- France seeks transfer of Abdeslam after Brussels raid
- Suspect planned to blow himself up at stadium, prosecutor says
France and Belgium warned citizens they risk further terrorist atrocities even after a four-month manhunt ended in the dramatic capture of suspected Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam.
“We are totally convinced that the fight is not over, the fight for security, the fight against the various forms of extremism, the fight against terrorism,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said on Saturday, a day after special forces dragged Abdeslam out of a house in the Molenbeek district of Brussels. The nation kept its terror threat unchanged at Level 3, the second-highest grade.
Abdeslam, believed to be the sole surviving participant of the November massacre that left 130 people dead, was dubbed Europe’s most wanted man after going to ground in the days after the Paris assault. He played a key role in planning the three-pronged attack, and has told authorities that he was due to blow himself up during it before changing his mind, according to the Paris prosecutor.
France is seeking to transfer Abdeslam, 26, from Belgium -- a move opposed by the terror suspect’s lawyer. Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said in a press conference that legal maneuvers could only delay the handover by three months at the most.
Abdeslam should be in Paris “in the coming weeks,” Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told BFM TV earlier.
The suspect’s lawyer, Sven Mary said that while his client is cooperating with Belgian officials, he will fight extradition.
“There is, first, a case in Belgium that needs to be dealt with,” Mary said, after meetings with an investigating judge. Abdeslam “has to explain himself, and his extradition could be suspended while waiting for development of the investigation in Belgium.”
From the Archive:
After last year's Paris attacks our reporters traveled to the Belgian town of Molenbeek, where many of the suspects were based, to find out what it was really like.
Belgian and European arrest warrants were issued against Abdeslam, Mary told reporters. A Brussels court will decide on March 23 whether to prolong the Belgian warrant, he said. A decision on the European warrant, which could pave the way for extradition, will be made within 15 days, he said.
Abdeslam, who is being detained in a high-security prison in the city of Bruges, has acknowledged he was in Paris at the time of the November attacks, Mary said.
Three teams of men linked to Islamic State blew themselves up outside a stadium, fired at restaurant and cafe patrons, and shot members of the audience at the Bataclan concert hall on Nov. 13.
Abdeslam said he was supposed to blow himself up at the Stade de France arena, according to Molins. Starting in July, Abdeslam also made at least four car trips to the Balkans, via both Italy and Hungary, presumably to bring militants to Belgium and France, Molins said. He rented safe houses used to prepare for the attacks, and bought triggers and chemicals used to make explosive belts, the prosecutor said.
Abdeslam was accused of participation in a terrorist assassination and of participation in the activities of a terrorist organization, according to a statement from prosecutors.
‘Extremely High’ Risk
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the terror threat remains “extremely high” despite a series of arrests since the Paris attacks and “intense” operations by police to dismantle networks used for recruitment. The nation will further increase the number of police who are armed to help fight terrorism, he said.
Global police agency Interpol urged extra vigilance at border controls to its 190 member countries, saying the capture may encourage any accomplices to attempt to flee Europe, or elsewhere.
Abdeslam and an accomplice who goes by the name of Amine Choukri were detained during a police raid in the Rue des Quatre Vents in Molenbeek, according to the federal prosecutor’s office. The two men, who weren’t carrying weapons, sustained minor injuries during the assault and both were taken to the hospital before being handed over to police early on Saturday, Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur said on his Twitter account.
Molins declined to say how Abdeslam was tracked down, saying it’s up to the Belgian authorities. Cooperation between French and Belgian police forces was “exemplary,” he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama was briefed on the raid by his counter-terrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, and spoke by telephone with Michel and French President Francois Hollande to congratulate them on the capture, according to the White House.
Choukri, who also goes by the name of Monir Ahmed Alaaj, was first spotted with Abdeslam during a police check in the German city of Ulm on Oct. 3, the prosecutor’s office said. Choukri’s fingerprints were matched with those found in a terrorist safe house in the Belgian town of Auvelais, near Charleroi, in late November and again in another Brussels residence that was searched earlier this week, where investigators also uncovered false identity documents of Syrian national Alaaj and Belgian national Choukri.
Choukri and a man identified as Abid A., suspected of helping to hide Abdeslam, were also formally issued with terror-related arrest warrants, according to prosecutors. Two others involved in Friday’s raids were released, one without any charges.
Belgian federal prosecutors identified a suspect killed in the raid in the Brussels borough of Forest on March 15 as Mohamed Belkaid, a 35-year-old Algerian national residing in the country illegally. Belkaid was “most probably” the same suspect that police said in December was using a fake Belgian identity card with the name of Samir Bouzid, the prosecutors said.
A man using the false identity of Bouzid accompanied Abdeslam on a trip to Hungary in September, according to the prosecutors. The fake ID card also was used four days after the Paris attacks in a money transfer from a Western Union office in Brussels to Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the niece of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the prosecutors office said. Abaaoud, whom investigators believe to be the mastermind of the Paris attacks, and Boulahcen both died in the French police raid in Saint-Denis on Nov. 18.
Belkaid’s body was found with a Kalashnikov rifle next to it, with ammunition magazines and shell casings in the apartment. An Islamic State flag and book about radical Islam were found in the residence, the prosecutors said.