The arrest of Salah Abdeslam is undoubtedly a success for Belgian and French security authorities. His live capture will provide intelligence agencies with a wealth of information, while his eventual trial will go some way to providing the victims of the Paris attacks with justice and closure. However, his arrest in a district of Brussels only a few hours from the scene of the attack almost four months later will undoubtedly raise questions about how one of Europe’s most wanted men could evade capture for so long. For Belgian and French authorities, success has to be tempered by the reality of the threat they are facing that continues to clearly have deep roots into their communities pointing to a long war in which Abdeslam’s arrest is a battlefield victory.
Since the Paris attacks last November, Belgian and French authorities have been in an aggressive arrest and disrupt mode. Hundreds of arrests and raids have been carried out as authorities in both countries sought to roll up the networks around the Paris attackers as well as ISIS sympathetic communities. The numbers of arrests, weapons found and individuals detained point to a negative picture in the two countries. This was brought vividly to life last month in a BBC interview with German convert and former ISIS video star Harry Sarfo from prison. He reported how his ISIS interlocutors told him: “they have people in France and Belgium. They’ve said that France is easy for them, cause they have enough people who live in France undercover with clean records.”
The interview highlights the size of the networks that French and Belgian authorities are facing. Within this context, it is therefore somewhat unsurprising that Abdeslam would choose to go to ground in this environment. One that he knows well, and one that clearly has a web of supportive figures and locations that he can call on to help him evade one of Europe’s largest manhunts. Molenbeek in particular is a longstanding location of concern, with terrorist plots emanating from the district from before September 11, 2001.
There are further questions about why Abdeslam did not die in the Paris attacks. This likely failure may point to why he did not immediately flee to the Levant. Aside from the difficulties in getting across the continent with the intense intelligence attention in the wake of the Paris attacks, it is also possible that he was not meant to survive and his possible joining of ISIS in Syria would have raised questions with the group. Was he a spy sent by Western intelligence? Had he been meant to survive, the group would likely have had a plan for his arrival to trumpet his evasion from authorities as another example of the group’s strength and power.
Instead, he has now been captured by Belgian authorities in an investigation that has highlighted the depth of the problem that is faced in the country. The raids in Forest outside Brussels in the week prior to Adbeslam’s arrest uncovered a further cell of individuals armed with an AK-47 and ample ammunition who went down fighting with authorities rather than timidly handing themselves in. Alongside these raids, the discovery of a cell of four in Paris allegedly plotting an attack earlier in the week points to how active continental terrorist networks are.
In the face of this threat, France and Belgium (and other European partners) have mobilized a massive response. In the wake of the Paris attacks, a number of high-profile scares in Germany showed the level of concern of a possible attack there, while British authorities continue to warn of the possibility of an attack at home. Most recently, Mark Rowley, the British Metropolitan Police’s assistant commissioner and head of counter-terrorism command in London, talking about the threat from ISIS, stated: “you see a terrorist group which has big ambitions for enormous and spectacular attacks, not just the types that we’ve seen foiled to date.”
It is unlikely that the arrest of Abdeslam will generate a reactive plot. The issues around whether he was meant to survive the plot will mean it is uncertain the group would want to champion him in such a fashion. The fact he was arrested hiding with a network that included Mohammed Belkaid, a 35 year-old Algerian whose details had appeared as an aspirant suicide bomber in the ISIS files that were leaked a few weeks ago, nevertheless suggests that the networks in Belgium had not completely disassociated themselves from him. But it would be out of sorts for them to launch a reactive attack in such a fashion.
This does not, however, diminish the threat from the group in Europe. The live arrest and subsequent interrogation of Abdeslam is likely to generate numerous leads for authorities that will concern others in Europe’s ISIS networks. This may lead to an acceleration of plots currently being formulated to get under way prior to their possible disruption. It may also lead to an exodus of people who fear detention and decide to head back to the relative safety of ISIS territory in the Levant.
Given the intense attention that the network around the Paris attackers had faced in the past few months, however, it is not necessarily likely that any of this is particularly new. And while there is undoubtedly some concern about who it is that Abdeslam might now compromise, the reality is that ISIS had already been seeking other ways to launch attacks in Europe. While European agencies will undoubtedly bask somewhat in the successful live detention of one of the Paris attackers, the reality is most are bracing themselves for the next possible attack.
Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. Follow him @raffpantucci.