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For Parisians, capture of 'most wanted' terrorist brings little closure

Though relieved that Salah Abdeslam was caught in Brussels on Friday, many in Paris worry other would-be terrorists could strike again in France.

Yoan Valat/AP/Pool/File
French honor guards stand next to the monument at Republique square in Paris, where people laid candles cards and flags during a ceremony in January to honor the victims of the Islamic extremist attacks in Paris last year.

Although Parisians say they will never forget, they by-and-large have gone back to life as normal since last November's terrorist attack. But the arrest of Salah Abdeslam in Brussels on Friday brought back raw emotions in one surprising punch.

While the capture of the last suspect of the Nov. 13 attack that took 130 lives brought an immediate closure, it also renewed a sense of dread, after authorities said that Mr. Abdeslam could have been planning another imminent attack.

"We feel like this person is no longer a threat to our country. We're not going to run into him on the street one day," says Fatima Bassim, a Parisian, at Republique square, which has become the unofficial memorial for the city's terrorist victims of 2015. "We're relieved, but there are so many others still out there. It's not just because they captured this guy that the story is over.”

On Sunday, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said some 30 people helped to support the Nov. 13 attack – three times the original estimate – and that he could have been planning an attack on Brussels. "He was ready to restart something from Brussels," Mr. Reynders said at the German Marshall Fund Brussels’ Forum over the weekend. "That is maybe the reality, because we have found a lot of heavy weapons and we have seen a new network around him."

Friday's arrest, the result of intelligence shared by France and Belgium, was a major breakthrough after four months of missed opportunities that even prompted the shutdown of Brussels in November.

In France, the terrorist victims’ families expressed their relief that he was caught – and caught alive. Now a criminal trial could lead to more information that could help authorities with preventive efforts.

Parisians at large support that view. "It's great that they stopped him because usually with terrorists, they die in the attacks or blow themselves up," says Claudia Peters at Republique square. "We're relieved because maybe he can give us some answers as to what happened that night."

But for Florian and Nicolas, who were visiting from the northern French town of Dunkirk and declined to give their last names, the arrests don't change much for how they see life in Paris in the months or years ahead.

"We knew that this guy would be arrested," says Nicolas. "He couldn't hide forever."

"He was arrested but so what?," says Florian. "There are so many other terrorists out there that this one arrest is not going to solve the larger problem. I'm relieved but not much more than that."

Possible political fallout

France is also bracing for headlines that generate fear and the political fallout from having a terrorist suspect alive. Instead of providing relief or a feeling of closure for the French people, Abdeslam's arrest could instead generate finger-pointing.

"I fear that many will demand the return of the death penalty now, and in a few days I expect we'll hear from Marine Le Pen," says Oleg Kobtzeff, a professor of international and comparative politics at the American University of Paris. Ms. Le Pen heads the far-right National Front. 

The fact that Abdeslam was caught alive could lead to calls for authorities to use any means necessary to get him to talk, Dr. Kobtzeff adds. "The other question is, from a practical point of view, will he talk? Will he be tortured? I fear that people will be demanding the use of torture to get information out of him."

There could be pushback from outside France too. "The real danger on a practical and security level is that we could see what we saw with terrorists that were arrested in Europe and Israel in the 1970s, where actions were taken to demand their liberation,” he says. “Abdeslam could become a hero for his followers."

So far Abdeslam, who is now fighting extradition to France, has told Belgian authorities that he intended to blow up his suicide vest outside the Stade de France football stadium during the November attacks. But, as he put it according to authorities, he “backed out.” He is due before a judge in Brussels on Wednesday.

Authorities have cautioned the public that the arrest does not minimize the risk of another attack. "There is a real threat. There are many, many people in Europe who have been radicalized, who are both from Syrian war zones and those who have grown up among us. There is a colossal amount of intelligence work to do," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said.

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