“Terror in Paris,” a CNN special report, airs March 30 at 9 p.m. ET.
Two friends describe a night on the town in Brussels with Abdeslam brothers
They say they had no idea the brothers were becoming radicalized
"They must have been changing bit by bit," says one friend
The men dance to their favorite rapper, Lacrim, in a nightclub on Brussels’ chic Avenue Louise.
Brahim Abdeslam, clearly visible, with a cigarette in his hand, flirts with a blond girl, while his younger brother Salah, dressed in an orange sweatshirt, whoops along with the group in the background.
This is a side of the Paris attackers that has never been seen before.
The date is February 8, 2015.
Just months later, Brahim would blow himself up at a cafe in Paris’s 11th arrondissement. His suicide was part of a deadly ISIS mission that would kill 130 people and injure hundreds more. Salah would become the only known member of that cell to survive and go on the run.
Fast forward another year to March 2016 and Salah is captured in the Belgian capital, which itself is rocked by its own twin attacks, bringing the effects of the Abdeslams’ terror network right to the heart of their home city – a city where those who knew the brothers reflect on how so many of their inner circle could have been radicalized so quickly.
Two friends, who filmed the video as they partied with Salah and Brahim that February night, agreed to share their stories with CNN, under the condition we hide their identities and speak far away from their neighborhood of Molenbeek.
So we meet in a park downtown, moments from the scene of the atrocity at Maelbeek metro station.
‘A ladies’ man’
Assuming false names, Karim and Rachid say they remember Brahim being the more serious one, while Salah was fun-loving.
“They were nice people,” said Rachid. “I suppose you could say they lived life to the full.”
“I saw Salah joke, smoke, drink and play cards,” says Karim.
“If anything, he liked women. He was something of a ladies’ man and I heard he had a girlfriend at one point.”
Looking back, after that memorable night in February, Rachid says the brothers started to change.
“That was the last time I saw them drink,” he says.
“Brahim started to become more religious. He would attend Friday prayers at the mosque but otherwise pray at home.”
At the time, the friends said they had no idea that the two had embarked upon their journey toward radicalism.
“They must have been changing bit by bit.”
Karim and Rachid say they do not espouse such views themselves, though a family member of Karim’s was recently prevented by authorities from trying to join ISIS in Syria.
He was just 15 years old.
“It happened so quickly our family barely noticed,” Karim says. “Also so much of it goes on behind closed doors, on line, in their rooms.”
Unemployed, with eight months’ jail time under his belt, Karim would spend his afternoons at the cafe Les Beguines, not far from his home, where he became close to its new owners – the Abdeslams – in 2011.
He says he and Rachid would smoke cannabis.
They’d play poker for money, peddle soft drugs, and watch the brothers’ beloved football team, Real Madrid, on the TV, Brahim cheering on its star player Cristiano Ronaldo.
“It was a fun place. It felt like family,” says Rachid.
Also part of that “family” are three more men held in custody for allegedly helping Salah while he was on the run. A fugitive, Mohammed Abrini, and a second Paris suicide bomber illustrate the pervasive nature of ISIS’ spread on one sleepy, residential street in a working class suburb of Brussels.
Abrini, who allegedly drove with Abdeslam to Paris twice in the week of the attacks, still remains a wanted man. Rachid and Karim say he was a regular at the cafe. They say he used to visit in the evenings for a drink, and describe him as a tall, slim, quiet man who would keep to himself.
Belgian police have never questioned Rachid or Karim, the friends say, even though Karim was with one of the suspects – Salah’s alleged getaway driver – on the night he was asked to come fetch him from France.
Karim and Rachid say that Hamza Attou, the driver, and his accomplice Mohammed Amri weren’t aware of what they were getting themselves into.
When it comes to Salah, though, they aren’t so sure.
“I doubt he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Karim.
‘No one’s born bad like that’
Looking back through his class photos, Karim shows me the face of a fellow pupil about 10 years old sitting on the row above him in the sports hall.
From his easy smile, it’s impossible to predict the boy, Chakib Akrouh, would go on to gun down Parisians alongside Brahim before blowing himself up as well.
“The last I heard he had gone to Syria, married there and had a little girl.”
Karim says he has a hard time understanding why his friends did what they did, but also how they did it, saying they must have been on drugs. “The only way I could do what they did was if I was completely drugged or drunk … not in control of my senses,” he says.
“Believe me, madame,” Rachid interjects. “No one’s born bad like that.”
In a way they too see themselves as victims of ISIS’ spread across their deprived suburb.
“It’s very serious,” says Rachid.
“As young Muslim men with few opportunities, things will get even worse for our kind from now on,” adds Karim.
“Plus these days even we are scared of being blown to pieces in the subway.”
CNN’s Saskya Vandoorne contributed to this story.