Key Paris suspect's role and fate remain a mystery

Belgian-born Salah Abdeslam, the subject of a global manhunt, played a key logistical role in the Paris attacks.
Belgian-born Salah Abdeslam, the subject of a global manhunt, played a key logistical role in the Paris attacks.

PARIS • Among the many mysteries hanging over the Paris attacks, few are more puzzling than the fate and role of Salah Abdeslam, who has been the subject of an international manhunt since the carnage.

He and his brother Brahim played a key logistical role in the wave of terror which left 130 people dead and hundreds injured, renting cars and hotel rooms where the terrorists could hole up. Brahim, like another five of the assailants, blew himself up after the bloodshed. A seventh was shot by police.

However, Salah was not killed. Instead, he was spirited away to Belgium by two other men who were arrested and charged there.

One of the lingering questions is exactly what role the Belgian-born 26-year-old - who used to run a bar with his brother in Brussels - played in attacks. On the night of the massacre, the terrorists arrived in a three-car "convoy" from Belgium, investigators have learnt by studying closed-circuit television footage, Global Positioning System maps and telephone surveillance.

Investigators initially thought Salah was part of a "commando team" which drove through the east of Paris spraying cafes and bars with gunfire while another slaughtered 89 people at the Bataclan concert hall. Another team blew themselves up outside the Stade de France, where President Francois Hollande was watching a football match between France and Germany.

But several things did not add up. When the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group claimed responsibility for the attacks, the statement mentioned the assaults on the stadium and the 10th and 11th districts of Paris, but also the 18th, where no strike took place.

Then, four days later, police found a black Renault Clio, rented in Salah's name, parked partly over a pedestrian crossing in the 18th district. Another was found outside the Bataclan, and another in Montreuil, a suburb just east of Paris.

All three Bataclan attackers died, and the car in Montreuil is believed to have been used by suspected ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was seen at a nearby metro station.

Investigators now believe Salah drove the Renault Clio, possibly dropping off the three bombers at the Stade de France.

Was he supposed to carry out an attack in the 18th district? The Obs news website reported that the two men held in Belgium said they found him in a state of shock and wearing an explosives vest when they came to spirit him out.

Salah was stopped during a routine traffic control check on his way back to Belgium by police who did not yet know he was a wanted man. Mohammed Amri, 27, and Hamza Attou, 20, who were with him, were tracked down by police and arrested. They told investigators that they dropped Salah off in Brussels.

Attou's lawyer told LCI television that her client was "very afraid" during the trip.

"My client mentions a big vest... maybe an explosives belt or something like that," said lawyer Carine Couquelet. "There are many possible theories: Was (Salah) a logistical support, was he supposed to blow himself up? Was he not able to do it? We don't know."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2015, with the headline 'Key Paris suspect's role and fate remain a mystery'. Print Edition | Subscribe