Until just a few days ago, the manhunt for the most wanted fugitive in Europe seemed at an infuriating dead-end.
Indeed, it was not even clear to intelligence officials and police whether Salah Abdeslam—the sole surviving alleged perpetrator of last November’s Paris attacks, which killed 130 people— was in Europe at all, or whether, as rumors had it, he might have slipped through the dragnet and made his way to jihadist bases in Syria.
Such an escape would have been devastating. Abdeslam is believed to be a key figure in the attacks, allegedly driving some of the Paris terrorists to the Stade de France, the city’s football stadium, where two of them blew themselves up with explosive belts, while tens of thousands of fans—including French President François Hollande—were inside watching a France-Germany match. He also rented two apartments in a Paris suburb during the week before the Paris attacks, presumably as safe houses for the attackers. And he rented two cars that helped transport the 10 gunmen-suicide bombers.
In the end, however, Abdeslam, 26, a French citizen born and raised in Brussels, was nabbed and cornered just a few blocks from his family home in the city’s neighborhood of Molenbeek. He had apparently been hiding in plain sight of the dozens of anti-terrorist SWAT teams that had pursued him for over four months. In a climactic end to the hunt, Belgian police pinned down Abdeslam on Friday afternoon in a two-story building, then shot him in the leg and dragged him into custody.
And yet, the capture ultimately came down to a handful of extraordinarily lucky breaks over just the past few days.
Those familiar with the manhunt told TIME on Saturday that by last week, the search for Abdeslam had drawn a blank. “On Monday night I had contact with services in France and Belgium, and no one knew where he was,” said Claude Moniquet, a veteran of the French external intelligence agency DGSE (the equivalent of the CIA) who now runs a private intelligence company in Brussels, and keeps in close contact with intelligence services. “It was an absolutely cold track.”
But on Tuesday, that changed entirely. A separate investigation led one SWAT team to a house in the southern Brussels suburb of Forest (or Vorst as it is known in Dutch), about four miles from Molenbeek. The police apparently had little expectation of finding Abdeslam there, but they quickly found themselves under fire from inside the building. One Algerian man, living illegally in Belgium, died in the return gunfire, and two men fled during the chaos. A neighbor’s cell phone caught a snippet of video of their flight, which suggested that one might have been Abdeslam. As investigators picked through the apartment afterwards, they found a fingerprint belonging to Abdeslam—the first true confirmation that he was close by.
Amazingly, another lucky break seemed to seal Abdeslam’s fate. By coincidence, his older brother Ibrahim—one of the 10 Paris attackers, who blew himself up with a suicide vest outside a café on Boulevard Voltaire on November 13—was scheduled to be buried in Brussels on Thursday, just two days after Abdeslam slipped away from police. Ibrahim’s body had lain in a Paris morgue since the attack while relatives wrangled over where to bury him. Officials in Morocco, from where the brothers’ parents migrated to Belgium during the 1980s, refused to allow a burial in that country.
On Thursday, about 20 young men—the Abdeslam brothers’ friends and relatives—escorted Ibrahim’s coffin to a burial site in Brussels’ multi-denominational cemetery. Moniquet believes that allowed police to identify them, and to gather the data from their cell phones at the scene, allowing them to coordinate their calls with the relay station around the Forest safe house they had uncovered two days earlier. “One of the coffin bearers was an old friend of Salah,” Moniquet says. Police appear to have gleaned information about Abdeslam’s location from those gathered at the cemetery, and Moniquet suspects there was likely a police informer among them.
Authorities moved quickly, converging on the small Molenbeek street in force the next day, dressed in full riot gear, and stormed the building. Coming face to face with Abdeslam at last, officers shot him in the leg during a confrontation and dragged him to a police car, hospital, and then a jail cell.
On Saturday, police and Belgian officials celebrated Abdeslam’s capture –but with reservations: Most fear that remnants of the ISIS network that planned the Paris attacks is still active in Europe. “This is a really, really good thing, that he was captured alive,” Ahmed El-Khannouss, Molenbeek’s first deputy mayor, told TIME on Saturday. He said officials have identified 85 Molenbeek residents who they believe have fought with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, and then returned to Europe.
Some of those residents might have helped Abdeslam evade police since November, and the captured suspect is a potentially hugely valuable cache of information about the Europe operations of ISIS and its plans to wreak more havoc on the continent.
Now comes the question of how much Abdeslam might share while in jail. On Saturday evening, Paris prosecutor François Molins told reporters that early information from Abdeslam in custody was that he had intended to blow himself up at the Stade de France, but that he had “backtracked.”
Moniquet says investigators might find it difficult to extract information, since they have little to offer Abdeslam in return. “It is clear to everyone, even to him, that he has a one-way ticket to life in jail,” Moniquet told TIME. “His last moment to negotiate was on November 13 at 6 p.m., before the attacks began. Once they began, it was over for him.
As police interrogate him, Abdeslam will have another fight on his hands, this time against extradition. His Belgian lawyer, Sven Mary, said Abdeslam would fight French requests to extradite Abdeslam to stand trial in France “because there is an investigation underway in Belgium,” where he has been charged with “terrorist murder.” Molins told reporters than the extradition would likely occur in about three months.
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