Paris Attacks Suspect’s Arrest Could Reveal ISIS Secrets: Experts

The arrest of suspected ISIS operative Salah Abdeslam, a key suspect in November's Paris attacks, could provide new insight into the terror group's network

Mar 18, 2016 at 3:39 PM ET

The capture of a key suspect in the Paris attacks in Belgium on Friday could soon lead authorities to a trove of undisclosed information about the Islamic State’s inner workings, counter-terrorism experts told Vocativ.

Salah Abdeslam was wounded and arrested in Brussels’ Molenbeek neighborhood after police moved in on a flat where he was believed to be hiding, according to reports. The only suspect remaining at large from November’s deadly wave of attacks, Abdeslam’s arrest provides an unprecedented opportunity for western law enforcement and intelligence officials.

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“What this means for ISIL, more than anything, is that a lot more information is going to come out about their network,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Vocativ on Friday, using another name for ISIS.

It’s unclear what precisely authorities may learn from having Abdeslam in custody, but given the 26-year-old’s role in the Paris attacks it could be significant. Of the 10 men believed to have directly carried out the rampage—which left 130 people dead—he was the only one at large. The other nine are dead. 

Abdeslam likely has knowledge about the terror group’s organization and top-down structure, Gartenstein-Ross said. He may also be able to provide law enforcement with information about the role ISIS’ senior leadership plays in day-to-day operations, who delivers orders and how the group deals with surveillance—details that remain murky to intelligence officials.

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“Not all of the information he may have will be reliable or accurate,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “But authorities have a pretty good record in terms of getting information from these types of guys.”

Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French citizen, may also prove to be a vital source for security officials as they continue to investigate ISIS affiliates operating in Europe, said Nicholas Glavin, a researcher on terrorism at the U.S. Naval War College. The suspect’s arrest comes just a week after thousands of purported ISIS documents were leaked, providing and in-depth look into the terror group’s personnel around the world.

“He could help to slowly pull back the curtain on ISIS’ external cells,” Glavin told Vocativ, adding that Abdeslam’s arrest is a rare prize for law enforcement. “This guy was supposed to be a martyr or to go out guns blazing, but he didn’t. The fact that a major ISIS operative was captured by the west is pretty much unprecedented.”

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That alone could serve as a powerful piece of counter-propaganda against ISIS, Glavin said.

Still, Gartenstein-Ross said it remains to be seen how useful Abdeslam might be to intelligence officials—at least in the short term. “It’s not clear how much he knows,” he said. “We also don’t know how long he’ll hold out or how quickly ISIL’ networks will adapt.”