— -- Following the capture of a fugitive Paris attacker, European authorities are racing to uncover the extremist network thought to have supported the mass killers in the November massacre and then helped to hide the runaway suspect for months, French and Belgian officials said recently.
“We are far from putting the puzzle together,” Belgian prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw told reporters today of the overall investigation into the Paris attacks.
This morning Belgium’s interior minister, Jan Jambon, said that the support network for fugitive accused Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam was “bigger than we thought in the beginning” and that it was clear he had “logistical support” over the four months he evaded authorities since the November attacks. Abdeslam was arrested in a dramatic raid Friday in the Brussels neighborhood in which he grew up. Seven alleged accomplices were killed in the November attack, which claimed the lives of 130 innocent people. Officials said it appears Abdeslam was supposed to blow himself up in the attack, but backed out.
Belgian officials said Friday they have searched over 100 residences and made dozens of arrests related to terror investigations since the November attacks. Today French officials said they had 244 open anti-terror cases. At one point, a majority of Belgian police officers were working on cases related to the Paris attacks, Van Leeuw said.
Terrorism experts told ABC News Friday that they suspected the police work had likely “decimated” ISIS’s presence in Belgium. But the experts cautioned that it was impossible to know for sure, and it appears French and Belgian authorities are concerned a potentially robust and dangerous network still exists.
“It should be surprising to no one that Salah Abdeslam was part of a broader network than previously believed or that other attacks were being planned,” said former acting under-secretary at the Department of Homeland Security for intelligence and analysis and current ABC News consultant John Cohen. “For months law enforcement and intelligence officials have warned there may be thousands of people in Europe, the U.S. and Canada who have been recruited by ISIS or inspired by its ideology and who stand ready to carry out attacks on its behalf. Arresting those who conspired to conduct the Paris attacks closes the chapter on that incident, [but] it doesn’t close the book on the broader ISIS threat to the West, which remains significant.”
In addition to the larger network, French and Belgian authorities said today they are still not clear on the “exact path” that Abdeslam took between the Nov. 13 attack and his arrest. Abdeslam has been interviewed three times since his arrest and “wasn’t in great shape” since he had been shot in the leg during the raid that captured him, Van Leeuw said.
Van Leeuw said investigators hope Abdeslam will help them piece together the timeline, “if he decides to tell us.”