PARIS (AP) – The central defendant in the Paris attack case in 2015 said on Wednesday that the coordinated killings were a retaliation for French airstrikes on the Islamic State group, calling the death of 130 innocents “nothing personal” as he acknowledged his role for first time time.
Salah Abdeslam, who wore everything black and refused to remove his mask as he spoke in a specially built courtroom, has been silent throughout the investigation. Observers were waiting to see if he would provide any details during the trial.
Nine Islamic State group gunmen and suicide bombers struck within minutes of each other in several locations in Paris on November 13, 2015, targeting fans at the national football stadium and café guests and ending with a massacre in the Bataclan concert hall. It was the deadliest violence to hit France since World War II and among the worst terrorist attacks to hit the West, shaking the country’s sense of security and rewriting its policies.
Abdeslam is the only survivor of the cell, most of whose members were French or Belgian. After his suicide vest did not work the night of the attacks, he fled to his hometown of Brussels.
On Wednesday, a screen in the courtroom showed a photo of the car Abdeslam left in northern Paris after handing over the three suicide bombers at the stadium. Abdeslam’s goal was unclear, but when Islamic State claimed responsibility the next day, the statement alluded to an attack that never took place in the neighborhood where he left the car.
The two people Abdeslam urged to drive through the night from Brussels to Paris to pick him up are among the 20 who are on trial. Six of them are tried in absentia.
Abdeslam, who was arrested months after the attacks, said the killings were a response to French airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. France was part of the international coalition that formed when the extremists conquered large territory in both countries.
“We fought against France, we attacked France, we targeted the civilian population. It was not something personal against them, “said Abdeslam. “I know my statement may be shocking, but it is not to dig the knife deeper into the wound, but to be sincere to those who suffer immeasurable grief.”
George Salines, whose daughter Lola was among the 90 dead inside the Bataclan, refused to accept Abdeslam’s reasoning.
“To explain that what we wanted to target was France and not individuals – right, except it was people who were wounded and killed, innocent people, targeted voluntarily. That is morally unacceptable, ”he said.
The same network hit Brussels airport and metro system in March 2016, killing a further 32 people. Among those on trial in Paris is Mohammed Abrini, who left the city the night before the 2015 attacks and attended Brussels. On Wednesday, he recognized a role.
“I recognize my participation … (but) in this evil that happened in France, I am neither the commander nor the architect. I did not provide any logistical or financial assistance, ”said Abrini.
The ghost of the man who was the architect of the attacks, the late Abdelhamid Abaaoud, posed a major threat in the early days of the trial.
The courtroom saw him in a video escape into the subway. An investigator testified that he was on the phone with the attackers and to someone in Brussels during the attacks.
Anti-terrorism investigators discovered Abaaoud in surveillance video that went into the Paris metro with another of the perpetrators. They recognized Abaaoud by his fluorescent orange shoes – and that was an important moment in the matter.
“As soon as we see this video, it changes everything because we are aware that there are still at least two terrorists alive,” the investigator testified. His name was not made public, as is common in French anti-terrorism cases.
Abaaoud and the remaining perpetrator died days later in a police outburst and suicide explosion.
The same investigator also testified about the devastation officials felt as the attacks unfolded.
“The feeling we had that night in Bataclan was a failure. … I’m not sure we had the means to prevent everything. But when we went into Bataclan, that was the feeling, ”he said.
The trial is scheduled to last nine months. Abdeslam has already blasted out comments against the group’s treatment in prison, declaring his profession a “fighter for Islamic State”. But Wednesday’s statements came at the urging of the presiding judge.
“This court cannot be a platform for his fanaticism,” warned Mehana Mouhou, a lawyer for 70 victims. ‘The court can not be a platform for his propaganda. We must be very careful about that. ”
Alex Turnbull contributed.