- Suspected ringleader of a terror cell is now in Syria, ISIS claims
- Officials say the manhunt for Abdelhamid Abaaoud has gone cold
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian-Moroccan ISIS fighter, is believed to have been the head of the terror cell that was in a deadly shootout with police during a January 15 raid in the Belgian town of Verviers.
The gunbattle, days after the terror attacks in Paris, triggered an international manhunt. Three suspected members of the terror cell have been arrested, but the others, including Abaaoud, remain at large.
ISIS has published what it claims is an interview with Abaaoud and says that he escaped to Syria, the counterterrorism official told CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.
ISIS put out a photo of Abaaoud with two gunmen who were killed in last month's raid.
Belgian officials are aware of the claims that the suspected ringleader fled to Syria, the official said, but they cannot confirm that is where he is.
The official said it is believed that Abaaoud was never in Belgium, but coordinated the terror cell from Greece.
One line of inquiry being looked at is whether Abaaoud tried to fake his own death last year while fighting with ISIS in Syria so that he could disappear off the radar screen of Western intelligence services. In October, his family in Brussels received word he had been "martyred," his sister told a Belgian newspaper.
Belgian investigators believe Abaaoud, rather than dying on the front lines, traveled to Greece and suspect he was communicating by phone from there.