A wave of relief swept through Brussels — and the Belgian security services — when Salah Abdeslam was detained Friday. France will finally be able to hold to account one man allegedly involved in the Paris attacks in November.
But in reality, Abdeslam’s arrest is a footnote in the larger battle against terrorism in Europe.
Not that it’s insignificant. A suspect who had been on the run after the worst terror attack in Europe in the modern era is now behind bars. According to Belgian officials, he may have been planning fresh attacks. If he talks (and his attorney says he is cooperating), he could provide intelligence on ISIS’ methods and resources in Europe.
“It is of the utmost importance that Abdeslam was captured alive, because we can now try to reconstruct the entire scenario,” Belgian State Security Chief Jaak Raes told Belgian network VTM on Sunday.
Abdeslam allegedly was one of at least 10 men directly involved in the Paris terror attacks. Most had entered Europe on fake documents after training in Syria. Several, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud and Samy Amimour, were well-known to the French authorities. But none was known to be back in France on November 13.
Question 1: How many others might have slipped into Europe under the radar?
Several hundred Europeans who have joined ISIS and other militant jihadist outfits are thought to have returned home. French terror expert Jean-Charles Brisard wrote in December’s Sentinel, published by the Combating Terrorism Center, that 600 French citizens “are believed to be fighting alongside terrorist organizations abroad and 250 are believed to have returned” to France.
Raes told VTM: “We know that a number of people are possibly on their way to Western Europe, with the intention of conducting an attack. … We need to stay very vigilant about that.”
Similar warnings have come from British and French officials. They see the Paris attacks as the opening salvo in an evolving terrorism campaign. UK officials estimate that about half the 800 British residents thought to have gone to Syria and Iraq to join militant groups have returned home.
Paris demonstrated that ISIS operatives in Europe are able to finance extensive travel, “safe houses,” acquire weapons and build workable suicide vests using the volatile high-explosive TATP. Abdeslam is said to have spent the best part of three months last year traveling around Europe in rental cars, allegedly meeting others involved in the Paris plot. And a woman who met Abaaoud immediately after the Paris attacks said he had boasted of some 90 ISIS operatives already in Europe.
ISIS is thought to have obtained hundreds and maybe more blank Syrian passports as it captured government offices. Many of those who have come to Europe have used high-quality forged documents. Last month, Eric Van der Sijpt, spokesman for Belgium’s federal prosecutor, said the suspects in the Paris attacks “were known to travel through Europe using false identity cards.”