Sketch of the hearing of Salah Abdeslam made on February 5, 2018 during his trial before a court in Brussels.
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He knows it. Since he was arrested in Molenbeek, a few hundred meters from his childhood home, the only surviving member of the Islamist commandos of November 13, 2015 in Saint-Denis and Paris is fully aware of it: upon entering in the accused’s box, this Wednesday, September 8, the eyes of the whole world will be on him. Salah Abdeslam does not care. He has already said it, during a first trial in Brussels: he does not believe in the justice of men.
“I am not afraid of you, I am not afraid of your allies, of your associates. […] I bear witness that there is no deity other than Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. It is in him that I place my trust […] – in Allah, “he said on February 5, 2018.
Before the Belgian court, he also refused to stand up at the judge’s request and to confirm his identity. This strategy of silence is likely to recur before French judges. His Belgian lawyer, Sven Mary, may well portray him as a young party animal from Molenbeek, a “little idiot with the intelligence of an empty ashtray”, who, before November 13, 2015, had never even opened the Koran, only read a few hadiths on the Net, Salah Abdeslam, he does not budge: he proudly claims his radicalized Islamism, insensitive to his actions and the pain of others. He wants to give the image of a kind of great sage. Since being in prison, he has been studying the Quran 24 hours a day in his cell. He could also have it in hand in front of the court, head down, like Peter Cherif (alias Abou Hamza), alleged sponsor of the attack on the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo, testifying by videoconference.
Salah Abdeslam, known as Chicken, has never been a sponsor. Since his childhood, he has only followed. His brother Brahim, his Molenbeekoise band and above all Abdelhamid Abaaoud, his best friend, whose family lives a few meters from his, on the small town hall square, provincial in appearance, in this town of Brussels-Capital. The two boys were inseparable. Salah’s parents, of Moroccan origin, were born in French Algeria. He and his four brothers and sisters therefore have French nationality. The family ends up settling in this “little Morocco” in the heart of the Brussels agglomeration, with its market stalls overflowing with exotic fruits and vegetables and its cozy tea rooms reserved for men. The first time the author of these lines was able to enter one of them (under male escort), in 2016, the owner had locked the women’s toilet. Fortunately, things have since changed.
At the time, Salah’s father, Abderrhamane worked at Stib, the Belgian RATP. “A discreet and polite man. But he liked to drink a beer after work,” recalls Ahmed El Khannouss, former colleague and vice-mayor of Molenbeek. The mother, Yamina, is a stay-at-home mom, and even more discreet. Salah adores him, and helps him wash his beautiful long hair, just like he helps neighbors. A nice boy, not very smart. The parents are Muslims, respecting the holidays, but flexible. Later, it was precisely during a party that the Abdeslam brothers told their cousins their plan to go to Syria. The cousins repeat this to their aunt, who immediately confiscates Brahim’s passport. He will manage to leave anyway. What about Salah? For a long time, investigators asked themselves the question.
Because the real trigger in the life of Salah Abdeslam is the departure for Syria of his “blood brother”, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, taking his minor brother. Until that decisive moment, they did everything together, including jail – the result of a failed garage heist. Previously, their life seemed to be regulated by a sort of triptych: hash, girls, beers. Especially for Salah, a handsome, attractive kid. Not only does he consume hash, but he also deals, attracted by the easy money, often spent as quickly as possible on gambling. With Brahim, they have found a perfect cover: they run the Béguines bar, not far from the family home. Quickly, the neighbors complained about the noise and the incessant ballet of the cars, the place having become an express “click & collect” for the customers. In contrast, few people know what is going on in the small basement room. The two brothers gorge themselves with Islamist propaganda, constantly replaying the videos of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who likes to stage himself as bloodthirsty Rambo.
Salah, he has only one desire: to join his friend at the “Sham”. He really tried. “He even succeeded,” says a Belgian institutional source, revealing his kunya, his nom de guerre. An Indian witness also claimed to have met him there, as the local press transcribed it. The DGSE sent a team to India to investigate. Did Salah play a much bigger role? We checked and rechecked, with many international sources, as well as with French official contacts. Belgian expert Pieter von Ostaeyen, who has a large database on Islamists, has finally ruled. Today, he delivers the version that is the consensus in intelligence circles: “The cited kunya does not exist. Salah Abdeslam had one, Abu Abderrahman, and a pseudo, Yassine Baghli. But he never reached Syria. . He ran aground on a Greek ferry in August 2015. ” Alongside another very close “brother”, Ahmed Dahmani, a talented young boxer from Molenbeek. Again and again Molenbeek. Still, Abaaoud knows that he can count on Salah as a henchman, a “fixer” and above all a driver when preparing for the attacks. Intoxicated to finally have an important role, Salah travels through Europe to retrieve the members of the commandos of November 13, who mingled in the migratory flows, just to go unnoticed. Salah has the money and the freedom to choose luxury cars, Mercedes and others. Not so bad as an ersatz “Sham”.
But on D-day, he misses the big meeting. He leads the commando to the Stade de France, but, unlike his brother Brahim, he does not trigger his explosive belt. Willful failure? He wanders for a while in Paris, then in Montrouge and Châtillon, before calling some Molenbeek friends to come and exfiltrate him. Not yet wanted, he arrives as far as Molenbeek, the only safe place in his eyes, where he changes his look. He can count on “brothers” still in place, able to hide him. Does he finally think of going to Syria? Unlikely, he would not have been welcomed with open arms. For Daesh, Salah Abdeslam is a loser, even a man to be defeated. It was only after his Belgian trial that his image changed a bit in Raqqa. Beyond the jihadist sphere, it fascinates. “Abdeslam represents the last vestige of the Islamic State when it appeared to its most threatening”, comments the American researcher of the Soufan Center Colin Clarke: “Even for researchers who study extremism and violence, the fact that these individuals who grew up in Europe had such a strong desire to kill their fellow citizens in the name of an entity in the Middle East is difficult to understand. ”
After the killings we returned to Molenbeek – many times. Fortunately, things are changing. It is no longer the den of horror. The name of Salah Abdeslam is no longer on everyone’s lips. But the stigmata he left, he and his gang, will take time to completely disappear, even if the two brothers’ bar has become a communal center, especially homework help. One day in 2018, while waiting for Jean-Yves Kitantou, the local elected representative who succeeded in this reconversion, we were discussing with two children in front of these still grim places. Salah and Brahim liked them, these little ones, and often gave them a Coke. “They were very cool, but I didn’t like what they were doing,” the 12-year-old told us. He wanted to become a police officer, to “clean up” Molenbeek and Belgium. “My brother used to hang out with them,” said his girlfriend with the long blond curls, saying she was ready to put on a belt of explosives later. Like Salah.