One of the gunmen who terrorized Paris last month, killing 130 people, was stopped by French police three times in the immediate aftermath of the massacre. But the cops, unaware of who was the man they had in front of them, let him go each time, together with the people who were driving him out of France. Now that fugitive, Salah Abdeslam, is the most wanted man in Europe.
Hamza Attou — one of two men later arrested for chauffeuring Abdeslam — said the fugitive was "crying and yelling, and telling us what happened" on the ride back to Belgium. More surprisingly, Attou told French investigators he had been stopped not once, but three times as he drove Abdeslam back to Brussels.
According to statements Attou made to the police following his arrest, Abdeslam admitted he participated in the November 13 attacks, describing himself as "the tenth" attacker.
Attou — who, along with co-pilot Mohammed Amri, has been charged with terror offenses — allegedly told investigators he "felt sorry" for the weeping Abdeslam, who repeatedly begged the two not to "turn him in" or else he would "blow up their car."
French daily Le Parisien reported Monday that Abdeslam had first tried to convince one of his Paris-based cousins to pick him up in Châtillon — a southwestern suburb of the capital. "I'm in a bind," he told his cousin during an exchange, either via phone or text message, on the evening of the attacks.
"I don't know if you've heard, but there have been terror attacks," the cousin said. "Oh yeah? Terror attacks? replied Abdeslam.
Unable to secure a ride from his cousin, Abdeslam then turned to his two Belgian buddies Attou and Amri, who agreed to meet him the next day, at 6am, outside a MacDonald's in Châtillon.
Abdeslam asked his friends to stick to back roads to avoid police checks, but they got lost and ended up on the highway instead.
In the following hours, the man who was about to become Europe's most wanted terrorist was stopped three times by French police, a source close to the Belgian investigation told AFP.
During the first police check, officers asked the three men whether they had "taken anything." Attou and Amri confessed they had just smoked a joint, while Abdeslam remained silent in the back seat. "That's not good but it's not the priority today," one of the officers allegedly told Attou, before sending them on their merry way.
The vehicle was stopped again a few hours later, and this time, officers asked to check the men's documents. Once again, Attou, Amri and Abdeslam — who had not yet been identified as one of the Paris gunmen — were let through.
The car was stopped one last time outside the town of Cambrai, close to the Belgian border. Abdeslam told officers he was headed for Molenbeek, in Brussels, and provided officers with the address of where he intended to stay. Once again, the police waved them off.
Meanwhile, Abdelhamid Abaaoud — the alleged ringleader of the Paris attacks — appears to have spent the four days following the massacre hiding in a giant bush in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers. Police acting on a tip-off started monitoring the bush — which they described as "an igloo made of plants." Located on a roadside in the northeastern Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, the spacious hiding spot was equipped with a foam mattress laid out on wood pallets.
On November 17, police spotted Abaaoud's cousin Hasna Aït Boulahcen approaching the hideout.
Within moments of Boulahcen's arrival, Abaaoud emerged from the bushes and the two were joined by an unidentified man. The trio left on foot, followed from afar by the police, who feared the suspects may have been wearing explosive belts. They traveled by taxi to an apartment on Rue Corbillon, a street in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis.
Jawad Bendaoud, the man who admitted to letting Abaaoud and his accomplices stay in the rundown apartment where they were later killed in an assault, was later arrested.
At 4am on November 18, French special forces conducted a raid on the apartment. Abaaoud, Boulahcen and the unidentified man were all killed in the siege.
On Monday, police in Brussels have released five people arrested over the weekend in connection with the attacks.
According to reports, Belgian investigators are on the hunt for a new suspect who may have masterminded the attacks from Belgium. The attackers are believed to have placed several calls to Belgium on the night of the attacks.
A discarded cell phone found in a trash can near the Bataclan concert hall, where 90 people lost their lives, contained a text message saying, "We're off, it's started." The text message, which was sent at 9.42pm on November 13, was sent to a Belgian number. One of the gunmen who murdered diners outside of cafés and restaurants, also used a cellphone to call Belgium.
French police are also on the trail of a new suspect — a 27-year-old Frenchman who is suspected of having coordinated the Bataclan concert hall attack. Charaffe El-Mouadan — who goes by the nickname Souleymane — is a friend of gunman Samy Amimour. The pair, who met in the northeastern Paris suburb of Drancy, had spoken several times of fleeing France to wage jihad in Yemen or Afghanistan. In 2012, Amimour and El-Mouadan were both charged with "conspiracy to commit terrorism." El-Mouadan is believed to have left for Syria in 2013.
Investigators turned their attention to El-Mouadan after one of the Bataclan survivors said he had overheard one of the attackers — Ismaël Omar Mostefaï — refer to a man called "Souleymane."
According to the witness, Mostefaï asked Amimour whether he was planning to get in touch with Souleymane. Amimour then replied that, no, he wasn't, and that they would do it "their way."
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray
Image of the bushes Abdelhamid Abaaoud was hiding in via Google Street View.