His arrest on Friday along with four other suspects in the gritty Molenbeek neighbourhood, was hailed by European and US leaders, with French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve saying it dealt a “major blow” to IS jihadists operating in Europe.
Following the raid, French President Francois Hollande said he would push for the 26-year-old to be transferred to France as quickly as possible, and on Saturday morning he met with key cabinet ministers and security officials to discuss the next steps.
“The operations of the past week have enabled us to incapacitate several individuals who are clearly extremely dangerous and totally determined,” Cazeneuve said after the meeting.
The aim was now “to review operations that are under way and the fight against terrorist groups in France and Europe,” a member of Hollande’s entourage said.
Hollande, who was in Brussels for an EU summit when the raid took place, described Abdeslam as “directly linked to the preparation, the organisation and, unfortunately, the perpetration of these attacks”.
Abdeslam’s capture following a four-month manhunt was hailed by the Belgian press as restoring the country’s honour, tarnished by perceived intelligence and police blunders before and after the attacks which appear increasingly to have been planned and coordinated in Brussels.
“I hail the great success of Belgian security forces and compliment the high level of Belgian-French cooperation in the counter-terror fight,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Twitter.
Abdeslam, a Franco-Moroccan from Molenbeek, and an accomplice who was also wounded in the raid, were both released from hospital on Saturday, Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur said.
The only man known for sure to be still be on the run is Mohamed Abrini, who was filmed with Abdeslam two days before the attacks at a petrol station on a motorway close to Paris.
– Last surviving attacker –
Former small-time criminal Abdeslam is believed to be the last surviving member of the 10-man jihadist team that carried out the attacks on the Bataclan concert venue, restaurants, bars and the Stade de France stadium.
He apparently fled by car to Brussels the day after the rampage, having refused to blow himself up, and is believed to have spent much if not all of the subsequent four months in and around the city.
Prosecutors said special forces raided a house in Molenbeek on Friday because of evidence found in an operation elsewhere in Brussels on Tuesday, in which another Paris-linked suspect died in a gun battle with police.
Two other suspects escaped, sparking intense speculation that one of them might have been Abdeslam.
One of Abdeslam’s fingerprints was found at the scene of Tuesday’s raid, which resulted in the second operation which led to his capture.
– Paris network ‘much wider’ –
Speaking late on Friday, Hollande said it appeared that many more people were involved in the Paris attacks than originally thought.
Investigators believe Abdeslam rented rooms in the Paris area to be used by the attackers and also hired one of the cars in which he drove the suicide bombers to the Stade de France.
He was then supposed to blow himself up but apparently backed out and an explosives-filled suicide vest was later found in Paris in an area where mobile phone signals indicated he had been.
Police believe he fled across the border the next morning. Several people have been arrested on suspicion of helping him and his fingerprints were found in December at different Brussels apartments.
The ringleader of the attacks, IS member Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and attacker Bilal Hadfi, both dead, also had links to Molenbeek, which has been seen as a hotbed of Islamist radicalism for decades.
Abdeslam and his brother Brahim, who blew himself up during the Paris assault, had run a bar in the area until it was shut down by the authorities a few weeks before the attacks.
Brahim Abdeslam was buried discreetly in a Brussels cemetery on Thursday.