PARIS: Salah Abdeslam, the key Paris attacks suspect who was transferred to France on Wednesday, showed little sign of religious fervor before the bloodshed and was known to enjoy a beer and a joint.
The 26-year-old French national of Moroccan origin, whose older brother Brahim blew himself up during the November 13 attacks on the French capital, was arrested in Brussels in March after four months on the run as Europe’s most wanted man.
Although the attacks were claimed by Islamic State extremists, the two brothers were far from being religious fanatics and known to enjoy a drink and some pot in Les Beguines, the bar they ran in Molenbeek, an immigrant neighborhood of Brussels.
“I asked him if he had read the Koran, and he replied that he had researched it on the Internet,” Abdeslam’s Belgian lawyer Sven Mary told the French daily Liberation.
In a lengthy interview published on Wednesday, Mary described his client as a “little moron from Molenbeek, more a follower than a leader. He has the intelligence of an empty ashtray. He is the perfect example of the GTA (Grand Theft Auto video game) generation who thinks he lives in a video game.”
The Molenbeek bar was shut down two weeks before the Paris attacks after police said it was used “for the consumption of banned hallucinogenic substances”.
A Molenbeek resident, who identified himself only as Youssef, told Agence France-Presse last year the brothers were “friends of ours, big smokers, big drinkers, but not radicals.”
Salah Abdeslam certainly knew radicals though, having come into contact with another Molenbeek resident, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, believed to have been the mastermind of the Paris attacks.
What is more, Abdeslam’s arrest on March 18 came just days before a series of coordinated attacks on the Belgian capital killed 32 people, with the police uncovering clear links between him and the three Brussels suicide bombers.
Petty crime, gambling
Abdeslam had previously worked as a technician for the Brussels tram network but was fired for skipping work in 2011. Around the same time he was arrested for robbery along with Abaaoud.
He also developed a taste for casinos, gambling in the Dutch city of Breda in June 2014 and in Brussels last year.
But in 2015, he criss-crossed Europe, visiting Greece in August, then Austria and Hungary at a time when tens of thousands of migrants from Syria and Iraq were transiting Europe.
Prosecutors believe Abdeslam was in charge of logistics for the Paris attacks, which were planned in Brussels.
He rented the cars that the IS team used to travel to Paris, and booked the rooms where they stayed before launching the worst-ever terror attacks on French soil.
His brother Brahim detonated his suicide vest in a bar in Paris on Nov. 13, as at least eight other IS attackers were shooting and blowing up 130 people who had been enjoying a Friday night out in the French capital.
Backed out of suicide?
It is possible Salah Abdeslam drove three suicide bombers to the Stade de France stadium and he appears to have also been in central Paris at the time of the slaughter.
But after his arrest in Brussels, he said he had changed his mind about blowing himself up.
An explosives vest was found abandoned in a dustbin in a Paris suburb and although none of Abdeslam’s DNA was found on it, mobile phone data put him in the area at the time.
Before police were alerted to his possible involvement, he had been stopped three times by officers in France as he fled back to Belgium by car the day after the attacks.
Two men with him in the vehicle, Hamza Attou and Mohammed Amri, are said to have been smoking marijuana but a policeman waved them on and Abdeslam was able to remain on the run for 126 days.
His Belgian lawyer, who has defended jihadist recruiters, paedophiles and mafia figures, admitted having reservations over representing Abdeslam who was arrested just four days before the bloodshed in Belgium.
“There have been moments when I thought of giving up. If I had known about the Brussels attacks, maybe I would never have taken this case,” Mary said, suggesting he might not stay on the case after Abdeslam’s transfer to France.