PARIS, France (CNN) – Dead or alive?
That’s the big question over the fate of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the Paris terrorist attacks, after heavily armed French police officers stormed an apartment building north of the city on Wednesday where they thought he might be holed up.
Gunfire and explosions erupted near the medieval heart of Saint-Denis, the suburb where the raid took place, as police clashed with the terrorist suspects inside the building, leaving parts of it in rubble.
Police fired around 5,000 rounds of ammunition in the predawn confrontation, an operation that suggested authorities were making headway in their investigations into Friday’s terrorist rampage across Paris but also fed fears of more violence in a city already on edge.
By the time the dust settled and the standoff came to an end, two suspects and a police dog were dead, eight people were in custody, and five police officers were slightly wounded.
French officials said Abaaoud, the Belgian ISIS operative who’s suspected of organizing the Paris attacks that killed 129 people around the city on Friday night, was not among those arrested. Neither was Salah Abdeslam, a French citizen suspected of involvement in Friday’s coordinated wave of terrorist violence carried out in the name of ISIS.
One of the suspects killed in the raid was a woman who detonated her suicide vest, but her identity and that of the other dead suspect was unclear. Investigators are conducting DNA tests on body parts that were found in the rubble.
Will some of them turn out to belong to Abaaoud, a senior ISIS member who’s long eluded Western intelligence agencies despite being linked to a series of terrorism plots in Europe?
Telephone communications on a wiretap by French and Belgian security agencies indicated a woman at the third-floor apartment was Abaaoud’s cousin, a Belgian counterterrorism official told CNN.
Some residents in the area told CNN they had seen Abaaoud recently in the neighborhood and at a local mosque.
Speculation about his activities and movements has proliferated since officials began linking him to the Paris attacks in recent days, with many observers assuming he was operating in Syria.
The rumors became even more frenzied early Wednesday as it emerged that he was the potential target of the raid in Saint-Denis, the same area where ISIS suicide bombers had blown themselves up Friday outside the national stadium as the French soccer team played Germany inside.
Abaaoud has bragged in the past of being able to move between Syria and Europe at will. Western intelligence agencies are reported to have tried to target him in the months prior to the Paris attacks without success.
As the police operation neared its end Wednesday, wildly varying reports suggested he could be dead, alive or not even in France.
French officials remained cagey, however, saying the identification of the second body hadn’t been completed.
The identities of most of the eight people detained by police are also unclear. They include the person who loaned the apartment to the suspected terrorists and his friend, according to authorities. Two of the eight were hospitalized, the Interior Ministry said.
Whoever those inside the apartment were, they may have been preparing to unleash more terror on the streets of Paris.
The suspects appeared to be “prepared to act” in another possible attack, Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins said, noting their weaponry, structured organization and determination.
Investigators are also still digging into other angles related to Friday’s attacks, including the whereabouts of Abdeslam, the French suspect who was last seen heading toward the Belgian border in the hours after the massacres took place.
Officials are working to piece together where the terrorists were in the days and hours leading up to the attacks, and with whom they had contact. Seven of the attackers were killed during the attacks, mostly by blowing up the explosives strapped to their bodies.
Investigators have encountered at least one piece of evidence that could help them in their search: One of the attacker’s cell phones was found in a trash bin outside the Bataclan concert hall, where most of Friday’s victims were gunned down.
A message on the phone, according to Molins, said, “Here we go, it’s starting.”
Authorities are trying to determine whom the message was sent to, he said.
The Saint-Denis police operation is the most dramatic among wave upon wave of raids across France in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.
Authorities are using the state of emergency declared by President Francois Hollande to carry out a widespread clampdown on potential terrorist threats, detaining dozens of people, putting more than 100 others under house arrest and seizing an alarming array of weapons.
Hollande, who wants to extend the state of emergency for three months, held up Wednesday’s deadly clash between police and suspects in Saint-Denis as further proof that France is “at war” with ISIS, which is notorious for brutally imposing its warped interpretation of Islam on the millions of people living in the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq.
The Paris attacks and ISIS’ claim of bringing down a Russian passenger jet over Egypt last month have underscored the extremist group’s desire to expand the reach of its terror.
Already part of the U.S-led coalition that’s bombing ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, France has stepped up its airstrikes on the militants since the Paris attacks.
Hollande said he would appeal to world leaders to form a wider coalition to go after ISIS, including meeting next week with U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia has taken military action in Syria independently of the U.S.-led coalition, attacking ISIS but also other groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Moscow.