Until just a few days ago, the manhunt for the most wanted fugitive in Europe seemed at an infuriating dead-end.
Indeed, it was not even clear to intelligence officials and police whether Salah Abdeslam—the sole surviving alleged perpetrator of last November’s Paris attacks, which killed 130 people— was in Europe at all, or whether, as rumors had it, he might have slipped through the dragnet and made his way to jihadist bases in Syria.
Such an escape would have been devastating. Abdeslam is believed to be a key figure in the attacks, allegedly driving some of the Paris terrorists to the Stade de France, the city’s football stadium, where two of them blew themselves up with explosive belts, while tens of thousands of fans—including French President François Hollande—were inside watching a France-Germany match. He also rented two apartments in a Paris suburb during the week before the Paris attacks, presumably as safe houses for the attackers. And he rented two cars that helped transport the 10 gunmen-suicide bombers.
In the end, however, Abdeslam, 26, a French citizen born and raised in Brussels, was nabbed and cornered just a few blocks from his family home in the city’s neighborhood of Molenbeek. He had apparently been hiding in plain sight of the dozens of anti-terrorist SWAT teams that had pursued him for over four months. In a climactic end to the hunt, Belgian police pinned down Abdeslam on Friday afternoon in a two-story building, then shot him in the leg and dragged him into custody.
And yet, the capture ultimately came down to a handful of extraordinarily lucky breaks over just the past few days.
Those familiar with the manhunt told TIME on Saturday that by last week, the search for Abdeslam had drawn a blank. “On Monday night I had contact with services in France and Belgium, and no one knew where he was,” said Claude Moniquet, a veteran of the French external intelligence agency DGSE (the equivalent of the CIA) who now runs a private intelligence company in Brussels, and keeps in close contact with intelligence services. “It was an absolutely cold track.”