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Latest Arrest In Paris Attacks May Provide Window Into ISIS


It was a four-month global manhunt. And then finally, in Brussels Friday, Belgian and French special forces captured Salah Abdeslam. He was one of the men who attacked cafes and a concert hall in Paris, killing 130 people. He's believed to be the lone survivor of that team of terrorists. And the fact that he was taken alive, which is all but unheard of, gives authorities hope they might learn a lot. And so far, it appears Abdeslam is talking, shedding new light on ISIS and the attacks themselves. Let's bring in NPR counter-terrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston, who covered the Paris attacks and has been following the investigation since then. Dina, good morning.


GREENE: So how much are the authorities really learning from him now?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, not surprisingly, authorities are keeping a lot of what they're learning close to the vest. Abdeslam reportedly told them that he was supposed to kill himself outside the stadium that night. But he didn't go through with it. And we aren't sure why. During a press conference yesterday, the Belgian deputy prime minister, Didier Reynders, said that the authorities had found what he described as heavy weapons that might have been used in follow-on attacks. He didn't say what those weapons were precisely or whether Abdeslam told authorities where to find them.

GREENE: Follow-on attacks - I mean, it's possible that he was planning something else.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's possible. Reynders seemed to suggest that authorities are zeroing in on other suspects. He said that there are at least 30 specific individuals who may have played a part in the Paris attacks. And then a number of people clearly helped Abdeslam evade capture for the past four months. Now, the number 30 may sound large. But there's a rule of thumb that counter-terrorism officials often use. They assume that for every front-line attacker - and there were eight attackers in Paris, including Abdeslam - there are between three and five people needed to support them. So police believe somewhere between 24 and 40 people could have been involved. And the deputy prime minister said so far, 18 people have been detained in six countries. And at least two others are at large.

GREENE: OK. So it could be this small ring we're talking about that actually carried out these attacks. But he could be leading them to other people who were involved in kind of the intricate planning in all sorts of other ways.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. I mean, Abdeslam was taken to a maximum security prison in Bruges on Saturday. Bruges is about an hour and a half west of Brussels. And Belgian and French authorities are questioning him there. Something interesting happened yesterday, which was The New York Times published details from a 55-page Paris police report that provides a pretty good summary of what authorities have pieced together about the Nov. 13 attacks. Abdeslam will likely be asked questions related to what authorities have already confirmed. Now, he was captured before the report was made public. So he doesn't know what authorities know. So that means authorities can use that to judge whether he's providing them with credible information. So one of the things in the report was that investigators said that one of the men who is thought to have helped plan the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, allegedly told a friend that there were some 90 ISIS operatives waiting to strike in Europe. Authorities are trying to figure out whether that's actually true because Abaaoud died in a police raid in Saint-Denis, just outside of Paris, a couple of days after the attacks. Another example, witnesses in the Bataclan concert hall that the terrorists had stormed that night said they saw what looked like encryption software on one of the terrorist's laptops. Abdeslam could presumably know about that too.

GREENE: I mean, and that makes me think. If we're talking about things on terrorists' laptops and details like that, I mean, this could be a real, real coup for authorities - right?

TEMPLE-RASTON: It could. What they found in the apartments when they arrested him could also help them. And the fact - the fact is that this has been a really good month for intelligence officials focusing on ISIS. You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, U.S. Special Forces captured a man they think is the head of ISIS's chemical weapons unit. Intelligence officials told me that he's been very helpful to U.S. authorities and has already provided information that is helping with strikes against the group. And then just last week, a 26-year-old Virginia man named Mohammed Khweis was - defected from ISIS and surrendered to Kurdish soldiers. And he's now talking to U.S. and Kurdish authorities as well.

GREENE: All right. NPR counter-terrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, Thanks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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