Friday 17 November 2017

'I changed suicide bomb plan' says Abdeslam

The biggest breakthrough in the investigation of the Paris attacks is not just the tracking down of Salah Abdeslam, but the fact that he was taken alive, writes David Wilcox

Abdeslam brought into custody by armed officers after they raided an apartment in the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels on Friday
Abdeslam brought into custody by armed officers after they raided an apartment in the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels on Friday
The carnage outside Le Carillion in Paris on November 13
Abdeslam (left in picture) was caught on CCTV at a petrol station while fleeing back to Belgium
Salah Abdeslam. Photo: Police Nationale/PA Wire

David Wilcox

Salah Abdeslam, the key suspect in Paris terror attacks, is "cooperating" with Belgian police after his arrest on Friday, his lawyers said, raising hopes that Europe's most deadly terror network could be unravelling.

With the 26-year-old French-Moroccan apparently prepared to talk, Interpol issued an advisory to Britain and other member states to be extra vigilant at border controls as accomplices seek to flee Europe before being unmasked.

Last night a French prosecutor said that Abdeslam has admitted he wanted to blow himself up but then changed his mind.

Abdeslam has been charged with terrorism offences in Belgium a day after he was seized in a dramatic raid. He will fight extradition to France but has been co-operating with police, his lawyer says.

Abdeslam, 26, fled from Paris after the terror attacks in November, which killed 130 people, including 89 who were attending a rock concert at the Bataclan theatre. The so-called Islamic State (Isil) group said it was behind the bombings and shootings.

Abdeslam is charged with participation in terrorist murder and the activities of a terrorist group, Belgium's federal prosecutor's office said.

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins told a news conference: "Salah Abdeslam today during questioning by Belgian investigators affirmed that, and I quote, 'he wanted to blow himself up at the Stade de France and that he had backed down'."

Abdeslam's assertions should be treated with caution, he added.

The 26-year-old French national, born in Belgium, is in custody following his arrest on Friday after four months on the run.

Investigators hope Abdeslam, who was shot in the leg during his arrest, will reveal more information about the Isil network behind the Paris attacks, its financing and plans.They believe he helped with logistics, including renting rooms and driving suicide bombers to the Stade de France.

Abdeslam is believed to have fled shortly after the attacks, returning to the Molenbeek district of Brussels. He was arrested in an apartment about 500m from his family home. His brother, Brahim, was one of the Paris attackers, who blew himself up.

Abdeslam was caught with a suspected accomplice, Monir Ahmed Alaaj, alias Amine Choukry. Alaaj, has also been charged with participation in terrorist murder and the activities of a terrorist group, the Belgian prosecutors say.

Prosecutors said Alaaj had travelled with Abdeslam to Germany last October, where his fingerprints were taken during an identity check. A false Syrian passport in Alaaj's name and Belgian identity papers under an alias were found in a flat in the district of Forest raided on Tuesday.

Friday's raid also saw three members of a family detained. They include Abid Aberkan, described as a friend of Abdeslam, who has been charged with participation in the activities of a terrorist organisation and harbouring criminals.

Another family member, identified as Djemila M, has been charged with harbouring criminals, but is not in custody, the prosecutor's office says.

Abid Aberkan's mother, Sihane, has been freed and faces no charges.

Given his apparently key role in providing logistics for the Paris commandos, Abdeslam could prove to be a mine of information. Bernard Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, described his arrest as a "major blow" to Isil in Europe.

"Anyone linked to Abdeslam will be concerned that their location could be revealed and attempt to run to try and avoid detection," said Jurgen Stock, Interpol secretary general. "It is now vital that countries continue to cooperate and make thorough checks against the information available to them to avoid suspects slipping through the net."

In particular, Interpol advised to look out for false passports, as many of the Paris November 13 attackers and accomplices travelled on doctored or stolen documents.

There are two known fugitives at large. Mohamed Abrini, 30, was filmed with Abdeslam on November 11 at a filling station on a motorway linking Paris and Brussels. A second suspect used false papers in the name of Soufiane Kayal at the border between Austria and Hungary on September 9 when he was travelling with Abdeslam.

Images of Abdeslam's arrest seen by Belgian site VTM suggest that at the time of his arrest, he was trying to hide a document that may have contained contacts.

After receiving treatment in hospital for a wounded leg, Abdeslam appeared before an investigating magistrate at Brussel's judicial police headquarters where he was formally charged over the November atrocities. France, which has issued a European warrant for Abdeslam's arrest, has requested he be extradited "as quickly as possible" - a process that Charles Michel, the Belgian prime minister, said could take two weeks.

Abdeslam's lawyer, Sven Mary, said he would fight extradition to France, but that his client was cooperating and had admitted to being in Paris that night.

More details have meanwhile emerged about an Algerian national, Mohamed Belkaid, shot dead in Tuesday's raid. It has emerged that the Algerian gunman newly linked to the November 13 attacks in Paris joined the Isil group in 2014 and told the extremists he wanted to die as a suicide bomber, bypassing the choice to be a fighter. He was instead shot dead by a police sniper in the raid that led authorities to Europe's most wanted fugitive.

Previously unknown to authorities, Mohamed Belkaid died last Tuesday in the apartment, firing on the police while his accomplices fled. But Abdeslam, the fugitive from the November 13 attacks, had left behind a fingerprint.

Belkaid's Kalashnikov was found near his body, along with an Isil flag and a book on Salafism, an conservative strain of Islam.

Elsewhere in the apartment, 11 Kalashnikov loaders and a large quantity of ammunition were found, the Belgian prosecutor said.

According to documents given to the Associated Press by the Syrian opposition news site Zaman al-Wasl, Belkaid told the extremists he had travelled throughout Europe - including to Spain, Germany and France - and listed his residence as Sweden.

He provided a passport to the group and a phone number for a close relative, which on Friday rang as a non-functioning line.

In the document, he said he had no experience as a jihadi and no one to vouch for him as he crossed the border on April 19, 2014.

Isil prizes the growth of its networks abroad and having a sponsor is seen as both a sign of credibility and a way to measure the extent of its reach. Belkaid listed his work as a candy maker.

German intelligence authorities say they also have a copy of some of the same documents as the Syrian opposition site and believe them to be authentic.

Belkaid's 'application' to Isil and his subsequent ties to the November 13 attackers, many of whom met and trained together in Syria, highlights the difficulty in uncovering the extent of the plot that led to 130 deaths in Paris.

In a little over two years, Belkaid was transformed from an aspiring suicide bomber into a Kalashnikov-toting gunman linked to a cell that carried out the deadliest attack in France since the Second World War.

On Friday, prosecutors said Belkaid was "most probably" an accomplice of Abdeslam and used a fake Belgian ID card in the name of Samir Bouzid.

A man using that ID was one of two men seen with Abdeslam in a rental car on the Hungarian-Austrian border in September.

The same fake ID was used on November 17 to transfer €750 to the cousin of Abdelhamid Abbaoud, the suspected ringleader.

Both Hasna Ait Boulahcen and Abbaoud died in a police siege of the apartment that had been paid for by that transfer, which was destroyed by a suicide attacker holed up with the two.


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