Brussels attacks: Salah Abdeslam arrest a beginning, not an end

Events in Belgian capital underline challenge country faces in addressing Islamic threat

For 125 days, the authorities in Belgium had failed to find Salah Abdeslam, the most wanted man in Europe, though they strongly believed he was holed up in or near the insular immigrant section of Brussels where he had grown up.

They raided dozens of homes in the neighbourhood, known as Molenbeek, as they hunted down Abdeslam, one of the 10 men suspected of carrying out the November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris and the only one still alive. They rounded up his friends and fellow drug dealers and thieves, and interrogated family members.

They thought one night that they might have him cornered, but were paralysed by a law prohibiting night-time raids. When they moved in the next morning, he was nowhere to be seen. They deployed a drone to help in the hunt. Clues to Abdeslam’s continued presence, including his fingerprints, started to seem more mocking than tantalising.

Then, last week, the police got at least two breaks – one a result of efforts to monitor Abdeslam’s mobile phone use, the other possibly through shoe-leather surveillance – that allowed them to bring the manhunt to a close. In the end, Abdeslam was captured coming out of a building only 100 metres from where the police believe he had hidden immediately after fleeing Paris four months ago and barely a 10-minute walk from his mother’s house, raising further questions about the well-documented shortcomings of Belgium’s counterterrorism efforts.


Yet the case, and Tuesday’s terror attacks in the city, have also brought to life the extreme challenge this country faces in addressing the threat from Islamists living in the heart of the European Union’s capital city, as well as the problems that security officials face in penetrating Muslim cultures imported wholesale into western societies. And it has left some unresolved mysteries in its wake, not least whether Abdeslam was a frightened young man who got in over his head or a determined terrorist who continued to plot further assaults up until he was captured.

Abdeslam (26), handled logistics for the Paris attackers. He was the fixer, renting cars, finding apartments, picking people up and dropping them off. Like his brother Ibrahim – who was among the attackers and blew himself up in a Paris cafe – he was supposed to die on November 13th. Instead, Salah Abdeslam, who told the police he wanted to blow himself up at to the national soccer stadium north of Paris, lost his nerve and, according to French investigators, made a panicked call to friends in Brussels asking to be picked up and brought home in the hours after the attack, before the authorities learned his identity.

Working-class district

The neighbourhood he returned to, Molenbeek, is a working-class district, where mosques outnumber churches, cafes specialise in scalding hot tea vibrant with fresh mint and many women wear hijab. Abdeslam’s Molenbeek was an even more insular sub-community, made up of small-time drug dealers and petty criminals, unemployed young men with few prospects.

It was this Molenbeek that sustained him before and after the attacks. Much of Abdeslam's life was spent within a mile of his mother's house. A half-hour walk away was the bar he and Ibrahim ran until it was closed two weeks before the attacks. It was a place where young men traded in illegal drugs, drank tea and watched extremist videos of fighting in Syria.

Many of the first- and second-generation immigrants in Molenbeek, especially those living near a canal that separates the district from wealthier central Brussels, have roots, like the Abdeslam family, in Morocco. One of the busiest shops in the area has pay telephone booths for long-distance calls and computers because some Molenbeek residents cannot afford international calling plans or internet service.

It can seem at times as if a community has migrated to Belgium with its customs, its loyalties and its language intact, putting a premium on family ties and fostering an insularity that made finding Abdeslam that much harder. Johan Leman, an anthropologist who works in Molenbeek, said the atmosphere resembled the culture of omerta, the code of silence followed by Mafia members and others in Sicily and southern Italy.

Upon his return from Paris, the authorities said, Abdeslam went underground, hidden by friends and family, staying mostly in the area but moving around and relying on others to bring him food. “It was a pre-existing network that came together to do small time trafficking or other things and it was at least partly used to help in Salah Abdeslam’s flight,” Frédéric Van Leeuw, Belgium’s federal prosecutor, said on Belgian television on Saturday.

But Abdeslam also retained close links while in hiding to other men who appear to have been involved in planning the Paris attacks and possibly trained by Islamic State in Syria. That association suggests that Abdeslam may not have given up on engaging in further terrorist activities, and that the militants in Belgium had not yet dismissed him as unwilling to give his life for their cause.

Turning point

The turning point in the case came last week when the police raided an apartment about 10km from Molenbeek, seeking clues but believing it to be empty. Instead, they were met with gunfire. They killed the gunman,

Mohamed Belkaid

, a 35-year-old Algerian who had been linked to the Paris plot. But two men escaped. And when the police entered the apartment, they found large quantities of ammunition, an Islamic State flag – and Abdeslam’s fingerprints.

"There was no electricity, no water, no gas, he was living in catastrophically unhygienic conditions," said Ahmed El Khannouss, deputy mayor of Molenbeek. Convinced that Abdeslam had slipped away, the authorities intensified their hunt. At around the same time, Abdeslam appears to have made a big mistake, using a mobile phone known to the authorities that he had not used for some time, said Pieter Van Oestaeyen, an expert on extremist networks in Belgium.

“It was basically because Salah Abdeslam activated his cellphone and the number was known to the police and then they knew his location geographically,” Van Oestaeyen said.

On Thursday, Ibrahim Abdeslam was buried in an unmarked grave in an ecumenical cemetery in Brussels, nearly 18 weeks after his death. The short funeral service took place under heavy surveillance, and the 20 men who attended it were identified and most likely being watched by the authorities from then on if they were not already, neighbours said.

Among the attendees was Abid Aberkan, whom El Khannouss said was a cousin of the Abdeslam brothers. It was to a Molenbeek apartment used by Aberkan's family that Abdeslam went at some point after the raid. And on Friday, the police targeted that apartment in a raid that ended when Abdeslam sprinted into the street from the doorway, wearing a hoodie; he was shot in the leg by the police and taken into custody.

What finally gave Abdeslam away, a spokesman for the Paris prosecutor’s office said, was a combination of “telephony and surveillance”.

Ideologically committed

Abdeslam began talking to interrogators over the weekend, and


is seeking his extradition. It remains unclear how ideologically committed he was to Islamic State, also known as Isis. His role went unmentioned in the organisation’s social media propaganda after the Paris attacks. There is no evidence that he tried to get to Syria. El Khannouss, the Molenbeek deputy mayor, described him as someone “trying to fill shoes that were too big for him”.

Yet up until his capture, Abdeslam appears to have been among more hardened jihadis. Belkaid, the Algerian killed in the gunfight with the police, is suspected of wiring money to help finance the Paris plot. As the police were capturing Abdeslam on Friday, they were arresting a man whose real name they do know yet know, but since they also found false papers during the raid in the name of Amine Choukri and another set in the name of Monir Ahmed Alaaj, it is possible that he was using one or both of those names.

Abdeslam, who travelled to Budapest twice last autumn before the Paris attacks to pick up several men at a time when tens of thousands of undocumented migrants were streaming through Europe each week, was stopped by the police in October in Germany with a man travelling under the name Amine Choukri.

On Monday, the Belgian authorities identified another man they suspect of being an accomplice of Abdeslam's: Najim Laachraoui (24), a Belgian citizen who went to Syria in February 2013. Laachraoui, using the name Soufiane Kayal, was one of two men – Belkaid was the other – with fake Belgian identity cards who were with Abdeslam on September 9th as they passed through a checkpoint between Hungary and Austria.

In Molenbeek’s tea houses, it is hard to get anyone to say much about Abdeslam or his capture. Men walk outside rather than speak to outsiders. That does make them jihad supporters, said Leman, the anthropologist. “Even if they disapprove of what someone did in family,” he said, “they feel it should be dealt with internally.”

New York Times