BRUSSLES, Feb 8 — Salah Abdeslam, a small-time delinquent long portrayed as merely a pot-smoking misfit, emerged at his trial this week as a radicalised Islamist whose indoctrination was likely completed in prison.
Abdeslam’s presence in his Brussels trial was brief, but enough to give a glimpse of his state of mind almost two years after his spectacular arrest in the Belgian capital in 2016 following four long months on the run.
For a start there was his appearance: his once short spiky hair now grown out into a matted gelled mess coming down to his shoulders, and a beard covering his previously clean-shaven chin.
Then at the opening of his trial for a shoot-out with police just days before his capture, Abdeslam bitterly defied his judges, claiming “to place his “trust in Allah and that is all”.
With that address, about a minute long and likely his only public statement until a French trial in 2019 or later, Abdeslam accused his accusers of anti-Muslim bias with “no presumption of innocence.”
His lawyers will launch their defence arguments in their client’s absence at his trial in Belgium this morning.
The Belgian-born French national of Moroccan descent is widely thought to be the only surviving suspect in the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015, which left 130 people dead.
Three letters to relatives and seen by AFP, testify that at the time of these attacks in Paris, Abdeslam was already marked by “a certain level of indoctrination”, according to the investigators.
In one of these letters, discovered in the Brussels safe house after the shootout, he told his mother that he had simply “obeyed orders” from Islamic State (IS) group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to whom he had “lent allegiance”.
He said he was only alive because his explosives belt was faulty, but his brother Brahim died a “hero of Islam” as a suicide bomber in a Parisian cafe.
“Everyone calls us terrorists, but know that we have only terrorised the unbelieving people because France is a country that has been fighting Islam for a long time,” he wrote in another to his younger sister, riddled with syntax errors.
‘Calm but confrontational’
Abdeslam has long been depicted as a neighbourhood party boy who spent a lot of time with his brother holding court at a dinghy bar in the largely immigrant district of Molenbeek in Brussels.
A young delinquent well known to the police at the age of 21, this son of Moroccan immigrants began to adhere to the IS philosophy around his 25th birthday in 2014, when he planned to leave for Syria.
The switch came under the influence of his childhood friend Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who also hailed from Molenbeek, and became a key figure for IS in Syria, responsible for recruiting French speakers for jihad in Europe.
Abaaoud, the alleged organiser of the attacks in Paris, died in a police raid near the French capital five days afterwards.
Now in solitary confinement, Abdeslam is living in conditions likely to further reinforce his convictions, according to several sources interviewed by AFP.
“Since he’s been here, he has only strengthened his faith,” said an anonymous source at the Fleury-Merogis prison near Paris, where he was transferred at the end of April 2016.
He remains calm, but “confrontational”, the source said.
“I don’t think he radicalised himself in prison, he was already radicalised before, but in a way he has crystallised his certainties,” said Guillaume Denoix de Saint-Marc, a representative for victims of terrorism.
A regular of such trials, Denoix de Saint-Marc was present in the Brussels courtroom on Monday, keen to get a closer look at Abdeslam.
He saw a man who had became “inaccessible” to society, “locked up in his caricatured vision of the world”.
Alain Grignard, a Belgian expert on jihadism who helped investigators decipher Abdeslam’s letters, believes that at the trial, Abdeslam “dispelled any doubts (...) about his commitment”.
“Like the Guantanamo detainees, he has become an ‘ubermuslim’ by playing on the idea of a divided society with religion as a dividing line,” Grignard told the Belgian daily La Libre Belgique.
Against all expectations, Abdeslam wanted to appear at this trial, even though he had built a wall of silence for investigators since his transfer to France in April 2016.
“My silence does not make me a criminal, it’s my defence,” Abdeslam.
His physical change has also given him a “less juvenile look”, said Michael Dantinne, professor of criminology at the University of Liege.
He may have wanted to convey the image “of a guide, a martyr, a wise man with experience,” Dantinne told Belgian newspaper Le Soir.
“He went from the unlucky man who screwed up to someone who will go all the way.” — AFP