Police were preparing to question Salah Abdeslam, the prime suspect in the November terrorist attacks on Paris, after the 26-year-old was shot in the leg and arrested in a police raid in Brussels, after four months on the run as Europe’s most wanted man.
“We got him,” the Belgian secretary of state for asylum and migration tweeted after armed police units carried out a series of raids on buildings in the Molenbeek area of Brussels, where Abdeslam grew up.
Despite one of Europe’s biggest manhunts following the Paris attacks that killed 130 people, the fugitive had returned to his home turf in Molenbeek, where his parents still live in a well-kept townhouse a stone’s throw from the mayor’s office. He managed to stay hidden in the area, which is viewed by police as a centre of recruitment and planning for jihadi terrorism.
Abdeslam was caught alive at about 6pm in a vast but relatively short security operation in Molenbeek, just over an hour after heavy armed police squads descended on several addresses at once. Armed officers in riot gear could be heard shouting “Come out with your hands up” in front of one building, before grenades appeared to be used and gunfire was heard.
Three suspects were detained in total, according to the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, who held a hastily arranged joint press conference with the French president, François Hollande. The two leaders had left an EU summit on the other side of the city, where Europe’s migration crisis was being discussed. “It’s a very important result in the battle for democracy, for the values that we want to embody against this abominable form of obscurantism.”
Hollande said Abdeslam would be quickly extradited to France, adding that the investigation was ongoing because the network was “very large in Belgium, France and other European countries”. He added: “We know there are links which always lead us to Syria, where the Daesh [Isis] extremists planned these attacks.”
French media reported that Abdeslam had attempted to flee a building on foot and was shot below his knee. He was taken to hospital for treatment. French TV footage, which had not been officially authenticated, showed a man in a white hooded top and cap, apparently with an injured leg, being bundled into a police car.
Georges Fenech, head of a French parliamentary inquiry commission into theParis attacks, said the arrest was a major step. He said it crucially meant that a court case could now go ahead against one of the Paris attackers, while the others had been killed or blown themselves up on the night of the attacks.
But Abdeslam’s arrest was also clearly far from the end for the investigation – many more people are being sought and the fact that he remained hidden for so long in Brussels shows the strength of the network there. Investigators will now have to determine Abdeslam’s role in the coordinated assaults that saw suicide bombers blow themselves up near the national stadium, gunmen open fire on bars and restaurants, and gunmen open fire with Kalashnikovs at a rock gig at the Bataclan concert hall.
Abdeslam, a French national of Moroccan background who grew up in Belgium, is a former petty criminal who once ran a bar in Molenbeek with his brother, Brahim, who also took part in the attacks. Police believe Abdeslam played a key role in the logistics of the Paris attacks. He rented two cars involved in the attacks under his real name as well as booking hotel rooms used by the attackers. He is believed to have escorted by car the three suicide bombers who blew themselves up at the Stade de France.
But mystery surrounds his seemingly unplanned and panicked flight from Parisafter the attacks. Many of the other attackers killed themselves by blowing themselves up – including his brother, whose defective bomb vest went off at a cafe on Boulevard Voltaire killing only him – or were killed by police. But Abdeslam instead called some of his childhood friends to drive from Brussels to collect him.
Investigators are considering whether he planned to carry out his own suicide attack in the 18th arrondissement of the French capital, and perhaps backed out or failed for technical reasons. The Islamic State communique claiming responsibility for the attacks referred to an attack in the 18th arrondissement that never happened.
Instead, while the Bataclan attacks were under way, Abdeslam bought a phone and sim card in northern Paris from a saleswoman who later said he seemed drugged. He then called two friends in Brussels and asked them to drive to get him saying he was “in the shit”. He then went to a southern suburb in Paris and is believed to have dumped an explosive vest on a pile of rubbish.
As his friends drove him back to Belgium the car was briefly stopped at the French-Belgian border and Abdeslam’s ID was checked, but he was allowed to continue through to Belgium and had been on the run ever since. He reportedly stayed holed up in a flat in the Schaerbeek district, in north Brussels, for three weeks after the Paris attacks.
Friday’s police operation in Molenbeek was launched just as Belgian prosecutors confirmed that Abdeslam’s fingerprints had been found at a flat that was raided in the Forest area of Brussels on Tuesday.
When police arrived to search the flat on Tuesday, they were met with gunfire from automatic weapons from behind the door. A police sniper shot one of the gunmen through a window. He was Mohamed Belkaïd, a 35-year-old Algerian living illegally in Belgium and known to police for a theft case in 2014. “Next to his body was a Kalashnikov, a book on Salafism and an Islamic State flag,” according to Thierry Werts, of the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office.
The Belgian prosecutor’s office later said Belkaïd was “more than likely” one of the key logistics operatives behind the Paris attacks, who had been sought by police under the false name of Samir Bouzid. A man using the name Samir Bouzid had received the last text message sent by three of the Paris attackers before they staged a bloody gun attack on a rock gig at the Paris Bataclan concert hall on 13 November. The message said, “We’ve left, we’re on the way.”