EU ‘terror’ suspects face court after 900 hurt in deadliest attack

Brother of Brussels terror suspect Laachraoui speaks out on links to Paris attacks

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Among the accused is Salah Abdeslam, the only survivor among the Islamic State extremists who in 2015 struck the Bataclan theatre in Paris, city cafes and France’s national stadium. He was brought to the court in an armoured police vehicle and identified himself when called upon by the presiding judge. The 10 defendants face charges including murder, attempted murder and membership in, or participation in the acts of, a terrorist group, over the morning rush hour attacks at Belgium’s main airport and on the central commuter line on March 22, 2016.

In all, 32 people were killed. Around 900 people were hurt or suffered mental trauma. If convicted, some of the accused could face up to 30 years in prison.

The trial was initially expected to start in October but was pushed back to allow changes to the seating arrangements for the defendants.

More than 300 witnesses could be questioned during the hearings, which are being held at a court located at the former headquarters of NATO on the outskirts of the Belgian capital and are expected to run for six to nine months.

Most of the first week is expected to be taken up with legal formalities and a public reading of the indictment and charges, a document around 500 pages long.

Abdeslam was born in Brussels on September 15, 1989. Son of two Frenchmen of Moroccan origins, Abdeslam grew up in the most difficult neighbourhood of the Belgian capital, the infamous Molenbeek-Saint-Jean.

Despite the scarcity of development prospects, both human and professional, Abdeslam would have lived in the Western way at least until the first part of 2014, frequenting nightclubs and making use of alcohol and light drugs. At the end of a brief experience as a mechanic in the workshops of the Brussels Inter-municipal Transport Company, which lasted from 2009 to 2011, the young Abdeslam would quickly enter a vicious, self-destructive circle made up of drugs, prostitutes, thefts and robberies.

The attempt to get back up, opening a bar in the heart of Molenbeek, would prove unsuccessful. Opened in December 2013, the place was reportedly closed shortly after by the authorities because it was considered a haven for drug dealers. Back in the world of petty crime, Abdeslam would have found “salvation” thanks to an old acquaintance, a childhood friend with whom he had grown up in Molenbeek and with whom he had committed robberies in the past years: Abdelhamid Abaaoud.

Abaaoud and Abdeslam allegedly met at some point in 2014. The former had just returned from Syria, where he fought in the ranks of the Islamic State. The second was racking up petty crime charges, trying to fight depression between nightclubs and coffee shops. The former, as charismatic as he was fanatic, would have had no difficulty in convincing the latter, dejected and resentful and therefore psycho-sensitive, to abandon that self-destructive lifestyle, encouraging him to return to Islam.

The Islam practised by Abaaoud, however, had nothing to do with the true, original Islam of Mohammed and his pure ancestors. Because between one prayer and another, and after having given up on every vice – cigarettes, alcoholic drinks, prostitutes and soft drugs – Abdeslam, one day in 2015, would have seen a new person in the mirror: not a drifter without a destination, but a would-be terrorist.

Starting in mid-2015, the year of the radicalisation that took place, Abdeslam allegedly began to travel far and wide across Europe in order to find weapons, obtain material useful for the preparation of explosives, to make proselytes and to establish alliances with other cells.

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Abdeslam’s movements would not have gone unnoticed by the investigators and secret services of the Old Continent. Only a few weeks before the attacks, in fact, the young man’s name appeared in a list prepared by Belgian intelligence concerning the conduct of possible terrorist attacks. The alarmist content of that document, as is known, would have been ignored, allowing Abdeslam and his associates to move freely, polish the details of the plan and finally bring it to fruition.

The commando arrived in Paris on the evening of November 11, staying in some rooms of an aparthotel located in Alfortville, near Paris. Abdeslam had taken care of everything: booking the rooms, organising the trip, and renting the cars. With him, in those days, was his brother, Brahim, also radicalised and also ready to do the will of al-Baghdadi.

On the evening of November 13, a few minutes before the start of the slaughter, Abdeslam bought a sim card. He dialled a telephone number, warning the interlocutor that everything had gone as planned and that the massacre would soon begin. That number, the investigators would later discover, belonged to Abdheila Chouaa, a fellow soldier who at the time of the call was locked up in the Belgian prison of Namur.

Once the call ended, the massacre would begin, in which Salah, however, would not participate. Brother Brahim, on the other hand, took part in it, and died the same evening, by blowing himself up inside the Comptoir Voltaire.

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Picked up a few hours later by two accomplices – Hamza Attou and Mohammed Amri – Salah was taken back to Belgium by car. The three, paradoxically, were stopped at a checkpoint near Cambrai, a few kilometres from the border, but the agents, at the end of the investigations, allowed them to continue.

Back in Belgium, Abdeslam allegedly went into hiding, trying to buy time by adopting a new dress, changing his hairstyle and constantly changing his hiding place. The investigations ascertained the presence of him in a plurality of lodgings located in Schaerbeek, another neighbourhood with an Islamic composition in Brussels.

After four months of incessant searches, characterised by sudden raids on places of worship and homes and by the arrest of various accomplices of the fugitive, the turning point finally took place between March 15 and 18, 2016. On the 15th, during an operation on the outskirts of Brussels, a still-fresh shelter used by Abdeslam was discovered.

Abdeslam admitted when interrogated by the police that he had taken care of the car rental, the reservation of hotel rooms and that he had transported the three suicide bombers who tried to blow themselves up at the Stade de France.

According to what he declared to the judges, Abdeslam should have participated in the attacks of November 13. Indeed, his brother would have given him an explosive belt. The prosecution, however, has always spoken of statements designed to clean up his image by transferring the judicial burden to people unable to defend themselves.

As for the motive, however, Abdeslam was clear and sincere from the beginning: the attacks were not conceived because of alleged feelings of hatred he harboured against the French, but rather to attack and punish France as a state and as a government.

In 2018 he was sentenced by a Brussels court to twenty years in prison for the attempted murder of a police officer on the day of his capture.

Abdeslam, who was also sentenced to life in prison without parole over the attacks in the French capital, was joined in the dock in Brussels by his childhood friend, Mohamed Abrini, who walked away from the Belgian capital’s Zaventem airport after his explosives failed to detonate.

Abrini has been sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 22 years for charges including complicity to terrorist murder in the Paris attacks trial.

Oussama Atar, who has been identified as a possible organiser of the deadly attacks on both Paris and Brussels, will be tried in absentia. He is believed to have died in the Islamic State’s final months of fighting in Iraq and Syria.

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