A woman sought by French police following the string of terror attacks in Paris this past week left France days before they occurred, traveling to Turkey and possibly into Syria, a senior Turkish official said Saturday.
French police have described Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, the companion of one of the suspects in a week of terrorist mayhem, as “armed and dangerous” and launched a nationwide search for her on Friday, the day after she was suspected of involvement in the killing of a policewoman in a suburb south of Paris.
But Boumeddiene had arrived in Istanbul from Madrid with a male companion on Jan. 2 and, according to cell phone records, on Thursday was in Akcakale, a Turkish town south of the city of Sanliurfa and close to the Syrian border, the official said.
He identified the male companion only by his first name, “Mehdi,” and withheld his last name, saying Turkish authorities are searching for him. The pair had return tickets to Madrid for Friday, but didn’t appear for the flight.
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Islamic State extremists have controlled the town of Tal Abyad, which lies directly across the border from Akcakale, for more than a year, and they dominate a swath of territory surrounding the nearby Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.
Amedy Coulibaly, who’s been described variously as Boumeddiene’s husband or boyfriend and is suspected of shooting the policewoman, told a French television interviewer Friday that he was a member of the Islamic State. Coulibaly died when police stormed the grocery store where he had killed four of as many as 15 hostages he held there.
Turkish authorities are not sure if Boumeddiene was smuggled into Syria, the official told McClatchy.
The official could not be named as he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Boumeddiene’s escape to Turkey could come as an embarrassment to French anti-terrorism authorities and her crossing into Syria would be equally embarrassing to Turkey. French officials reportedly had been watching Boumeddiene and Coulibaly, who were known to be active in jihadi circles, and Turkish officials are under pressure to stop Europeans from using Turkey as a conduit to join the Islamic State.
Turkish authorities apparently were suspicious of Boumeddiene and her companion and followed their movements for two days but then dropped the surveillance. The authorities here could find no record of the pair traveling under their own names by air to Sanliurfa, and they presume they reached the border area by bus.
Turkish authorities blamed French authorities for not alerting them sooner that Boumeddiene was being monitored in France. “If France had informed us they were on a watch list, we would not have let them go,” the Turkish official said.
Only when Boumeddienne’s name surfaced in the French news media on Friday did the Turks attempt to revive their surveillance, he said. “We informed the French,” he said.
“Then the cooperation began.” The Turks obtained her cell phone number and learned she had been in Alkacale as recently as Thursday.
He said Turkey had searched its records for the past five years, but found no indication that the French had shared Boumeddiene’s name with Turkey. He said French authorities in general “are sharing information too late.”
Turkey has been widely blamed for allowing would-be recruits to the Islamic State to cross into Syria from Turkish territory, but the government here blames the countries of origin for not alerting immigration authorities here as to who’s on their terrorism watch lists.
Turkey has 35 million visitors a year, and a 600-mile border with Syria and says it blocked more than 7,000 foreigners from entering that country and deported 3,500.
But Turkish officials acknowledge that until June, when the Islamic State captured Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul, and then proclaimed a “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, they turned a blind eye to “tourists” who had every appearance of being jihadi volunteers and turned up in towns along the border with Syria.
Boumeddiene’s apparent flight to Turkey, and possibly Syria, complicates what had been suspected of her involvement in last week’s Paris violence. French authorities had believed she was present at the killing of the French policewoman and may have been at the kosher grocery store on Friday when Coulibaly made his last stand.
Among the evidence that tied Coulibaly to the other suspects in the events, Cherif and Said Kouachi, the gunmen who murdered 12 people at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, were phone records that showed that Boumeddiene had exchanged more than 500 phone calls with Cherif Kouachi’s wife last year, according to French media reports.
According to Paris prosecutor François Molins, that number of contacts “establishes that there were constant and sustained contact between the two couples.”
The links also complicate theories about which international terrorist groups were involved in last week’s violence. Cherif Kouachi, in an interview with a French television network shortly before he died, said he and his brother had raided the Charlie Hebdo offices on behalf of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has sided with al Qaida in its on-going dispute with the Islamic State over policy in Syria. U.S. and French officials have said Said Kouachi traveled to Yemen, AQAP’s headquarters, in 2011.
But Coulibaly’s professed allegiance to the Islamic State and the possibility that Boumeddiene has sought shelter in an area under Islamic State control raises questions about whether the two groups are working together.