PARIS — Twenty men were convicted on Wednesday for their roles in the worst Islamist terrorist attack in French history, a coordinated spree of shootings and bombings in November 2015 that killed 130 people in and near Paris and injured more than 500, leaving lasting scars on the nation’s psyche.
Capping a record 10-month trial, Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving member of the team of Islamic State extremists who carried out the attacks, was found guilty by a panel of judges of all the charges against him. Other defendants, who stood accused of intending to take part in the attacks or of providing various degrees of logistical help to the attackers, were found guilty of almost all charges against them.
The trial shed light on the bloodiest in a string of terrorist attacks in Europe over a span of a few years — in Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Barcelona and in Paris more than once. Since then, a series of smaller-scale stabbings and shootings in France have kept the terrorist threat in focus, prompting authorities to broadly expand counterterrorism and anti-extremism legislation.
Hundreds of people testified in a giant Paris courtroom built specifically to accommodate over 500 — lawyers, survivors, families of victims, defendants, experts, and even the president of France at the time of the attacks, François Hollande, a first for a former French leader. It was also one of the few trials in France to be filmed, for historical research purposes, and the first that plaintiffs could follow live on internet radio.
It was not the first nor the last reckoning in France with the legacy of that time. In December 2020, 14 men were convicted of aiding in the January 2015 attacks against the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly and a kosher supermarket, carried out by men linked to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, that killed 17 people. A trial in the July 2016 truck attack that killed 86 people in Nice, claimed by the Islamic State, is scheduled to begin in September.
The sentences announced Wednesday can still be appealed, and the court did not get all the answers that it wanted from the defendants, several of whom remained mostly silent.
Prosecutors were unable to determine where most of the weapons used in the attack had been acquired, or whether the Islamic State had planned other simultaneous attacks on the Paris and Amsterdam airports, as suggested by documents later found by investigators. Victims did not always get the clarity they hoped for on what had motivated the attackers or how the plot had been masterminded.
But the trial carried on methodically, with little fanfare, few incidents and a minimum of political spectacle — even as a pandemic raged around the globe, war erupted in Europe, and France held a presidential election — building day by day into a judicial milestone.
The trial also served as a catharsis for some survivors and families of victims, many of whom testified during five emotion-filled weeks in the fall about the devastating physical and psychological aftermath of the attacks and the difficult road to recovery. Two survivors of the attacks killed themselves in the years that followed.
The verdict “will not heal the wounds, visible or invisible, it will not bring the dead back to life, but at least it will be able to guarantee them that justice and law have the last word here,” Camille Hennetier, one of the prosecutors, said earlier this month.
In the assaults on the evening of Nov. 13, 2015, 10 Islamic State extremists carried out a series of nearly simultaneous shootings and suicide bombings at the Bataclan concert hall, an area outside France’s national soccer stadium and the terraces of cafes and restaurants in central Paris.
The assailants were mostly French citizens who, in a carefully orchestrated plot, had traveled to territory in Syria controlled by the Islamic State for military training, before returning to Europe, where the attacks were planned, mainly in Belgium.
Only 14 of the 20 defendants appeared in court, with the other six missing or presumed dead. As the sole surviving attacker in the dock, Mr. Abdeslam, 32, was the central figure — and perhaps also the most elusive.
Little was initially expected of Mr. Abdeslam, a French citizen of Moroccan ancestry who lived in Belgium and who was arrested after four months on the run in Molenbeek, a Brussels neighborhood. He refused to cooperate with investigators and judges in the years that led up to the trial, defiantly telling the court on the first day of proceedings that he was “a fighter for the Islamic State.”
Mr. Abdeslam eventually opened up about his involvement in the attacks and asked the victims for forgiveness, but he never renounced the Islamic State’s ideology and repeatedly insisted that the attacks were only carried out in response to French airstrikes in Syria.
He acknowledged that he had dropped off suicide bombers outside the soccer stadium, in the capital’s northern suburbs. But he said he had been brought into the plot only two days beforehand and that he changed his mind when he arrived at the bar where he was supposed to blow himself up.
“I made mistakes,” Mr. Abdeslam told the court on Monday, on the final day of hearings. “But I’m a not a murderer, I’m not a killer.”
Prosecutors were unfazed. They said the evidence against Mr. Abdeslam, who drove some of the attackers and their accomplices across Europe, showed he was an integral part of the plot. They asserted that he had failed to carry out the attack because his suicide belt had malfunctioned, not because he had a change of heart, and pointed to letters written while he was on the run suggesting he wished he had carried out the attack.
Only Mr. Abdeslam stood directly accused of murder, attempted murder and hostage-taking.
Other defendants were charged with planning to take part in the attacks, or helping the attackers by renting hide-outs to stash weapons and explosives, driving members of the cell across borders or securing them cash and fake documents. Some defendants were accused of being hardened Islamist extremists who knew the attack was coming. Others, like some of Mr. Abdeslam’s childhood friends, were suspected of having helped the plotters without fully knowing what was planned.
Defense lawyers, most of whom belong to a young generation scarred by a spate of terror attacks in France, were careful not to defend the cause of their clients. Instead, they urged the court to avoid using a broad brush in judging defendants with very different degrees of involvement in the plot, and to uphold legal principles they saw as endangered by ever-expanding counterterrorism laws.
“There is something more important than the client in a criminal trial,” Margaux Durand-Poincloux, one of the lawyers, said. “It’s democracy.”
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