25th Mar 2018

Abdeslam's arrest raises terror fears

  • Police in Brussels. Belgium maintained a level-three alert, the second highest (Photo: Reuters)

The arrest of Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam in Brussels on Friday (18 March) has raised new concerns about the extent and readiness to act of jihadist networks in Europe.

Belgium has maintained a level-three alert, the second highest, and France has reinforced checks at its border with Belgium.

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"We fear that Abdeslam's arrest activates other terrorists cells," Belgian interior minister Jan Jambon told Bel RTL radio on Monday morning.

"The network remains active in Europe," he said, adding that there were more people involved in the network than had been thought previously.

Jambon also confirmed suspicions that Abdeslam and accomplices may have been preparing an attack in Brussels when police found their hideout in Forest, a Brussels neighbourhood, last Tuesday.

Heavy weapons and ammunition were found in the apartment where one man was killed after shooting at the police with an assault rifle. Two people escaped from the police and Abdeslam's fingerprints were found on a glass.

"When you have weapons and terrorists at the same place, that means an attack was being prepared," Jambon said.

On Sunday, his foreign minister Didier Reynerds said terrorists had been "ready to do something again in Brussels".

Mohamed Belkaid, the man killed in the Forest assault, is thought to have given logistical support to the militants who killed 130 people in Paris on 13 November.

Abdeslam, who admitted after his arrest that he was in Paris that night, has been charged with "terrorist killings and participating in the activities of a terrorist group" and put in a high-security prison in Bruges.

He is suspected of having driven a car that transported some of the attackers. It is also believed that he was supposed to kill himself during the attacks, but failed to detonate his explosive belt.

According to French prosecutor Francois Molins, Abdeslam told investigators that he planned to commit a suicide bombing near the Stade de France, where three other terrorists blew themselves up, killing one person.

European warrant

This admission has not yet been confirmed by police, but his testimony could be crucial to understand how jihadist networks function in Europe.

Abdeslam "is worth millions", his lawyer Sven Mary told Belgian public broadcaster RTBF.

“He collaborates, he communicates, he doesn't keep his right to silence,” he said.

Abdeslam, a French national who grew in Belgium, "participated in the arrival of a number of terrorists in Europe", prosecutor Molins told a press conference on Saturday.

According to Molins, the alleged terrorist rented cars last year to go to Italy, Greece, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Netherlands and France.

He is suspected to have travelled in these countries to recruit terrorists.

He was checked in September at the Hungary-Austria border with two men who are thought to have participated in the organisation of the Paris attacks. One of them is thought to be Mohamed Belkaid, killed last week in Forest.

The manhunt that led to Abdeslam's arrest in Molenbeek in Brussels was operated by Belgian police together with French police.

France has asked for Abdeslam to be handed over by Belgium. This will be done under the European arrest warrant, a fast-track extradition procedure between EU member states.

Abdeslam's lawyer said he would oppose extradition, but he is unlikely to be successful under the EU warrant system. Belgian judges will examine France's request and the suspect's appeals, but he should be sent to France within a maximum of 90 days.

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