BRUSSELS — A man at the top of Europe’s terrorism wanted list was set Saturday to appear in a Brussels courtroom to begin answering for his role in November’s attacks in Paris, hours after he was captured in an apartment building in the Belgian capital.
Belgian authorities said they would move swiftly to extradite 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam to France, where he is believed to be the lone surviving direct participant in the Nov. 13 attacks that left 130 people dead on the streets of Paris. Investigators now have a rare prospect to extract crucial details from a man suspected to have played a key logistical role in a terrorist plot that stunned Europe and exposed gaping holes in the continent’s security system.
Abdeslam had eluded capture for months, repeatedly slipping out of the grasp of Belgian counterterrorism police, and the surprise success Friday afternoon was a victory for security forces in a nation that has come under heavy criticism for failing to address radicalization in its midst. Abdeslam and an accomplice were slightly injured during the raid of an apartment building in central Brussels, but were released from a hospital Saturday morning ahead of their courtroom appearance, according to senior Belgian officials.
“The fight against the terrorist threat continues,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said Saturday after a meeting of top security advisers. He said “between 300 and 400 investigators” had been working to track down the fugitive in the months since he slipped out of the sight of authorities.
But he said it could be weeks before Abdeslam is transferred to France as legal processes in Belgium unfold.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders hinted Saturday that the tipoff that led to Abdeslam’s capture may have been more luck than brilliant policing. Counterterrorism authorities had raided a house in a different part of Brussels on Tuesday, believing it was a disused safehouse for arms trafficking. “We came upon individuals we didn’t expect to find there,” Reynders said, speaking to the RTL broadcaster about a joint Franco-Belgian raid that left several police officers wounded and one man suspected of ties to the Islamic State dead.
Two people escaped from the safehouse, despite the police dragnet. Belgian prosecutors said that they had later discovered Abdeslam’s fingerprints on a glass inside the house.
The Molenbeek street where Abdeslam was captured was eerily deserted Saturday, and the gray-and-brown-brick building where he had been holed up bore no traces of the raid. A clerk at Boucherie Omar, a halal butcher shop across the street, said he was terrified that a key participant in the November attacks was found just a few hundred feet away.
“It’s a nightmare for us,” he said, declining to give his name. “He came, he went. We had no idea.”
Both Belgian and French officials said they believed that Abdeslam’s capture was a major success in Europe’s fight against homegrown terrorism, a problem that has surged with the growing reach of the Islamic State, also known as Daesh.
Abdeslam’s arrest was a “major blow to the Daesh terrorist organization in Europe,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Saturday after meeting with other security officials at the Elysee Palace in Paris.
But leaders have also said that the Belgian raids showed that even more people had been involved in the Paris attacks than they had initially believed.
Even as Belgian counterterrorism authorities were celebrating their success Saturday, others were questioning why it had taken them so long to capture a man who may have been living in their midst for quite some time.
“Either Salah Abdeslam was very clever, or the Belgian services were not. That’s more likely,” said Alain Marsaud, a French member of parliament who is a former counterterrorism prosecutor, on the Europe 1 radio station. Belgian authorities “watched this knot of terrorist vipers develop. They knew the danger,” he said.
“We have to catch all of those who allowed or facilitated this attack,” Hollande said. “There are more of those people than we thought.”
Terrorism analysts said Friday’s arrests, which netted Abdeslam and four others, could mark a turning point in an investigation that has so far failed to unearth some of the most basic details of the Paris plot, including where it was hatched and by whom.
“It’s really crucial,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, chairman of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism. “Salah Abdeslam had a role in virtually every stage of the planning and the preparation. He could be the missing link to the masterminds.”
Abdeslam, a French national who grew up in Brussels and is of Moroccan heritage, visited Paris before the killings to scout out sites, and also leased cars, rented apartments and dropped off several attackers before they struck, investigators have said.
But instead of dying with several other attackers, including his older brother, he fled the scene, possibly after shedding a suicide vest. Investigators have theorized that he lost his nerve.
The Islamic State terrorist group asserted responsibility for the assault on civilian targets across the city — including a sports stadium, restaurants and a music hall featuring a concert by an American rock band — that left at least 368 people wounded in addition to those killed.
Law enforcement authorities came close to apprehending Abdeslam in the hours after the attacks, when French police stopped a car he was riding in near the Belgian border. But the officers, not realizing he was a suspect, allowed the car to proceed.
From then on, the search for his whereabouts was focused on Belgium, where authorities were so concerned that Abdeslam was planning a follow-up assault that they shut Brussels down for several days last autumn while conducting raids.
After months in which the investigation had seemed to go cold, the net tightened in recent days. The Tuesday raid left dead a man identified by law enforcement as Mohamed Belkaid, a 35-year-old Algerian with possible Islamic State ties.
Three days later, around 4:45 p.m., police closed in on Abdeslam as he hid in an apartment block in Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood that he and others involved in the attack had called home.
Of the four others arrested, three were members of Abdeslam’s family, who had sheltered him, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office said. The fourth person, whose true identity remains under investigation but who possessed false documents in the name of Amine Choukri and Monir Ahmed al-Hajj, was wounded and transported to a hospital, the spokesman, Eric van der Sypt, told reporters in Brussels.
But even as leaders celebrated Friday’s arrest, officials acknowledged that deep-seated problems with homegrown extremists persist in both countries.
Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon said that “cleaning up Molenbeek,” which has earned a reputation as a hotbed of Islamist radicalism in Europe, is “still not finished.” He told Belgium’s RTBF broadcaster: “The jihadists must be neutralized, and not a single person more be radicalized.”
Friday’s raid took place on Molenbeek’s Rue des Quatre-Vents, less than four blocks from the area’s town hall. Abdeslam grew up in a modest residence across a cobbled square from the town hall, the seat of local authorities who have been criticized for doing little to monitor the growing radicalization in their midst.
The 5-foot-7-inch Abdeslam was unemployed, with a record of small-time crime. He was known to hang around a Molenbeek cafe owned by his older brother, Brahim, who detonated a suicide vest on the Boulevard Voltaire on the night of the attacks. Brahim was buried in Molenbeek on Thursday.
Another brother, Mohamed Abdeslam, told reporters after the Paris attacks that Salah Abdeslam was divorced and had no children. At the time, friends and relatives expressed astonishment that he could have been involved in mass murder.
“Salah is a Muslim who prays, had in the last couple of months stopped smoking and drinking, and goes to the mosque once in a while,” Mohamed told the French channel BFMTV. “He dressed normally, didn’t show any signs of him being radicalized. It is a frustration that our family lived together without noticing what was going on.”
Witte reported from London and Birnbaum from Moscow. William Branigin in Washington and Souad Mekhennet in Frankfurt, Germany, contributed to this report.