March 21, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Capture of Paris Attacker Salah Abdelslam

• The March 18 capture of the sole known living perpetrator of the November 2015 Paris attacks is a noteworthy intelligence and law enforcement accomplishment

• Salah Abdelslam will be able to provide details not just on the Paris plot, but also on existing networks that may be plotting future attacks

• Among the issues investigators will focus on are the specifics of how the Islamic State smuggles its operatives into Europe

• Abdelslam was able to avoid capture for four months in his own neighborhood, demonstrating the significance of contained and loyal social networks in terrorism. 


Europe’s most wanted fugitive did not flee to Syria—or flee at all. He simply returned to his neighborhood and remained hidden for 127 days. Salah Abdelslam, the only known living member of the team that killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015, was captured in the Molenbeek area of Brussels on March 18. The law enforcement and intelligence hunt for Abdelslam was expansive, with hundreds of counterterrorism raids across multiple countries. The capture of Abdelslam is important not just for achieving justice for the Paris attacks, but also for gaining insight into the external threat networks of the so-called Islamic State

Investigators and interrogators will immediately try to obtain intelligence from Abdelslam, who is reportedly cooperating with authorities, on any current threats or plots. Such questioning is both direct and nuanced; investigators will determine if Abdelslam knows of any plots, and also seek to elicit details or conversations that Abdelslam might consider meaningless or inconsequential. Terrorists embedded in ground-level cells such as Abdelslam might not be aware of the significance of what they know, leaving the skilled questioner to determine the important from the mundane. 

It could very well be that Abdelslam has no information regarding future attacks, aside from the one he was reportedly considering while in hiding. During his four months out of sight, it is unknown how much contact, if any, Abdelslam had with the Islamic State networks that reach back to Syria and Iraq. Given the intense attention focused on him, Islamic State members working undetected on future attacks may have preferred to avoid a walking raid target such as Abdelslam. Likewise, the compartmentalization of plots and cells by terrorist groups is meant to ensure that the arrest of one operative does not bring down the entire network. Advances in link analysis and signals intelligence have made such compartmentalization less effective than in the past, but it is still an effective tool among disciplined cells. Lastly, Abdelslam was one of only two cell members who had not traveled to Syria; his connections to the operational leadership in Raqqa likely died during the attacks.

Regardless of his knowledge, or lack thereof, of future attacks, Abdelslam will be able to provide valuable details concerning the nature of Islamic State networks in Europe. His logistical role in the Paris cell will be of particular interest to investigators trying to determine how the group is moving people from Syria into Europe, and how it equips and hides them. It is likely that the group altered some protocols or networks following the Paris attacks, knowing how extensive the investigation would be. However, some protocols might still be in place for lack of alternatives, giving law enforcement a much-needed break in what has become an overwhelming rush of threats. Abdelslam might provide telltale communications, movements, or purchases that can help investigators unravel other plots. The value of skilled interviewers trained in elicitation is difficult to overstate in terrorism cases; the smallest detail might make an enormous difference. The rarity of capturing alive a member of an operational cell directed—and not just inspired—by the Islamic State makes this case even more important.  

Abdelslam was sheltered by associates and friends in Molenbeek, demonstrating that tight social and familial bonds matter as much as ideology in terrorism. It was difficult to find him because most fugitives are caught when they move or communicate; Abdelslam was mostly able to avoid activating any counterterrorism trip lines by staying in one place, if not one residence. Those sheltering him were just beyond the periphery of his known associates that investigators focused on early. Terror cells comprised of friends and family remain difficult targets for detection and disruption; their deep ties to a neighborhood offer them some measure of support, but also provide investigators a place to closely study. 


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