PARIS: Salah Abdeslam, a surviving member of the group that carried out the Paris attacks in November that killed 130 people, will be questioned by French investigators for the first time on Friday.
For months, Abdeslam was the most wanted fugitive in Europe until he was tracked down and arrested on March 18 in the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek where he grew up. Transferred to France under high security on April 27, he has been held at Fleury-Merogis prison, southeast of Paris.
A childhood friend of suspected ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Abdeslam is thought to have played a key role both on the night of the attacks on November 13, and in their preparation. Two others have been arrested in France in connection with the attacks carried out by the Islamic State group but they are considered secondary participants.
Abdeslam, 26, is known to have dropped off the three suicide bombers who blew themselves up outside the Stade de France national stadium in northern Paris. He is said to have backed out of the suicide bombing himself. An abandoned explosives vest was found in a southern Paris district close to where Abdeslam was placed by mobile phone data on the night of the attacks. CCTV pictures from filling stations showed him fleeing back to Belgium after two friends came to pick him up.
In the build-up to the attacks, he is known to have rented the cars and hideouts used by the gang. He also transported several other extremists around Europe in the preceding months, including Najim Laachraoui, the suspected bombmaker for the November attacks who was himself killed in a suicide bombing in Brussels on March 22.
The coordinated attacks in Brussels that day also struck a metro station, killing 32 people overall. Abdeslam could, in theory, shine a light on the planning and execution of the Paris attacks, the command structure and other accomplices who are still at large.
He could also clear up the links between the attacks in Paris and Belgium, both carried out by a network linked to the Islamic State group. His French lawyer Frank Berton told AFP that Abdeslam “wants to explain himself.”
But few are expecting any major revelations. “The investigators have only him in custody. He could help if he collaborates, either to confirm elements of the investigation, or to give fresh leads,” said Gerard Chemla, a lawyer representing some 50 of the victims and their families from the Paris attacks.
“However, we should not hang on his every word and wait for any sensational revelations,” added Chemla, pointing out that the police have already done much of the vital work in dismantling the network. “The first interviews are often about denials.
We should maybe leave the process to unfold for a while,” added Jean Reinhart, another lawyer representing some of the victims. Reinhart said he was not expecting repentance or any “great sincerity” from the suspect.
Abdeslam’s lawyer before his extradition from Brussels, Sven Mary, has described him as a “little idiot” with the “intelligence of an empty ashtray.” Mary also said Abdeslam was “more of a follower than a leader“, though some have argued he may have adopted this attitude to lessen his responsibility.
In his two interrogations in Belgium, Abdeslam gave the impression he was merely a pawn of Abaaoud and his own brother Brahim, who blew himself up outside a Paris cafe during the November attacks. But he has already been caught in a lie, saying that he only met Abaaoud once before, when in fact they had a record of teenage delinquency together in Molenbeek.
Hundreds of friends and families of victims are still waiting for answers on questions such as how and why the targets were chosen, how the attacks were financed, and the intelligence failures. French magistrates are holding their first meetings with them between May 24 and 26 in Paris.
The lone known surviving suspect in the Paris attacks was returned Wednesday to the city where Islamic State extremists unleashed a night of mayhem and charged with a host of terrorism offenses, raising hopes that he may be able to help French investigators trace the pathways of IS fighters thought to be hiding out in Europe.
Salah Abdeslam was whisked in secretly by helicopter after being transferred from the prison cell in Belgium where he had been held since his capture last month. His lawyer, Frank Berton, described a “muscular operation” that had caught even the attorney by surprise, causing him to rush to join his client at Paris’ Palace of Justice.
The 26-year-old faces preliminary charges of participating in a terrorist organization, terrorist murders and attempted murders, attempted terrorist murders of public officials, hostage-taking, and possessing weapons and explosives, French prosecutors said in a statement.
Berton said Abdeslam was being sent to Fleury-Merogis, a massive, high-security prison about 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Paris, where he will be held in isolation in a special camera-equipped cell until his next hearing on May 20. French Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas said earlier that Abdeslam would be placed in isolation, watched by guards specially trained to deal with “people reputed to be dangerous.”
The return of the last known survivor of the team that carried out the Nov. 13 attacks may help investigators untangle some of the still-unresolved questions about the assault, which claimed 130 lives at cafes, a music hall and a sports stadium. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the carnage.
Berton told reporters Wednesday that his client “volunteered that he would explain himself at some later date.”
Abdeslam, a French citizen of Moroccan origin, spent four months on the run following the attacks and a month in Belgian custody after being tackled by heavily armed police outside his hideout in the Mollenbeek neighborhood of Brussels.
Abdeslam’s precise role in the attacks has never been clear. The Paris prosecutor said he was kitted out as a suicide bomber, but abandoned his plans and fled to Belgium. Abdeslam’s older brother blew himself up that night at a cafe.
It was at the hideout near his childhood home in Molenbeek that Abdeslam was ultimately captured on March 18. His detention may have prompted other members of the Islamic State cell to rush attack plans already in motion. Four days later, suicide bombers detonated their explosives in the Brussels airport and metro, killing 32 people. Abdeslam had told interrogators nothing about a new plot.
His return to Paris offered solace to victims of the Nov. 13 bloodshed and raised hopes that French investigators would finally be able to trace the pathways of the Islamic State fighters thought to be hiding out in Europe.
“I would like to look him in the eye. If I could even talk to him, it would be important to me,” George Salines, whose daughter, Lola, died at the Bataclan concert venue, told BFM television.
But in a surprising assessment, Abdeslam’s Belgian lawyer downplayed any insight from his client, dismissing him as a “little jerk among Molenbeek’s little delinquents, more a follower than a leader.”
“He has the intelligence of an empty ashtray,” the attorney, Sven Mary, told the French newspaper Liberation. “He is the perfect example of the … generation that believes it’s living in a video game. … I asked him if he had read the Quran and he told me he got his interpretation from the Internet.”
However, Berton described his client as a young man “falling apart” and ready to cooperate.
He told iTele TV that Abdeslam wants to talk, “he has things to say, that he wants to explain his route to radicalization” as well as his role in the attacks — but not take responsibility for the crimes of others.
“That means be judged for facts and acts that he committed but not for what he did not commit simply because he is the only survivor of the attacks,” Berton said.
Testimony from Abdeslam could prove significant to definitively linking events of Nov. 13, which involved three teams of attackers who blew themselves up or sprayed gunfire at the Stade de France sports stadium, cafes and bars, and at the Bataclan. Brussels, and in particular the Molenbeek neighborhood with its large Muslim population, was home to many of the attackers who struck Paris.
Speculation about Abdeslam’s role and place in the hierarchy of the attackers has been rampant. Was he a little guy and a coward or a pivotal figure in the planning and execution of the attacks?
It had been widely suspected that Abdeslam pulled out of his own role as an attacker, something Paris prosecutor Francois Molins confirmed at a news conference, saying he had wanted to blow himself up at the sports stadium but backed down.
Besides the charges in Paris, Abdeslam is also charged in Belgium with attempted murder over a March 15 shootout with police in Brussels. He was arrested three days later and police in Belgium have questioned him about any potential links to the suicide bombers in the Brussels attacks.
Berton, who has taken on tough cases in the past, said in the iTele interview that Abdeslam “has the right to be defended.”
“We’re in a democracy. … We’re not in a totalitarian state,” Berton said.
The case will take years to reach trial, as is standard in French criminal justice, and will involve six magistrates, said Alain Marsaud, who created the country’s anti-terrorism prosecutor and is now a lawmaker on the commission investigating the Nov. 13 attacks.
Marsaud said Abdeslam may prove less important than many hope, and said he expected the suspect — who has already acknowledged a role in the Paris attacks under questioning in Belgium — would cooperate just enough to argue for a lighter sentence.
“I think he is clever enough to try and put one past the judges,” Marsaud said.
Geraldine Berger-Stenger, a lawyer for multiple victims, also cautioned against pinning too much hope on any revelations from Abdeslam.
“I am not in Mr. Abdeslam’s head. I don’t have any expectations for him, unfortunately,” she said. “This person is the key witness but we are perhaps hoping for too much.”
Marsaud noted failures that allowed the Islamic State cell, including many Europeans trained in Syria, to essentially hide out in the open, moving from country to country with impunity.
“We had free circulation of money and goods. OK. But it’s been very expensive,” he said. “We did not create a way to secure Europe in terms of circulation of people.”