Jihadist trial in Paris seeks to understand the unthinkable

Chastened defendant Abdeslam cites his rejection of ‘western values’ before he embraced Islamic radicalism

 Salah Abdeslam  is escorted by Belgian police officers at his trial in Brussels after a shootout that led to his capture in the Belgian capital in  2018. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/AFP/Getty

Salah Abdeslam is escorted by Belgian police officers at his trial in Brussels after a shootout that led to his capture in the Belgian capital in 2018. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/AFP/Getty

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The trial of 14 men accused of participation in the November 13th, 2015 jihadist attacks, in which 130 people were shot dead or blown up in suicide bombings in Paris and Saint-Denis, entered a new phase this week: studying the “personalities” of the 14 accused who are present in the courtroom in Paris.

Their radicalisation and the events of that terrible Friday night will not be addressed until January 2022.

Because they are testifying in alphabetical order, Salah Abdeslam spoke first. He is the best-known defendant, and the only survivor among 10 alleged perpetrators of the attacks outside the Stade de France, at Paris cafés and in the Bataclan concert hall.

Abdeslam was followed by his childhood friend and neighbour, Mohamed Abrini. Because violent jihadists are usually killed on the scene by security forces, it is highly unusual to hear followers of the Islamic State group cross-examined.

Abdeslam and Abrini grew up in Molenbeek, an immigrant quarter of Brussels. Both told of losing a favourite brother to the jihadist cause. Brahim Abdeslam activated his suicide vest in the Voltaire café in Paris that Friday the 13th. Souleymane Abrini had been killed in Syria.

Abdeslam and Abrini were supposed to have been suicide bombers themselves; Abdeslam in the Paris attacks, Abrini at Zaventem airport in Brussels on March 22nd, 2016, when he abandoned a luggage trolley loaded with explosives.

Over the previous five weeks, the court heard 350 relatives of victims and survivors of the attacks recount the horror of that night. Witnesses spoke of concertgoers being mowed down like fields of wheat, and mountains of bodies inside the Bataclan.

Most witnesses asked to be identified by first names only. A woman called Maya told of watching her two closest girlfriends and her husband die before her eyes at the Carillon café.

A man called Guillaume told how the extremist Samy Amimour aimed his assault rifle at him in the Bataclan but was shot dead by a policeman at the very moment he was about to fire. A woman called Gaëlle recounted the endless operations she endured to reconstruct her face and body.

Salah Abdeslam made several defiant outbursts when the trial opened in September. His behaviour changed this week. Perhaps he took advice from his lawyers or was sobered by the chilling testimony of the previous five weeks. He seemed chastened on the witness stand and spoke softly of his childhood and family. It was difficult to reconcile the 32-year-old’s ordinary demeanour with the sheer horror of the atrocities in which he is accused of being an accomplice.

‘Quiet boy’

Abdeslam corrected reports that he is a Belgian of Moroccan origin. His parents emigrated from Morocco to France in the 1970s so that his father could work in a factory.

“I have only French nationality,” he explained. The family later moved to Belgium, which is why Abdeslam speaks with a Belgian accent.

“My childhood was very simple. I was a nice, quiet boy. I obeyed my parents,” Abdeslam said.

His father was a tram driver for the Brussels transport company STIB. Salah completed secondary education, qualified as a mechanical electrician, and was hired to repair trams for the company that employed his father.

Abdeslam went to prison for the first time at age 21 when he was convicted of a break-in and robbery. Judge Jean-Louis Périès asked who committed the robbery with him.

“I don’t want to elaborate,” the defendant replied.

“I’ll tell you,” Judge Périès said. “You were with Abdelhamid Abaaoud. ”

Abaaoud, the principal organiser of the November 13th attacks, was killed by security forces in Saint-Denis five days later.

Abdeslam was known in Molenbeek as a party animal who drank, gambled, and smoked dope. He shrugged off these pastimes, saying he had been “steeped in western values”.

Asked to define “western values”, Abdeslam replied: “It means living like a libertine, without worrying about God, eating and drinking whatever you want to.” He has now spent six years in solitary confinement and said God helped him bear 24/7 surveillance by security cameras.

Contrary to Abdeslam, Mohamed Abrini dropped out of school. Though he chalked up 12 criminal convictions, he described himself as a petty criminal. He admitted having spent up to €5,000 a day at blackjack, poker, roulette and slot machines. Asked about his consumption of alcohol and cannabis, Abrini admitted, “we went to discotheques. We drank. We smoked . . . We didn’t come out of our mothers’ bellies like that – bearded and holding a Kalashnikov”.

Abrini blamed Molenbeek and television violence for his downfall.

“In every family, in every house, in all the cafés, you see war, war, war,” he said. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. People install satellite dishes to watch stations from home. Even on the European channels you see women and children getting massacred.”

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