BRUSSELS — A friend of Salah Abdeslam, the man suspected of being the eighth perpetrator of Friday’s deadly attacks in Paris who is currently on the run, has told The Independent he could “never, ever, ever have imagined it could be the same person [he] knew”.

Abdel Ben Alal, a 27-year-old deliveryman who grew up in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels said “he was someone who studied hard and who was well educated. We went to the same school and played football together”.

Alal says he heard that his friend had been in contact by phone with the suspected mastermind of the attacks Abdelhamid Abaaoud, also 27, who he used to know when he was younger.

His description of Abaaoud is far removed from the man filmed dragging dead bodies tied to the back of a truck along a road in Syria, where he has risen through Islamic State ranks since early 2013.

“I used to know him when I was around 20. He loved motorbikes and we used to ride around on motorbikes together. He was a shopkeeper so he didn’t want for anything. It’s not like he needed money or committed crimes then — he had his business.”

Alal says he saw Abdeslam around a month before the attacks and nothing seemed amiss: “We chatted and talked about school and sports — I didn’t see any sign of hatred in him whatsoever”.

“I know he was interested by everything that was going on in Syria and Palestine. When we went for drinks together — his brother had a bar, a little local place — I noticed he was interested in discussing that, while the rest of us would just want to play card games.”

When Alal and his friends saw his photo in the press they were in a state of shock.

He says Molenbeek, a Brussels neighborhood home to 100,000 and an increasingly young population, feels more like a village.

“Everyone knows each other here, everyone helps each other out. The media is saying Molenbeek is the cradle of jihadism — but the vast majority of people here would never think like that”.

While volunteering at a charity for the homeless in the neighborhood however, one of Alal’s relatives was approached by someone who tried to encourage him to go to Syria.

“He wasn’t influenced by them one bit. He stopped volunteering”, says Alal. “We’re not under the wing of those idiots who prey on young or isolated people. Those kind of people are the dregs of society, they are imbeciles.”

“I’ve heard people saying all people from here are radical. That’s false, that’s disappointing and that’s sad”, he says.

This story originally appeared in The Independent. Its content was created separately from USA TODAY.

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