Paris attacks: Salah Abdeslam's luck runs out

Salah Abdeslam captured by police
Image caption Abdeslam was finally arrested at 16:40 on Friday afternoon in the Molenbeek area of Brussels

The capture of Europe's most wanted man alive is an immense boost for the Franco-Belgian investigation team who have been on the trail of Salah Abdeslam for months.

Although he was shot during his dramatic arrest on a street in Molenbeek, his wounds are not serious and police will be desperate to interrogate the only key suspect caught since the 13 November gun and bomb attacks.

Senior Belgian ministers were delighted the four-month manhunt was over and they will hope a decisive blow has been dealt to so-called Islamic State's network of hideouts and sleeper cells in Belgium.

But many questions remain unanswered: who masterminded the Paris attacks, who is still at large and are there more groups and more attacks planned? France wants Abdeslam extradited immediately, because, in the words of President Francois Hollande, "our fight will not be over" until everyone involved is caught.

The alert level in both countries remains very high.

Public enemy

Until Tuesday, the trail for Abdeslam appeared to have gone cold and Abdeslam was widely thought to have escaped to an area of Syria held by so-called Islamic State.

But it is now clear that the man who fled to Belgium hours after the co-ordinated atrocities on a concert hall, restaurant bars and a stadium had never gone away. The Brussels-born Islamist from Molenbeek was tracked down to a basement hideout in the same suburb, a mile from the city centre.

For the man dubbed Belgium's public enemy number one, luck had finally run out.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Salah Abdeslam (L foreground) was driven back to Belgium hours after the raids, and spotted on CCTV at a French petrol station

A convicted robber who could not hold down a job with the Brussels transport company, Abdeslam drifted into militant Islam, like his brother Brahim. While running a bar in Molenbeek, the pair came to the attention of police as much for drugs as for links to Islamists.

Salah Abdeslam - from petty crook to Islamist

  • Born 15 September 1989 in Brussels
  • In his teens, he and two brothers get into trouble with police for drug trafficking
  • Transport technician for STIB from 2009-11 but fired for poor timekeeping
  • Jailed briefly for burglary in 2010 with Abdelhamid Abbaoud, a mastermind in the Paris attacks who went to the same Molenbeek school
  • In 2013 managed "les Beguines" bar in Molenbeek with brother Brahim; the bar was shut down in 2015
  • Briefly detained by Dutch police in February 2015, fined €70 (£49) for possession of cannabis
  • Both brothers placed on police list in 2015 for links to Islamist fighters in Syria
Image copyright Reuters

In the months he has been on the run, Belgian police have revealed to what extent he was involved in the planning of the Paris attacks and the individuals with whom he came into contact.

Abdeslam made a series of trips spanning Europe in the weeks leading up to the attacks and he has been at the centre of a secretive web of hideouts and secretive Islamists.

Greece, Austria and Germany

In early August 2015, Salah Abdeslam arrived on a ferry in the Greek port of Patras from Italy with another man, Ahmed Dahmani, who was arrested in Turkey a short time after the November attacks.

In September, he is believed to have driven a rental car twice to the Hungarian capital, Budapest, and was stopped by police on the border with Austria with two other men. One was an Algerian, Mohamed Belkaid, the other was Soufiane Kayal, whose real name remains unknown.

Then, in early October, Abdeslam travelled to Germany and was stopped in the south-western town of Ulm while he was with a man with the fake Syrian name Monir Ahmed Alaaj.

These cross-Europe trips are important because many of these figures have just re-emerged and not all of them are in custody.

Image copyright Belgian police
Image caption Abdeslam was stopped while travelling across Europe with Belkaid (R) and Soufiane Kayal last September
Image copyright EPA
Image caption Belkaid was killed in Tuesday's operation but Abdeslam and another suspect managed to escape

Belkaid, who was with Abdeslam on the Austrian border, was also with him when police raided a flat in the south-west Brussels suburb of Forest on 15 March. While Belkaid was shot dead, Abdeslam and another man escaped prompting a major manhunt.

Monir Ahmed Alaaj, fingerprinted by police in Ulm, was with Abdeslam when they were caught by police in Molenbeek on Friday. Alaaj also went by the name of Amin Choukri and a fake Belgian ID card in that name was found in the flat in Forest. His true identity is still unknown.

Belgian hideouts

Whoever he is, prosecutors have revealed that Choukri's fingerprints were found in one of the three hideouts used by several of the Paris attackers, at Auvelais south of Brussels.

That flat was rented by Soufiane Kayal, who was with Abdeslam in Hungary weeks earlier and whose whereabouts are unknown.

Belgian police will have their work cut out in chasing down the remaining militants and there will be concern that he was so easily able to move around Brussels, from one safe house to the next, apparently with plenty of support.

French investigators will hope to piece together Abdeslam's role in the attacks themselves. Did he drive the Stade de France bombers to their target and, unlike his brother who blew himself up, did he pull out of an attack?

For a man apparently at the heart of a deadly, co-ordinated plot, Salah Abdeslam's escape back to Belgium and four months in hiding seem somehow pathetic.