Salah Abdeslam: From petty crime to IS group terrorism

(archive photo)

Salah Abdeslam was Europe’s most wanted criminal for four months until he was arrested in Brussels on Friday, but why the 26-year-old became a radical jihadist is still unclear.


Abdeslam is a French citizen but spent nearly his whole life in the Molenbeek district west of Brussels, a neighborhood known for a large working-class immigrant population. One of his childhood friends was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected “organiser” of the Paris attacks, for which the Islamic State (IS) group has claimed responsibility.

But unlike Abaaoud, Salah and his brother Brahim, who also participated in the Paris attacks, did not have a long history of religious extremism. Salah did not follow the strict directives of radical Islam, and preferred to spend his time smoking pot, playing video games and going to clubs. He never grew a beard, drank alcohol and may not have ever prayed in a mosque. Unlike other attackers, Salah may have never visited Syria.

Another Abdeslam brother, Mohamad, has made repeated statements that the family knew nothing of his radicalisation, and most acquaintances describe him as “normal”, “calm” and “polite”.

'58 arrests, 11 people charged'

But in the two months leading up to the attack, Abdeslam was increasingly involved with petty crime in Molenbeek until he finally joined his friend Abaaoud in carrying out the deadliest terror attack ever seen in Paris. His ex-fiancée has said that the change was clear, and Abdeslam was on Belgian authorities’ list of 800 people with ties to Syrian combatants.

Abdeslam is the only member of the Paris attackers to still be alive.

Understanding his story could be key to filling in the gaps of what is known about the Paris attacks, and to understanding the path of radicalised youth in Europe.

Football, pot, and clubs

Abdeslam was born on September 15, 1989, in Brussels. He has two older brothers, Mohammad and Brahim. Their parents were Moroccan immigrants whose family had been established in Belgium since the 1960s. Abdeslam’s parents obtained French citizenship while living in Algeria, resulting in the Abdeslam children all being French nationals as well.

During Abdeslam’s childhood the family lived in public housing across the street from the local town hall. The family would travel about once a year to his parents’ home village in Morocco.

According to friends, Abdeslam was not a fantastic student, and enjoyed football, girls, smoking pot and going to clubs.

“We spent time in cafes, we watched League of Champions (football),” a friend said. “Football was his thing! … When we did talk eventually about terrorism and kamikazes, we joked about it.”

At age 18 he started dating a girl from the neighborhood. The two would eventually become engaged.

Abdeslam earned a technical degree and in 2009 started working as a mechanic for STIB, the Belgian state railway, in Brussels. His father also worked for the STIB, as a tram conductor. A colleague from the STIB remembered, "He was normal. Always smiling, joking."

But he wasn’t a model employee, was often late or absent and was eventually fired.

Minor crimes

For several years Salah’s older brother Brahim and their friend Abaaoud had been increasingly involved in minor crime--theft, drug dealing, forgery and fraud.

Between 2010 and 2011 Salah did some prison time with Abaaoud.

It wasn’t until 2013 that Salah started to work again, when he started to help manage a bar that Brahim had taken over in Molenbeek called Café Des Beguines.

But the bar wasn’t a huge success either. According to most accounts it was a dive, with loud music, frequent fights, drug use.

Turn toward jihad

In 2014 Abaaoud traveled to Syria, where he forged ties to the IS group and was filmed loading bloody corpses into a truck and claiming they were the bodies of “infidels”.

Abdeslam’s ex-girlfriend confirms that although Salah was “shocked” by the images of Abaaoud in Syria, it was also during this period that Salah became more radicalised.

“It was under Abdelhamid Abaaoud's influence that Salah changed,” she said during an interview in February with Flanders News.

Abaaoud probably tried to convince the Abdeslam brothers to go to Syria too. It’s unclear whether they ever reached the country. Brahim made it as far as Turkey, and in the summer of 2015 Salah travelled to Germany, Italy and Greece.

Back in Molenbeek, their bar was under repeated investigation for drug dealing, and in September the brothers sold it.

Just nine days before the attacks, Belgian authorities definitively close the Café Des Beguines for drug dealing.

Role in the Paris attacks

Abdeslam’s role in the attacks is still not clear.

He rented two rooms for himself and the other attackers in the Alfortville suburb near Paris two days prior to the attacks.

He rented the grey VW Polo car used by the Bataclan attackers, and the Renault Clio found abandoned in Paris’s 18th arrondissement after the attack.

He bought 10 detonators and batteries from a fireworks shop on the outskirts of Paris on the day of the attack.

He likely dropped off the bombers at the Stade de France.

Whether Abdeslam planned to participate in the attacks himself, or simply play a logistical role is still yet to be established.

What is known is that after the November 13 attacks Abdeslam called two friends in Brussels, who then drove to Paris and picked him up early in the morning of November 14.

On the drive back to Brussels, the car was stopped by police three times. Since Abdeslam’s connection to the attacks was not yet known, he was not detained. His movements after that are unknown.

The trail to Abdeslam was not picked up again until March 2016, when investigators found one of his fingerprints at the scene of a March 15 shootout in Molenbeek.

According to French daily l’Obs, an acquaintance of Abdeslam then gave police clues to his whereabouts.

He was arrested Friday in a dramatic French-Belgian police raid in the neighbourhood where he grew up.

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