PARIS — The only surviving key suspect in the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people testified Wednesday that he “didn’t hurt anyone,” even as he proclaimed support for the Islamic State and defended the motivations of the attackers.
Salah Abdeslam’s cross-examination yielded his most detailed public remarks about the attacks and marked a significant moment in France’s biggest criminal trial in contemporary history. But the questioning of the 32-year-old French Moroccan also appeared to show the limits of how much closure the proceedings can bring to some of the victims and their relatives.
Though Abdeslam is charged with murder, prosecutors assert that he abandoned his plans to kill after his explosive vest malfunctioned. On Wednesday, he suggested he backtracked because he saw himself reflected in people sitting at a cafe. He spoke of “a moment of doubt [before] blowing yourself up.”
“I wanted to say today that I didn’t kill anyone, and I didn’t hurt anyone. I didn’t even make a scratch,” Abdeslam said.
There was no indication of remorse. Instead, he accused people of “slandering” him and said his treatment in prison made him question, “Did I do the right thing to go back, or should I have gone all the way?”
His defense strategy was frustrating to some victims and observers who had hoped he would take responsibility.
Abdeslam is accused of being part of a team of 10 attackers who deployed a mix of explosives and assault rifles Nov. 13, 2015, as they targeted the Bataclan theater, the national stadium where then-President François Hollande was attending a soccer match, and several cafes and restaurants.
Nine of the attackers died at the scene. More than a dozen other people are on trial alongside Abdeslam but are charged with lesser crimes. Six defendants are being tried in absentia — five of those presumed dead in Syria or Iraq and one imprisoned in Turkey.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for what amounted to France’s worst post-World War II attack.
On Wednesday, Abdeslam proclaimed: “I support the Islamic State. I am in favor of them. I love them.”
He said his allegiance to the militant group was initially prompted by the war in Syria — he felt “guilty” that while Syrians suffered, “I was in comfort, busy enjoying life.” He said the Paris rampage was a response to “the aggression of France and the West.”
The night of the attacks will be the subject of future rounds of questioning.
Some of the alleged accomplices on trial may never be convicted. After the January 2015 attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket, terrorism charges were dropped for six of 14 defendants.
Abdeslam, however, is expected to spend years in prison. If convicted in this trial, he would face a life sentence. But he was already sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Belgian court, in a separate trial in 2018 that focused on a shootout with police as they sought to apprehend him.
Sharon Weill, a law professor at the American University of Paris who focuses on terrorism trials, said Wednesday’s testimony marked an important moment because Abdeslam had long refused to answer investigators’ questions.
At the start of Wednesday’s court session, Abdeslam suggested that he had not yet decided if he would cooperate in the questioning. “And then he spoke and spoke and spoke,” said Weill. “It’s as if he really wants to talk.”
At certain points over the past months, Abdeslam has appeared eager to provoke. On his first trial date in September, he raised his voice, claiming to have “been treated like a dog” while in detention. He removed his mask and said he had abandoned all other work “to become a fighter of the Islamic State.” At other times, he has been less combative and more forthcoming.
Victims and their relatives have been able to follow the trial through a secure audio channel. There is a help hotline, and psychologists are on-site to assist.
Security around the custom-built courtroom in the center of Paris, near Notre Dame cathedral, continues to be tight. There are about 1,800 plaintiffs, represented by more than 300 lawyers. The proceedings were initially expected to take about nine months, with a verdict in late May, but the pandemic has delayed the process.
Ahead of the trial, victim representatives emphasized that they had low expectations to learn the truth from Abdeslam and other suspects. But the suspect’s comments have left a mark, with some of them describing Abdeslam’s past remarks as “additional stab wounds” or as “hate speech.”