Authorities will press Salah Abdeslam for information on imminent threats to Europe -- and information about the Islamic State plots attacks far from its Syrian headquarters.
The United States and its allies have had enormous success killing terrorists. The capture of a ringleader of last year’s deadly attacks in Paris offers huge opportunities — but also raises thorny questions for authorities in both France and Belgium.
On Friday, four months after he allegedly helped coordinate a series of terrorist strikes that killed 130 people in Paris, Belgian police donning balaclavas captured Salah Abdeslam in the Molenbeek district of Brussels. The 26-year-old French national had been on the run since the night of the November attacks, when is he believed to have driven three of his accomplices to the Bataclan theater in Paris. There, the Islamic State-affiliated terrorists killed 89 people before either detonating themselves or being shot and killed by police.
Abdeslam’s older brother Brahim blew himself up near a café on Boulevard Voltaire the night of the Paris attacks. Abdeslam, who authorities believe may have backed out of his own plan to detonate himself that night, fled to Brussels, and law enforcement authorities made him Europe’s most wanted man. His successful arrest on Friday marks a potential turning point in the fight against the Islamic State’s networks abroad because intelligence operatives from at least two countries will have the chance to interrogate him at length about how the terrorist group’s external branches operate far from the group’s capital in Raqqa, Syria.
Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer who is now director of special projects at the Soufan Group in New York, said the questioning will likely be carried out by both Belgian and French authorities. It is not immediately clear whether Abdeslam will ultimately be tried or detained in France or in Belgium, although Hollande said Friday he expects the terrorist suspect to be extradited as soon as possible. Still, the priority in the immediate aftermath of his arrest, Skinner said, will be finding out what the Islamic State has planned next.
“As soon as he’s able to talk they’re going to be pinning him with imminent threat questions, like does he have any knowledge of any threat against anything,” he told Foreign Policy in a phone call Friday. “They’re going to try to unravel this, and it has to be done pretty quickly.”
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an FP contributor, said Belgian authorities would also focus on trying to break down the anatomy of the Islamic State’s branches abroad. Questions they’ll want to ask, Gartenstein-Ross said, would include how how decisions to attack are made; who gives the orders; what the facilitation routes into Europe are; how the terrorists avoid surveillance; how many interlocking cells of terrorists there are in Europe; and what logistic networks are in place to support operatives outside of Iraq and Syria.
“It could potentially give a lot more information to authorities about the contour’s of the Islamic State’s contours of external operations network, especially the one that makes use of foreign fighters,” he said.
Skinner said the downside to Abdeslam’s dramatic capture, which took place in a busy Brussels suburb, is that other members of the militant’s cell would have immediately heard about it and will now “try to scatter or shut down.” But with the right interrogator, Skinner said, Abdeslam could ultimately reveal more information than he’s even aware that he possesses. Like Gartenstein-Ross, Skinner believes authorities will want to learn more about how the Islamic State plans for, and carries out, terror strikes abroad.
“After imminent threats the second question will be what the pipeline is that is getting people from Syria to there, who are the smugglers, and what routes they are using,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to overstate how important it is to get that because they have some kind of pipeline to get in and out.”
French and Belgian authorities will undoubtedly also want to use any information he has to carry out further raids and make more arrests. On Friday, French President Francois Hollande said that “until we have arrested all those who took part, contributed to or financed that terrorist network that committed the abominable attacks, the war acts of 13 November, our fight will not be over until then.”
Abdeslam was shot in the leg during Friday’s raid, but the seriousness of his injuries has not yet been made public. Skinner said that medical laws vary, but that in the United States so long as no one is not interfering with medical treatment, there is no reason to delay the interrogation. “If he’s on painkillers then actually that’s probably a pretty good time,” he said. “He’d be relaxed, and you want the guy talking.”
Friday’s raid followed another that took place on Tuesday in Belgium, when authorities killed Algerian Mohamed Belkaïd, 35, after he fired at them during a police operation in the Forest neighborhood. Two suspects reportedly fled the scene of that raid, and authorities found a Kalashnikov, a book on Salafism and an Islamic State flag next to Belkaid’s body inside the apartment. On Friday, French and Belgian officials also confirmed that they found Abdeslam’s fingerprints inside of the same apartment. At least two other men were also reportedly arrested during the raid.
Although the arrest is a major success for Belgium, the four-month lag time between the Paris attacks and Abdeslam’s capture raises questions of why it took so long to track him down. Gartenstein-Ross said it undoubtedly indicates “the limitations of European intelligence.”
“The fact that Abdeslam was able to escape to an urban area and hide in an urban area for an extended period while he was the most wanted man in Europe is striking,” he told FP.
Skinner, though, noted that a disciplined terrorist willing to abide by strict security protocols — and supported by a network of trusted couriers — could potentially hide from authorities indefinitely. Osama bin Laden, for example, managed to successfully hide from American forces for many years before he was tracked and killed inside his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011.
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