Salah Abdeslam: Five things about Paris attacks suspect

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Belgian/French police

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Abdeslam was arrested in a dramatic raid not far from his home in Brussels in March 2016

The most important surviving suspect in the 13 November 2015 attacks which killed 130 people in Paris is going on trial in Belgium over a shootout that led to his capture four months later in Brussels.

Salah Abdeslam, a convicted petty criminal from Brussels who ended up associating with jihadists, will be ferried daily between a French prison and the Belgian capital.

Here are five things to know about the man accused of playing a key role in the Islamic State group’s bloodiest attack inside Europe.

1. Belgium could jail him for 40 years

Three Belgian police officers and a French colleague were lightly injured when a gunman opened fire as they searched a property in the Forest district of Brussels on 15 March 2016, in connection with the Paris attacks.

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Abdeslam went on the run for four months after the Paris attacks

At the time Abdeslam was Europe’s most wanted man but police were not looking for him specifically that day. A gunman was shot dead at the scene while two other men, later identified as Salah Abdeslam and Tunisian national Sofien Ayari, escaped.

Three days later they were tracked down to a basement in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, close to Abdeslam’s family home. When the police pounced, Abdeslam was shot and injured, while the other man was captured unhurt.

Along with Sofien Ayari, Abdeslam is being tried for wounding the police officers, on charges of attempted murder “in a terrorist context” and illegal possession of firearms.

“For these acts, he may receive a sentence of up to 40 years in prison,” Luc Hennart, president of the French-speaking Brussels court of first instance, told Reuters TV.

Sofien Ayari, said by Belgian media to have fought for IS in Syria, reportedly entered Europe through Greece in September 2015, posing as a Syrian refugee, and using the fake names Monir Ahmed Alaaj and Amine Choukri.

2. Abdeslam may be linked to the Brussels attacks

Four days after his capture, three suicide bombers killed 32 people and wounded 340 at Brussels airport and a metro station.

Belgian prosecutors believe Abdeslam was associated with the bombers but no charges have been filed.

It has been suggested he was part of an IS cell preparing attacks timed for Easter but when he was caught they were brought forward. His jihadist collaborators may have been worried that their cover had been blown.

His defence lawyer later said his client had denied any knowledge of the attacks.

3. He should have died in Paris…

…according to French reports, based on a confession he made to police just after his arrest, where he described driving three of the other attackers in a car.

He had taken a suicide bomb belt but it failed to go off and he dropped it in a bin.

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French President Emmanuel Macron (right) met victims’ families on the second anniversary of the attacks

After first telling investigators he had planned to blow himself up outside the Stade de France, he reportedly said later he had changed his mind.

However, French radio has quoted him as saying in a message found on a discarded computer in Brussels that the suicide belt was, indeed, faulty (in French).

“I really would have liked to have been among the martyrs [the nine other suspected attackers, all of whom died] but Allah decided differently for there was a fault in my belt,” he was quoted as saying.

Along with the 130 people killed in Paris, at least 353 were injured as the IS cell shot and bombed people indiscriminately, targeting a concert hall, bars and the stadium.

Abdeslam is still awaiting trial over his alleged role in the attacks. He is being investigated on suspicion of terrorism-related murder and attempted murder.

4. He has stopped talking

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A defendant’s bench inside the Brussels courthouse

Since his transfer to France in April 2016, Abdeslam, 28, has been interrogated by investigating magistrates five times, the last in mid-November.

He has refused to answer questions on every occasion.

However, according to AFP news agency, he did reportedly respond to a woman who wrote to him in prison, telling her “I’m not ashamed of who I am”.

5. He’s moving prison

Europe’s former most wanted man is being transferred from his current prison south of Paris, Fleury-Mérogis, to one closer to the Belgian border, for the duration of his trial.

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During the Brussels trial, Abdeslam will travel to and from Vendin-le-Vieil every day

Vendin-le-Vieil, near the northern city of Lille and about 150km (93 miles) from Brussels, is one of France’s highest-security jails.

Abdeslam will have an entire wing to himself, trade union sources told AFP.

The prison made national headlines on 12 January after a jihadist inmate attacked guards with scissors and a knife, sparking a rare mass protest by prison officers.

The inmate, German Islamist Christian Ganczarski. was facing extradition to the US over the 9/11 attacks after serving 15 years over a 2002 al-Qaeda attack on a synagogue in Tunisia which killed 21 people.

No details have been given about the arrangements for ferrying Abdeslam each day to Brussels.

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A major security operation is being mounted in Brussels for the trial

What we do know is that he can expect to be met by about 100 police officers deployed in and around the Belgian capital’s massive Palace of Justice building, Reuters news agency reports.

Helicopters will be surveying the city during the trial and car parks close to the courthouse will be shut down temporarily, AFP says.

Coincidentally, another trial related to the Paris attacks is under way in the French capital: Jawad Bendaoud and Mohamed Soumah are accused of providing lodgings for the attackers and face six years if convicted.

A third man, Youssef Aït Boulahcen, faces five years if he is convicted of failing to report a crime.

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