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Paris attacks suspect slipped from one world to another

March 19, 2016

PARIS (AP) — Beardless, with short-cropped hair and a mild manner, Salah Abdeslam slipped from one world to another as easily as he slipped for four months through an international dragnet.

The fugitive who evaded several close calls with police — until he was caught Friday in the neighborhood where he grew up — remains one of the biggest mysteries among the men who brazenly attacked Paris cafes and restaurants, a noted concert hall and France’s main sports stadium on Nov. 13, killing 130 people.

He is thought to have served as the logistics man, renting rooms, shopping for detonators and driving at least one of the killers from Brussels to Paris. It remains unclear whether he was meant to become an attacker himself.

Abdeslam, 26, is a French citizen who lived in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, the low-income quarter of mainly Moroccan immigrant families and home to most of the at least nine attackers.

His links to the others involved in the plot ran deep. One of his two brothers, Brahim, blew himself up outside the stadium. His childhood friend Abdelhamid Abaaoud was the suspected ringleader of the bloodbath.

Four days after the attacks, Mohamed Abdeslam, the third brother, said the three siblings grew up normally, seemingly content with life in Europe.

“We are an open-minded family. We never had any problems with justice,” he said. “You have to understand that we have a family, we have a mom and he remains her child.”

Brothers Brahim and Salah ran a family cafe in Molenbeek — which police closed down not long before the attacks on suspicion of drug dealing there. The cafe served alcohol, forbidden in the Muslim religion, but that apparently posed no problem for the two young men. Just like the partying that Brahim’s friends told The Associated Press their friend did, and reports said Salah did, too.

Since the attacks, Abdeslam has been a man on the run who left a trail of unanswered questions in his wake and — for a time — outwitted the biggest manhunt in Europe.

In the immediate aftermath, an apparently stranded Abdeslam called his contacts in Brussels to come and fetch him. On their return the following day, the group managed to get through a police checkpoint after a standard stop. Some Belgian media reported that Abdeslam was smuggled out of a house in Molenbeek two days after the attacks under the noses of police — a report never proven. “All we know is that when we came, he wasn’t there,” Belgian prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt said recently.

Abdeslam was registered in an information system used by many European countries on suspicion of unidentified criminal activity. But when he was stopped four days before the attacks at a routine traffic check as he and two companions drove from Germany to Austria, the group was waved on their way after saying they were heading to Vienna for a vacation.

Abdeslam slipped from role to role with ease, seamlessly orchestrating transitions from regular neighborhood guy to the suspected logistician behind the attacks. But he may have missed a few beats. A suicide vest was found near where his cell phone was last detected in Montrouge, the Paris suburb where he awaited rescue by friends after the attacks. And the Clio he drove to Paris with some attackers was found abandoned in northern Paris, in a district where the Islamic State group said in its claim of responsibility that an attack had occurred. It never did.

In January, the Islamic State group published an online photo tribute to the extremists who killed in Paris. But someone was missing from the photo display in Dabiq, the IS propaganda magazine: Abdeslam. Belgian jihadi watcher Pieter van Ostaeyen said this may be due to IS’s desire to honor only those extremists who it believes died as martyrs.

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