Europe's most wanted terrorist was stopped by French police three times in the hours after the Paris attacks, the man accused of helping him escape to Belgium has reportedly claimed. Salah Abdeslam, 26, is still on the run a full five weeks after taking part in the atrocity which left 130 people dead.
But in a series of astonishing revelations, his friend Hamza Attou claims French police had several opportunities to arrest Abdeslam who, unlike his elder brother Ibrahim, is believed to have aborted a suicide attack at the Bataclan concert hall at the last minute. Until Attou made these claims, investigators believed the getaway car was stopped just once, by a traffic officer, during the escape.
Speaking to investigators who have charged him with 'assisting in terrorist activity' by driving Salah to Brussels, Attou said the vehicle was stopped 'not once, but three times' during the journey, according to Le Parisien. The Belgian is said to have added that the first officer asked him, Abdeslam and Mohamed Amri – a second Belgian national who has also been charged – if they had taken drugs.
Attou reportedly revealed that he and Amri were smoking a cannabis joint in the front of the car at when they were stopped, while Abdeslam remained silent in the back. The officer reprimanded the men but told them "it is not the priority today" – presumably a reference to the Paris attacks.
On the other two occasions the vehicle was stopped, the men were simply asked to produce identity cards before being sent on their way. Abdeslam reportedly made no attempt to conceal his identity, even giving the investigators his genuine address in the Brussels suburb of Molenbreek.
The car the three men had been travelling in was later found dumped in Molenbreek, with Attou and Amri picked up shortly afterwards. Abdeslam, on the other hand, has not been seen since, with investigators looking into various theories on his whereabouts, including claims he may be hiding in plain sight in Belgium, may have fled to join Islamic State (Isis) in Syria, or could even be in Morocco, where the authorities have issued a warrant for his "immediate arrest".
Attou's alleged claims will put further pressure on French and Belgian investigators, who have been roundly criticised for allowing Abdeslam to escape despite him spending nine hours wandering around Paris in the aftermath of the attacks, before making his way to Belgium.
The claims come after new details emerged about Abdeslam's movements after the attack. Without a contingency plan for his unexpected survival, the failed suicide bomber bought a mobile SIM card from a shop in Paris' 18th arrondissement one hour after the attack, according to The Independent.
Abdeslam used the card to call Attou and Amri in Brussels, asking them to pick him up in the Parisian suburb of Chatillon. While waiting a further nine hours for the pair to arrive, Abdeslam is believed to have wandered freely around Paris, despite the city effectively being on lock down following the attacks.
Ten days after the attacks a suicide belt thought to belong to Abdeslam was found dumped in a public bin. The discovery has only raised further questions, however, as the local authorities claim the bins were emptied three days after the terror attacks, by which time Abdeslam was in Belgium.