PARIS — Over the course of an extraordinary nine-month trial, the lone survivor of the Islamic State extremist team that attacked Paris in 2015 has proclaimed his radicalism, wept, apologized to victims and pleaded with judges to forgive his “mistakes.”
For victims’ families and survivors of the attacks, the trial for Salah Abdeslam and suspected accomplices has been excruciating yet crucial in their quest for justice and closure. At long last, the court will hand down its verdict Wednesday.
Abdeslam faces up to life in prison without parole on murder and other counts, the toughest sentence possible under France’s justice system.
The historic trial in Paris of 20 men suspected of critical roles in the Islamic State massacres that killed 130 people on Nov. 13, 2015, addressed the violence in the Bataclan theater, Paris cafes and the national stadium — France’s deadliest peacetime attack.
For months, the packed main chamber and 12 overflow rooms in the 13th century Justice Palace heard the harrowing accounts by the victims, along with testimony from Abdeslam. The other defendants are largely accused of helping with logistics or transportation. At least one is accused of a direct role in the deadly March 2016 attacks in Brussels, which also was claimed by the Islamic State group.
For survivors and those mourning loved ones, the trial was an opportunity to recount deeply personal accounts of the horrors inflicted that night and to listen to details of countless acts of bravery, humanity and compassion among strangers. Some hoped for justice, but most just wanted tell the accused directly that they have been left irreparably scarred, but not broken.
“The assassins, these terrorists, thought they were firing into the crowd, into a mass of people,” said Dominique Kielemoes at the start of the trial in September 2021. Her son bled to death in one of the cafes. Hearing the testimony of victims was “crucial to both their own healing and that of the nation,” Kielemoes said.
“It wasn’t a mass — these were individuals who had a life, who loved, had hopes and expectations,” she said.
France was changed in the wake of the attacks: Authorities declared a state of emergency and armed officers now constantly patrol public spaces. The violence sparked soul-searching among the French and Europeans, since most of the attackers were born and raised in France or Belgium. And they transformed forever the lives of all those who suffered losses or bore witness.
Presiding judge Jean-Louis Peries said at the trial’s outset that it belongs to “international and national events of this century.” France emerged from the state of emergency in 2017, after incorporating many of the harshest measures into law.
Fourteen of the defendants have been in court, including Abdeslam, the only survivor of the 10-member attacking team that terrorized Paris that Friday night. All but one of the six absent men are presumed to have been killed in Syria or Iraq; the other is in prison in Turkey.
Most of the suspects are accused of helping create false identities, transporting the attackers back to Europe from Syria or providing them with money, phones, explosives or weapons.
Abdeslam, a 32-year-old Belgian with Moroccan roots, was the only defendant tried on several counts of murder and kidnapping as a member of a terrorist organization.
The sentence sought for Abdeslam of life in prison without parole has only been pronounced four times in France — for crimes related to rape and murder of minors.
Prosecutors are seeking life sentences for nine other defendants. The remaining suspects were tried on lesser terrorism charges and face sentences ranging from five to 30 years.
In closing arguments, prosecutors stressed that all 20 defendants, who had fanned out around the French capital, armed with semi-automatic rifles and explosives-packed vests to mount parallel attacks, are members of the Islamic State extremist group responsible for the massacres.
“Not everyone is a jihadi, but all of those you are judging accepted to take part in a terrorist group, either by conviction, cowardliness or greed,” prosecutor Nicolas Braconnay told the court this month.
Some defendants, including Abdeslam, said innocent civilians were targeted because of France’s policies in the Middle East and hundreds of civilian deaths in Western airstrikes in Syria and Iraq on Islamic State fighters.
During his testimony, former President François Hollande dismissed claims that his government was at fault.
The Islamic State, “this pseudo-state, declared war with the weapons of war,” Hollande said. The Paris attackers did not terrorize, shoot, kill, maim and traumatize civilians because of religion, he said, adding it was “fanaticism and barbarism.”
The night of the attack was a balmy Friday evening, with the city’s bars and restaurants packed. At the Bataclan concert venue, the American band Eagles of Death Metal were playing to a full house. At the national stadium, a soccer match between France and Germany had just begun, attended by then-President Hollande and then-Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The sound of the first suicide bombing at 9:16 p.m. barely carried over the noise of the stadium’s crowd. The second came four minutes later. A squad of gunmen opened fire at several bars and restaurants in another part of Paris. That bloodshed outside came to an end at 9:41 p.m.
Worse was to follow. At 9:47 p.m., three more gunmen burst into the Bataclan, firing indiscriminately. Ninety people died within minutes. Hundreds were held hostage – some gravely injured – inside the concert hall for hours before Hollande, watching people covered in blood make their way out of the Bataclan, ordered it stormed.
Abdeslam was silent for years, refusing to speak to investigators. In April, his words started flowing, in testimony that at times contradicted earlier statements, including on his loyalty to the Islamic State.
He told the court that he was a last-minute addition to the group. He said he “renounced” his mission to detonate his explosives-packed vest in a bar in northern Paris that night. He hid out at first near Paris, and then fled with friends to Brussels, where he was arrested four months later.
Prosecutors emphasized contradictions in Abdeslam’s testimony — from pledging allegiance to the Islamic State at the start of the trial and expressing regret that his explosives strapped to his body failed to detonate, to claiming he had changed his mind in the bar and deliberately disabled his vest because he did not want to kill people “singing and dancing.”
During closing arguments Monday, Abdelslam’s lawyer Olivia Ronen told a panel of judges that her client is the only one in the group of attackers who didn’t set off explosives to kill others that night. He can’t be convicted for murder, she argued.
“If a life sentence without hope for ever experiencing freedom again is pronounced, I fear we have lost a sense of proportion,” Ronan said. She emphasized through the trial that she is “not providing legitimacy to the attacks” by defending her client in court.
Abdeslam apologized to the victims at his final court appearance Monday, saying his remorse and sorrow is heartfelt and sincere. Listening to victims’ accounts of “so much suffering” changed him, he said.
“I have made mistakes, it’s true, but I am not a murderer, I am not a killer,” he said.