PARIS – The key defendant in the 2015 Paris attacks trial said Wednesday the coordinated killings were in retaliation for French airstrikes on the Islamic State group, calling the deaths of 130 innocent people “nothing personal" as he acknowledged his role for the first time.
Salah Abdeslam, who wore all black and declined to remove his mask as he spoke in a custom-built courtroom, has been silent throughout the investigation. Observers were waiting to see if he would offer any details during the trial.
Nine Islamic State group gunmen and suicide bombers struck within minutes of one another at several Paris locations on Nov. 13, 2015, targeting fans at the national soccer stadium and cafe-goers and ending with a bloodbath in the Bataclan concert hall. It was the deadliest violence to strike France since World War II and among the worst terror attacks to hit the West, shaking the country's sense of security and rewriting its politics.
Abdeslam is the only survivor of that cell, most of whose members were French or Belgian. After his suicide vest malfunctioned on 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 abandoned in northern Paris after he dropped off the three suicide bombers at the stadium. Abdeslam's target 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 called upon to drive through the night from Brussels to Paris to pick him up are among the 20 on trial. Six of those are being 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 as the extremists conquered vast territory in both countries.
“We fought France, we attacked France, we targeted the civilian population. It was nothing personal against them," Abdeslam said. "I know my statement may be shocking, but it is not to dig the knife deeper in the wound but to be sincere towards those who are suffering immeasurable grief.”
George Salines, whose daughter Lola was among the 90 dead inside the Bataclan, refused to accept Abdeslam's rationale.
"To explain that what we wanted to target was France and not individual persons -– right, except it was people who were injured and killed, innocent people, targeted voluntarily. It’s morally unacceptable,” he said.
The same network struck the Brussels airport and subway system in March 2016, killing another 32 people. Among those on trial in Paris is Mohammed Abrini, who left the city the night before the 2015 attacks and took part in the Brussels one. He acknowledged a role on Wednesday.
“I recognize my participation ... (but) in this evil that happened in France, I am neither the commander nor the architect. I provided no logistical nor financial help,” Abrini said.
The specter of the man who was the architect of the attacks, the late Abdelhamid Abaaoud, loomed large in the first days of the trial.
The courtroom saw him in a video escaping into the metro. An investigator testified that he was on the phone to the attackers and to someone in Brussels throughout the assaults.
Antiterrorism investigators spotted Abaaoud in surveillance video walking into the Paris metro with another of the gunmen. They recognized Abaaoud by his fluorescent orange shoes — and it was a key moment in the case.
“As soon as we see this video, it changes everything because we realize there are still at least two terrorists still alive,” the investigator testified. His name was not released publicly, as is common in French antiterrorism trials.
Abaaoud and the remaining gunman died days later in a police shootout and suicide explosion.
The same investigator also testified to the devastation that officials felt as the attacks unfolded.
“The sentiment we had that evening at the Bataclan was one of failure. … I’m not sure we had the means to prevent everything. But when we went into the Bataclan that was the feeling,” he said.
The trial is scheduled to last nine months. Already, Abdeslam has burst out with comments against the group's treatment in prison and declared his profession as “fighter for the Islamic State.” But Wednesday's statements came at the invitation of the presiding judge.
“This court cannot be a platform for his fanaticism," warned Mehana Mouhou, a lawyer for 70 victims. “The court cannot be a platform for his propaganda. We need to be very careful about that.”
Alex Turnbull contributed.