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Belgium Captures Last Wanted Suspect In Paris Attacks


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is off this week. I'm Melissa Block. The lead suspect in November's terrorist attacks in Paris, the most wanted man in Europe, is now under arrest. Salah Abdeslam was tracked down and captured yesterday in Brussels. He and an alleged accomplice were shot and wounded in the process. Teri Schultz joins me now from Brussels. And, Teri, what more can you tell us about what's going on there today?

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: The morning papers here were quite predictably filled with huge headlines and bright photos, quoting officials saying we got him and mission accomplished. For Salah Abdeslam, his near-term future is going to be at a high-security prison in Brugge where he'll be held until he's extradited to France.

Now, authorities there are asking that he be transferred as quickly as possible to face justice there where the attacks took place. This morning, the Belgian government is saying it will indeed do that as quickly as legally possible. But they are saying also that it will be a matter of weeks, so Paris may not be getting him back quite as quickly as they'd like.

BLOCK: And we mentioned that he was the most wanted man in Europe. Does the arrest of Salah Abdeslam mean that the terror threat in Belgium and presumably also in Paris is now reduced?

SCHULTZ: Well, the Belgian government has decided that the terror threat level must remain at a level three out of a maximum four. The Belgian prime minister says, yes, we won this small battle, but we are convinced that this is far from over. As they interrogate Salah Abdeslam and his accomplice, it may very well be that they learn that the terror threat network here in Belgium is larger than they expected.

It can't be forgotten that Belgian per capita produces more Islamic State fighters than any other country. And it's well-known that there are radicalized cells lurking beneath the surface, and authorities are very much going to be using this evidence to go after them.

BLOCK: Would they also be hoping to learn more about - specifically about the attacks in Paris itself as they question him?

SCHULTZ: That's right. Salah Abdeslam is the only living alleged perpetrator of the Paris attacks. So they're going to want to want learn more about how those attacks were allegedly planned right here in Brussels. And a terror analyst I spoke with just this morning says that the other man arrested last night with Abdeslam is going to be very interesting.

He called him a mystery man. He goes by the names Munir Ahmed al-Hadj (ph) and Amin Shukri (ph) but my source says both of those are likely fake names and that even his fingerprints were not known to authorities. So there may be an entire other wing of this - of this investigation now opened up with these arrests.

BLOCK: Belgium came under a lot of criticism after the Paris attacks because several the perpetrators came from Belgium. What's the reaction been like over the past day?

SCHULTZ: Well, there are a number of reactions. Of course, the government is patting itself on the back because they got him and they got him alive and they're going to learn a lot more from that. But one analyst I spoke with says that should be a very small pat, not a big pat because in fact Salah Abdeslam was on the run for four months. Authorities didn't know where he was, and in the end, he was arrested just a block from where he grew up.

So it's incredible to think that authorities would have had so much scrutiny on this neighborhood of Molenbeek and yet Salah Abdeslam was able to hide. And while residents last night in Molenbeek told me they were relieved, there are going to be some very difficult questions for that community to answer. How did Salah Abdeslam hide there? There was a family arrested with him, and people are going to have to answer some very difficult questions about just who protected him.

BLOCK: That's reporter Teri Schultz in Brussels. Teri, thanks so much.

SCHULTZ: A pleasure to be with you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.