European Union tightened control of its perimeter borders Friday in the aftermath of last week's deadly Paris attacks, including new checks on the passage of Europeans returning to the formerly passport-free zone.

The measures are a sign of the pressure now on Europe's Schengen protocol and the passport-free zone that for years allowed citizens of the European Union to travel unhindered throughout most of the continent.

European justice and interior ministers met in emergency session in Brussels, looking for ways to control the external border of the 22 EU nations, plus non-EU Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein, where travelers have had passport-free passage.

Now, the EU said, the travelers will not only have their passports examined as they enter the bloc, but personal information will be compared with databases and an airline passenger name registry.

Europe's passport-free zone has come under sharp scrutiny following the revelation that the Belgian ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, apparently fought with Islamic State in Syria and then returned undetected to Paris to carry out last Friday's attacks.

Those assaults on a concert hall, a football stadium, restaurants and bars killed 130 people and wounded more than 350 others.

Abaaoud himself died during a massive police raid of his hideout in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, a Paris suburb. Police fired more than 5,000 bullets during the seven-hour shootout.

Urgent action needed

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said France was not notified by any EU state that Abaaoud had returned to Europe. Cazeneuve said it is 'urgent that Europe wakes up, organizes itself and defends itself against the terrorist threat.'

He said the strengthening of external border controls, particularly in light of the heightened terrorist threat, is indispensable for the security of European citizens.

The Paris prosecutor said police found a third body overnight in the Saint-Denis apartment raided by police who were searching for suspects in the attacks. The prosecutor's office said the body was that of a woman, but her identity was not immediately clear. Abaaoud's body, as well as that of his female cousin, Hasna Aitboulahcen, had been discovered earlier.

France has for months called for reforms that will allow for systematic and obligatory checks to be carried out on all of the EU's external borders and all people entering the Schengen area.

With Europe expecting as many as 3 million migrants – largely from Syria – in the coming year, governments are under pressure to better screen new arrivals.

Among measures to be implemented - the registering and fingerprinting of non-EU nationals who enter the Schengen area illegally.

Meanwhile, the manhunt continues for at least one suspected terrorist on the run since the Paris attacks.

French officials say some of those behind the massacres in Paris, including, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged planner killed in a police raid Wednesday, took advantage of the refugee crisis to slip into France, using the chaos and Europe's open borders to transit freely and undetected.

French officials admit they do not know where Salah Abdelslam is, but the search for him intensified across France and Belgium, and also spread to the Netherlands, according to news accounts.

Abdelslam, who is believed to have helped carry out the Paris attacks, became Europe's most wanted fugitive after an international arrest warrant was issued for him.

French authorities said they have conducted nearly 800 raids since the Paris attacks, detaining 90 people, putting another 164 under house arrest and collecting 174 weapons.

Belgian authorities conducted nine raids Thursday in several parts of Brussels and detained nine people. Some of the homes searched were in the neighborhood of Molenbeek where Abdelslam lived, as well as his brother Ibrahim, who blew himself up outside one of the cafes targeted in the attacks.

Some of the raids were connected to Bilal Hadfi, who blew himself up outside the French stadium that was attacked. Officials said the operation focused on Hadfi's family, friends and others linked to him.

Ringleader's death confirmed

France confirmed Thursday that Abaaoud, considered the chief architect of the attack on Paris, was killed in the police raid. His body was riddled with bullets and burned in a fire that swept through the apartment, but prosecutors said they identified the remains from fingerprints.

Officials said he has been implicated in four of six foiled attacks in the country this year.

A French security official said that Abaaoud's participation in last week's attacks was confirmed by a surveillance camera at the Croix de Chavaux metro station that captured his image. Authorities said the young man – a Belgian national of Moroccan descent – also had been implicated in four of six terror attacks foiled in France earlier this year.

Abaaoud, who was 27 or 28, had been linked to an April attack on a church in Villejuif in which one person was killed, and to an August attack on a high-speed train from Belgium to France that was thwarted by three young American passengers.

Interior Minister Cazeneuve said France only learned that Abaaoud was back in Europe after the Paris attacks, thanks to a tip from 'an intelligence service outside Europe.'

Rising threats

In other developments, Italian authorities are searching for five terror suspects after receiving a tip from the U.S. FBI about possible attacks being planned against St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Milan's Duomo or the La Scala Opera House were possible.

The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Italy, saying those landmarks were potential targets, along with "churches, synagogues, restaurants, theaters and hotels" in Rome and Milan.

The American cities of New York and Washington have been named in videos as potential Islamic State militant targets, although local and national law-enforcement officials say they have not received word of any credible threat of Paris-style attacks.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in Washington that since 2013 more than 70 people have been charged for actions related to "foreign fighter interests and homegrown violent extremism," and pledged the Department of Justice continues to take "robust actions."

VOA's Luis Ramirez contributed to this report from London.

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