The only surviving attacker from the terror commando that descended on Paris on the night of Nov. 13, 2015, is currently on trial. The young man used to like going out, drinking alcohol and smoking joints. What happened?
By Britta Sandberg in Paris
The witness, François Hollande, walks quickly through the courtroom, past the light-colored, wooden benches where the co-plaintiffs and journalists are sitting. Past the huge glass box from which 11 of the 20 defendants are following the proceedings. The former French president doesn’t even look at them before stopping at a lectern at the front of the courtroom.
Behind Hollande to the left, just a few meters from him and separated by a pane of glass, sits Salah Abdeslam, 32, the only surviving member of the terror commando that descended on Paris on Nov. 13, 2015. Never before, it seems safe to say, have a representative of terror and a representative of the state come as close to each other as in this courtroom. It didn’t happen in the military tribunals in Guantanamo, nor in other terror trials.
Abdeslam is the most prominent defendant, and the one that bears the greatest burden of guilt. French newspapers printed his photo when the trial kicked off in September, presenting him as the incarnation of evil. The other defendants stand accused of having participated in preparations for the attack – arranging fake documents, for example, or obtaining vehicles and apartments for the conspiracy. Two of them had been on their way to Europe, hoping to join in on the attack, but didn’t make it in time. Still others helped Salah Abdeslam escape after Nov. 13. Abdeslam, though, is the only one who was there and was supposed to have blown himself up, and he’s the only one who could provide answers to a number of open questions. Thus far, though, he has remained silent about the background of the attacks.
Guten Appetit – und gute Nacht: In diesen Restaurants muss kein Gast nach dem Dessert zum letzten Zug sprinten oder derjenige nach Hause fahren, der das kleinere Streichholz gezogen hat. Bei diesen 9 Virtuosen am Herd lädt das Hotelbett dazu ein, das Essen und den Abend in vollen Zügen (und Gläsern) zu geniessen.
The head judge asks the witness to identify himself. “My name is Hollande, first name François, born on August 12, 1954. I have come to provide information pertaining to my decisions in the months before and after the attack.”
Hollande has also appeared before the court to demonstrate that “in democracy … the answer is that of the law and not of revenge. That is why democracy will always be stronger than barbarism.”
The Palace of Justice in Paris these days is something of an antithesis to Guantanamo. It is an exemplary, rule-of-law response to terrorist violence – a unique show of strength from the judiciary. More than 300 lawyers are representing 1,800 co-plaintiffs and the 20 defendants. The courtroom clash is scheduled to last nine months, and it comes after a four-and-a-half-year investigation. The French state takes its time in the search for the truth.
It is the 42nd day of the trial, Wednesday, Nov. 10 – just three days before the sixth anniversary of that terrible night of terrorism when 130 people were killed. As every year, the people of Paris will lay flowers an wreaths at the crime scenes – at the Stade de France, where attackers blew themselves up, and near the outdoor cafés in the 11th Arrondissements and the Bataclan concert hall, where the terrorists gunned down young men and women with their Kalashnikovs. And Parisians will once again be left wondering why these people declared war on them in the heart of their city.
In the courtroom on this day, Hollande is to reveal what the state knew before the attacks. There is also the question as to whether the onslaught could have been prevented. And whether France’s air strikes in Syria, which Hollande ordered in September 2015, may have spurred the terrorists to carry out the attack.
That, after all, is the claim made at length by Salah Abdeslam at the beginning of the trial. France, he said, became a target after the French president decided to attack the terrorist organization Islamic State in Syria and after, he said, innocents also died in the air strikes, including women and children. It was also important to him to profess his commitment to Allah and the Prophet Muhammad before the court. Because the others can no longer speak, he apparently saw it as his duty to speak for them. For Abdeslam, Hollande is the real guilty party.
It is the legend of the “legitimate attack,” as the lawyers here refer to it. Hollande, though, will refute that view during his several hours of testimony. He says that as the summer of 2015 progressed, the warning signs became clearer and clearer. “We knew that there were operations being prepared in Syria, that there were individuals who mixed with the flow of refugees. We knew all that. But we did not know where, when and how they would attack us.”
Only in August, Hollande continues, did officials first learn that the IS fighter Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a close friend of Salah Abdeslam’s from Belgium, was coordinating the planned attacks from Syria. Responding to the imminent threat in his capacity as president, Hollande says, he ordered air strikes in September against IS training camps in Syria where Abaaoud was thought to be. “The goal was that of neutralizing these individuals,” he says. But by then, he continues, the plans for attacks in Europe were already quite far along. “This group struck us not for our actions abroad, but for our way of life at home,” Hollande says.
Salah Abdeslam’s defense attorney, Olivia Ronen – a small, dainty 31-year-old who is almost the same age as the defendant himself – rises in response. Abdeslam contacted her in summer 2018 himself because he was no longer able to get along with the attorney who had represented him to that point. It seemed a rather astounding choice for an Islamist to hire a young woman to defend him. But Ronen visited the suspect in prison, took over the case and has been defending him ever since. She is widely considered to be a brilliant defense attorney and particularly fearless. Her nails painted bright red, she is holding a sheet of paper, but hardly glances at it.
The attorney points out to the former French president that his chronology of events isn’t quite accurate and that he is mistaken about a particular date. She finds that concerning, she says, because in such a trial, precision is vital. Hollande must concede that she is right, but says that changes nothing about his testimony. Preparations for the attack, he reiterates, were in full swing that summer prior to the air strikes, as plenty of intelligence reports attest to.
The questioning of Hollande has almost concluded when Salah Abdeslam suddenly stands up and says he has something to say. It is the moment that many had feared, the moment when a terrorist could confront a former head of state. But the judge doesn’t allow the situation to come to that, requesting the defendant to ask what questions he may have through his attorney. And with that, the attacker is not given the stage he had been hoping for. Then, the judge adjourns the session and Abdeslam – accompanied by heavily armed police officers – is led out through the door in the back of the glass box.
Even after 40 days in court, the lead defendant remains something of a mystery. At the beginning of the trial, Abdeslam’s primary contribution was a number of provocative statements. When asked by the judge about his occupation, for example, he said he was “a fighter for Islamic State.”
When being questioned about his personal details, he refused to divulge the names of his parents, saying they “didn’t belong here.” When a victim reproached him by pointing out that the terrorists had also killed Muslims during the attack, he merely brushed it off cynically as an accident: “We only had our sights set on the infidels.”
When Abdeslam isn’t talking, though, he seems to sink into his own world there in the glass box in the courtroom. He sits motionless as he follows the proceedings or stares into space for several minutes at a time. The courtroom illustrator for the French daily Le Monde has been sitting across from the terrorist for two months. The strange thing, he says, is that he has been unable to see the evil in Abdeslam’s face. “What I see is a young man with roots in the Maghreb, not terribly big, not particularly broad-shouldered. His appearance is rather banal. To be honest, he looks exactly like the young immigrant children in my neighborhood.”
Interestingly, says the illustrator, Abdeslam doesn’t have a problem being drawn, in contrast to the other defendants. Sometimes, he continues, he even has the impression that he is posing. He’ll sit there like a statue, almost as though he is enjoying the role.
In testimony from the other defendants, Abdeslam is frequently only spoken of as “Brahim’s little brother.” He is the only member of the terror commando who was never in Syria and who was never trained as a professional fighter. His older brother Brahim traveled to Syria via Turkey in January 2015. There is a video showing him taking target practice north of Raqqa. But the younger brother was chosen to play a different role than that of a fighter.
Salah, according to the investigation files, focused in 2015 primarily on the logistics of the attack. He rented cars from a variety of companies – including those used on the night of Nov. 13 – all of them unremarkable compacts: a Renault Clio, a Seat León, a VW Polo. During the summer, he picked up future members of the attack team in places like Hungary and Germany, who had traveled to Europe over the Balkan Route disguised as refugees, and took them to Belgium in rental cars.
In early September, he bought 12 fountain base receivers from a fireworks store along with a remote control, which makes it possible to send electric impulses over large distances. On Nov. 11, he used Booking.com to reserve hotel rooms near Paris where the attackers would spend their last night before the attacks.
The man, seen in the public imagination as evil incarnate, seems to have been something of a glorified gofer ahead of the attacks – a reliable organizer who knew of the plans and supported them without ultimately killing anybody himself. Why he ended up being the only one to survive the attacks is one of the open questions facing the trial. Abdeslam himself has proffered competing narratives on the issue. He told friends, as they later testified, that he decided at the last moment not to blow himself up because there would have been so many young people among the victims. But he has also said that his suicide belt malfunctioned. A technical examination of the belt revealed that one of two detonators was intact, but a small electric wire was damaged, though the investigators wrote that it may have been intentionally severed with a wire cutter.
That same night of Nov. 13, Abdeslam deposited his suicide belt in a trash bin in Montrouge, south of Paris, after he had driven three attackers to Stade de France. He then called a friend in Brussels and asked him to come to Paris to pick him up. Does that mean that he really was too cowardly? That he wasn’t sufficiently convinced of the deadly mission?
The highest ranking IS member among the defendants, Osama Krayem, told investigators that he thought Salah Abdeslam simply wasn’t as religious and as involved as the other members of the terror cell. “He wasn’t like the ones who blew themselves up in Paris. I lived with such people in Syria, and Salah isn’t like them. For me, he’s just a poor guy playing a role that wasn’t made for him.” Krayem stands accused of having helped organize the Paris attacks.
It’s the middle of October and Nadia Mondeguer is sitting in her 11th Arrondissement apartment located just a few minutes from the place where her daughter Lamia was shot to death on Nov. 13, 2015. Salah’s big brother was a member of the three-person team that opened fire on the terrace of the Belle Équipe café. Witnesses would later say that it looked like the attackers were enjoying themselves as they fired their Kalashnikovs into the crowd.
Lamia was 30 years old when she died, a radiantly beautiful, fun-loving woman who had just fallen in love. On the hearth, on the dresser: There are photos of her everywhere in the apartment. The last photo of her alive was taken on Nov. 13 at 7:21 p.m. Lamia was to meet up with her new boyfriend Romain at Belle Équipe an hour-and-a-half later. The two of them had just met in July, her mother says. They spent half an hour together that night before the slaughter began. Afterwards, the two lay dead on the sidewalk.
Nadia Mondeguer is more angry than she is bitter. She wants to know why her daughter was taken away from her. Why did this happen to her, an Egyptian who survived three wars back home before moving to France in 1974? That is why she regularly attends the court proceedings or follows them from home via a live internet broadcast set up for the victims.
“I want to understand who these people are who so brutally forced their way into my life. But everything that Salah Abdeslam says is so inane. It is based in nothing. The longer I listen to him, the more the hate fades and gives way to contempt.” From the indictment, she knows that the attackers drove along Boulevard Voltaire in a black Seat car directly under her living room before shooting her daughter. The indictment also notes how many shots they fired at the terrace: 164.
Mondeguer herself testified in the trial on Oct. 5. At the end of her testimony, she turned to the men in the glass box: “I could be your mother. I have tried to imagine how you were as children, small, cute boys, as cute as my daughter. At some point, though, these little angels turned into monsters who became intoxicated by the word ‘kuffar,’ infidels. What happened?”
She says she no longer expects anything more from them. The testimony of the victims and their families, she says, was important to give the victims a face and transform them from objects back into subjects. That, she believes, is what will remain from this trial. She has archived a collection of Lamia’s videos on her laptop: Lamia singing karaoke, Lamia with her boyfriend, Lamia on vacation. She watches these videos over and over again, and shares them with her visitors. But she can no longer stand to look at albums full of childhood photos of her daughter. “Because her entire childhood was leading toward her being a happy adult,” Mondeguer says. But when she looks at those pictures, she says, all she can see is the end.
In the first week of November, the defendants testify for the first time – not, though, about the attacks and their motives, but about their childhoods and teenage years. Four days have been scheduled for the testimony. Salah Abdeslam is the first on the list. He stands up, the shoulder-length hair he wore early in the trial having since been cut short. He is wearing a thick, gray jacket, his French has a Belgian accent. And Abdeslam, who just a few weeks earlier had been unwilling to tell the court the names of his parents, who had been recalcitrant and continually had to be admonished by the judge, is suddenly quiet and polite as he discusses his childhood and youth.
“The main defendant is no longer the same,” Le Monde will write in a story printed the next day. Is it because his defense attorney advised him to change strategy? Or is it because the testimony from victims and their families got to him after all?
“I was a quiet, nice child who obeyed his parents,” Abdeslam says. “My teachers liked me.” He says he had a good relationship with his parents and siblings. “I love them all, but Brahim was the one who I felt closest to. Maybe because he was the one who cared for me the most when I was little.”
His life in Molenbeek, near Brussels, was a quiet one, he says. And it doesn’t sound all that bad when he talks about it. Salah Abdeslam went to a university prep technical high school, but decided not to enroll in university and started working in the company where his father was employed. He worked there for a year-and-a-half, repairing trams.
“Why did you quit?” the judge wants to know.
“I was fired.”
“Because I had to go to jail.”
Abdeslam was arrested due to an attempted robbery after an evening of too much alcohol. What led up to it? He provides information about this incident as well. “I had just gone out to drink a bit, and then I was suddenly involved in this thing. It wasn’t good for me.”
What sounds like a mistake may have been the first step in the wrong direction. In addition to Salah, Abdelhamid Abaaoud was also arrested as part of that attempted robbery – the man who would later coordinate the Nov. 13 attacks, and was childhood friend of both Abdeslam and his brother.
On the screens in the courtroom is a map of Molenbeek, with the addresses of the defendants and commando members marked with little blue pins. For years, they lived here, just a few streets from each other, a tight-knit community who knew each other and helped out as needed. The café Les Béguines, which was operated by Brahim Abdeslam, was their living room.
They would meet up there to drink and play cards or chess. Almost all of them used cannabis – some, as they tell it, up to 5 grams a day. They would go to the casino or to clubs for a bit of fun. In the evenings, they would cruise the neighborhood in their cars, listening to French rap, drinking and smoking. It was their battle against boredom. Perhaps that is why the war against the infidels seemed so attractive to them. And perhaps none of them could imagine not being a part of it. Is that what it was?
“We were all like brothers,” says one of the defendants in the first week of November.
At some point, Brahim Abdeslam began watching Islamic State propaganda videos in the basement of his café. Salah Abdeslam’s girlfriend, with whom he had had a relationship since he was 17 years old, told the Belgian police after the attacks that she hadn’t noticed any signs of radicalization in her boyfriend. But in 2015, she told them that he had been away on two occasions for several days, and then told her nothing about the trips afterward. She says they argued about it.
“I was born in Belgium and went to a public school. I lived as I was taught here in the West,” Salah Abdeslam says in court. He says he had had plans for his life, including getting married. But then, he says, he gave all that up once he began “getting involved in something else.”
“In what?” the judge asks.
“In the things I have been accused of,” replies the defendant.
You should never have high expectations of a terror trial, says lawyer Gérard Chemla, who is representing 140 victims at the trial. The lawyer, who has become a specialist in representing the interests of victims, says he established a rule for himself many years ago: Never put too much stock in what the perpetrators say and don’t allow their testimony to influence you. The questions are the most important thing, you can’t influence the answers anyway. “We expect the perpetrators to understand what they have done and perhaps even to apologize so that we can forgive them. But that’s not how things work.”
In this trial, he says, that is particularly challenging. Because the defendants have so little to do with the image of them that we have built up over the years since the attack.
The Paris attacks are among the worst terror onslaughts that Europe has seen since World War II. But now, the victims must somehow accept the fact that the perpetrators are far less sophisticated and more banal than one might think. “They are almost normal people, they’re not monsters,” says Chemla. “Neither their childhoods nor poverty nor indoctrination from their parents can explain what they did. Which makes it all the more important that we ask in this trial what it was that radicalized them.”
That, Chemla says, is one challenge. The other: The many gray areas that still exist must be clarified. Why did the attackers arrive at Stade de France so late? Why were there so few victims? Why did they drive to Charles de Gaulle Airport first? What did they want there? And why did nothing come of the additional attack plans that investigators later found in a computer file? There were plans sketched out to attack the Paris Metro and the office quarter La Défense.
“I am convinced,” says Chemia, “that we only experienced half of the attacks that they had planned for us.”
Ahead of the trial, he spent several months listening to the stories of his clients, together with his wife, who is also a lawyer. At some point, the two of them decided that only one of them should be there. Anything else would have been too much for them to bear as a couple and as a family.
Since then, the 63-year-old, who lives in Reims, has been spending four days a week in Paris. He had to promise his wife that he wouldn’t take the Metro when in the French capital, born out of the belief they share that another attack during the trial is a very real possibility. Chemla now only rides a bicycle or takes a taxi.
According to the current schedule, the trial will only come to an end in May. Will Salah Abdeslam provide answers in the coming months to the many open questions? Nobody can say for sure, the lawyer says. “Abdeslam has now found his role – that of the only survivor from the terror commando.”
But it looks as though this role, too, may be a bit too big for him.