The suspected Paris attacker captured in Belgium on Friday planned to commit a suicide bombing during last November’s terror spree, but backed out at the last minute, a French prosecutor said Saturday.
Salah Abdeslam, 26, who was seized in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, told Belgian investigators he was going to be a suicide bomber at the Stade de France soccer stadium — one of the three sites that was attacked Nov. 13 — but ultimately decided against it, Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters.
Abdeslam allegedly rented the car that carried a group of terrorists to the Paris stadium, as well as the car that carried a separate team to the Bataclan theater, where most of the 130 victims were massacred. Investigators believe Abdeslam drove a car carrying one of the groups.
Molins said Abdeslam ditched his suicide vest after he drove the others to Paris, but he didn’t say why.
The information confirmed what investigators had suspected. The car Abdeslam drove was abandoned in northern Paris, and his mobile phone and an explosive vest he may have had were later found in the Paris suburb of Montrouge, raising the possibility that he aborted his mission.
Abdeslam was believed to be the final suspect at large in the terror attacks. He was injured during his capture, and left the hospital Saturday, the mayor of Brussels said.
Another man, Monir Ahmed Alaaj, and three members of a family that allegedly hid Abdeslam, were also arrested in the Belgian capital, the federal prosecutor’s office said.
“The two suspected terrorists have left [the hospital] … Well done and thank you to all the personnel at the hospital and all the police forces,” Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur tweeted Saturday morning.
Abdeslam and Alaaj were charged by the investigating judge with participation in terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist organization, the Belgian Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office also said Saturday.
One of the other men arrested was charged with participation in the activities of a terrorist organization and hiding of criminals, while a second was charged with hiding of criminals but has not been placed into custody. A third family member was released without any charges.
Abdeslam, who was shot in the leg during the raid that nabbed him, will now face police questioning and a fast-track effort to extradite him to France.
Abdeslam’s lawyer, Sven Mary, told reporters in Brussels that he plans to fight extradition.
“He is cooperating with Belgian justice,” Mary said Saturday. “France is asking for his extradition. I can tell you that we will refuse the extradition to France.”
Abdeslam’s capture brought relief to people who have seen his “wanted” poster plastered across two countries for months. But French President Francois Hollande warned that more arrests will come as authorities try to dismantle a network involved in the attacks that is much larger than originally suspected.
The coordinated ISIS attacks on Nov. 13 targeted cafes, in addition to the concert hall and stadium. One of Abdeslam’s brothers blew himself up that night, while another had repeatedly urged Abdeslam to turn himself in during the international manhunt for him.
In addition to driving the car, investigators believe Abdeslam rented rooms and shopped for detonators. Still, Abdeslam’s role in atrocity has never been clearly spelled out.
French and Belgian anti-terrorism prosecutors plan a teleconference call Saturday during which matters, including Abdeslam’s extradition, will be discussed, said Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Thierry Werts, according to The Associated Press.
“The French judicial authorities will send an extradition request very soon” and “the Belgian authorities will answer it as favorably as possible, as soon as possible,” Hollande said Friday, speaking next to Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel.
One survivor of the attacks said she welcomed the news that Abdeslam had been captured, but still felt numb.
“I wouldn’t say that I felt any relief that (he) has been arrested because it’s really hard to put just one face to such a huge atrocity,” said Charlotte Brehaut, a France 24 journalist. “Obviously I think it is such an important step … and we can’t lose sight of that, but at the same time it’s one person in a larger operation.”