PARIS — Hours after the synchronized attacks that terrorized Paris, French police questioned and released the suspect who is now the focus of an international manhunt, officials told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Saleh Abdeslam, 26, was one of three men in a getaway car, headed for France’s border with Belgium, when police pulled them over after daybreak Saturday. The French president had already announced new border controls to prevent the perpetrators from escaping. Hours had passed since investigators identified Abdeslam as the renter of a Volkswagen Polo that carried hostage-takers to the Paris theatre where almost three-quarters of the 129 victims were killed.
It’s not clear why the local French police, known as gendarmes, didn’t take Abdeslam into custody. They checked his identification, but it’s not known whether they had been informed of his apparent connection to the attacks.
“It was a simple check. There was no lookout notice at the time of the traffic stop,” a French police official told the AP.
Asked whether Abdeslam’s name had been shared over police networks by then, the official simply said: “I have no explanation.”
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It may not have been the only missed opportunity before and after France’s deadliest extremist attack since World War II.
The day before the attacks, senior Iraqi intelligence officials warned France and other members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State that assaults by the militant group could be imminent, according to a dispatch obtained by the AP. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader, had ordered supporters to use guns and bombs and take hostages in the days ahead in coalition countries as well as Iran and Russia, Thursday’s dispatch said.
The dispatch did not say where or when the attacks might take place, and a senior French security official told the AP that French intelligence gets this kind of communication “all the time” and “every day.”
But Iraqi intelligence officials told the AP that they also shared specific details with French authorities before the attack — including the size of a sleeper cell of militants they said was directing attackers sent back to France from Islamic State’s de-facto capital in Raqqa, Syria.
These additional details were not corroborated by French or Western security officials. But one U.S. official said Sunday that the evident weaponry skill displayed by the attackers suggests that they might have received training somewhere.
Nearly all the French, Iraqi and U.S. officials providing information for this story spoke on condition of anonymity because they lack authorization to share details publicly.
By Sunday night, French authorities put out a public appeal for help locating Abdeslam, showing his mug shot and warning that he is too dangerous to be confronted. One of his brothers had detonated a suicide vest down the street from the theatre; another was ultimately detained in Belgium, officials said.
The two other men who drove across the border with Abdeslam were arrested. Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon told the AP that suspects detained in the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels had been stopped in the town of Cambrai, France, “in a regular roadside check” but that police had had no suspicion about them at the time and they were let go quickly.
Hours later, Belgian police, working on a request from the French, detained three men — including one of Abdeslam’s brothers — in Molenbeek, which authorities consider to be a focal point for Islamic extremists and fighters going to Syria from Belgium.
Abdeslam, a French resident of Belgium, was not among those arrested.
Three French citizens, including one of Abdeslam’s brothers, were among the seven people who died carrying out the attacks at France’s national stadium, popular Paris nightspots and the sold-out rock show at the Bataclan concert hall.
On Saturday, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said the Polo ‘was rented by a French national living in Belgium,” without naming him. He said authorities believe there were three co-ordinated teams of attackers, wearing explosive vests and carrying an arsenal of automatic weapons. Three men blew themselves up outside Stade de France stadium during a France-Germany soccer match; three used the Polo to get to the Bataclan, where they all died in a standoff with police, they said.
Authorities have said little about the fate of the third team, which drove a rented Seat compact that carried out a rampage of drive-by shootings on bars and eateries in eastern Paris. One police official said the Seat dropped off the brother of Abdeslam who blew himself up at Au Comptoir Voltaire restaurant. The car was later found abandoned, with three Kalashnikovs inside.
Philippe Sotto in Paris, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Eric Tucker in Washington and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.