The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sole surviving key suspect in Paris attacks says he wasn’t a ‘delinquent,’ as he faces first in-depth questioning

Salah Abdeslam took a different tone Tuesday than when he first appeared in the Paris court Sept. 8. (Noelle Herrenschmidt/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

PARIS — The only surviving key suspect in the 2015 Paris attacks was questioned at length in a French court Tuesday, his first such appearance after weeks of testimony from survivors and the relatives of victims who died in the attacks.

Salah Abdeslam’s testimony in a special criminal court in central Paris differed markedly from his first public remarks there in early September, when he raised his voice and claimed to have “been treated like a dog.” At the time, he said he had abandoned all other work “to become a fighter of the Islamic State.”

Abdeslam continued to criticize his prison conditions Tuesday, once again comparing his treatment by French authorities with the treatment of animals, but for much of the questioning he presented himself as less combative and more forthcoming.

Whereas he had appeared in front of the court dressed in black during the first trial session in September, he wore a beige shirt and gray vest Tuesday. Frequently looking down and speaking calmly from the glass security box where he and the other suspects are held during the court sessions, the Belgium-born French citizen said he doesn’t “like to complain.”

In a custom-built courtroom, the trial begins for the November 2015 Paris attacks

During more than two hours of questioning, Abdeslam, 32, portrayed himself as a formerly “good student,” an amateur sportsman and “not a delinquent.”

At times, the atmosphere turned jovial to a surreal extent, only days after relatives of victims and survivors finished laying out the horrifying details of the attacks and their aftermath in the same courtroom.

Abdeslam drew laughter after discussing his nights out in Belgian clubs, when he said: “I’m not really a dancer.” Asked why he didn’t request to be released from prison, Abdeslam said he could hardly imagine that “you’re going to let me go.”

He said he struggled to find jobs after a court conviction for an attempted theft — an incident he described as unfortunate, “a bad end of an evening.”

Abdeslam has shown less remorse for the attacks on the night of Nov. 13, 2015, when the perpetrators deployed a mix of explosives and assault rifles as they targeted the Bataclan concert venue, the national stadium where then-President François Hollande was attending a soccer match, and several cafes and restaurants.

Abdeslam has been accused of driving perpetrators to the scene and renting cars and booking rooms for them.

The Islamic State later claimed responsibility for the coordinated hit, which amounted to France’s worst post-World War II attack.

Abdeslam said in September that the attack “was nothing personal.”

His religious beliefs and his alleged role in the attacks were excluded from Tuesday’s proceedings, which were scheduled to help the court determine the characters and backgrounds of the 14 defendants who are present at the trial. Abdeslam will be questioned more in-depth about those remaining aspects early next year.

He has already been found guilty of attempted murder by a Belgian court, for a shootout with police that took place while they were trying to apprehend him. Abdeslam was sentenced to 20 years in prison in that case in 2018.

French authorities have called the current proceedings the country’s biggest criminal trial in contemporary history, held in a courtroom that was specially built to accommodate hundreds of observers, including victims and members of the public.

In total, 20 suspected perpetrators and accomplices have been charged, but five of them are presumed dead, and one is imprisoned in Turkey. A verdict is expected in late May.