By Tangi Salaün and Yiming Woo
PARIS (Reuters) -The main suspect in a jihadist rampage that killed 130 people across Paris described himself on Wednesday as “an Islamic State soldier” at the start of the long-awaited trial into the 2015 attacks.
Salah Abdeslam, 31, appeared in court dressed in black and wearing a black face mask, one of 20 men accused of involvement in the gun-and-bomb attacks on six restaurants and bars, the Bataclan concert hall and a sports stadium on Nov. 13, 2015.
Asked what his profession was, the French-Moroccan removed his face mask – obligatory because of the COVID-19 pandemic – and told a Paris court defiantly: “I gave up my job to become an Islamic State soldier.”
Abdeslam is believed to be the only surviving member of the group that carried out the attacks. The other suspects are accused of helping to provide guns and cars or playing a role in organizing the attacks, in which hundreds were also injured.
Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by Islamic State, which had urged followers to attack France over its involvement in the fight against the militant group in Iraq and Syria.
Asked by the court’s top judge to give his name, Abdeslam used the Shahada, an Islamic oath, saying: “I want to testify that there is no god except Allah and that Mohammad is his servant.”
Jean-Pierre Albertini, whose 39-year old son, Stephane, was killed in the Bataclan, told Reuters the reference to being an Islamic State soldier meant “we have in front of us … someone who is at war.”
Thierry Mallet, a Bataclan survivor, said: “I need more to be shocked … I’m not afraid.”
IMPATIENT AND ANXIOUS
Before the trial, survivors and relatives of the victims had said they were impatient to hear testimony that might help them better understand what happened and why it did so, and that they were also anxious.
“It is important that the victims can bear witness, can tell the perpetrators, the suspects who are on the stand, about the pain,” said Philippe Duperron, whose 30-year-old son Thomas was killed in the attacks.
“We are also awaiting anxiously because we know that as this trial takes place the pain, the events, everything will come back to the surface,” said Duperron, who is the president of a victims’ association and will testify at the trial.
The trial will last nine months, with about 1,800 plaintiffs and more than 300 lawyers taking part in what Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti has called an unprecedented judicial marathon. The court’s top judge, Jean-Louis Peries, said it was a historic trial.
The 20 defendants include 11 who are already in jail pending trial. Six will be tried in absentia – most of them are believed to be dead. Most face life imprisonment if convicted.
Police mounted tight security around the Palais de Justice courthouse in central Paris. Defendants will appear behind a reinforced glass partition in a purpose-built courtroom and all people must pass through several checkpoints to enter the court.
“The terrorist threat in France is high, especially at times like the attacks’ trial,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told France Inter radio.
The first days of the trial are expected to be largely procedural, with plaintiffs being registered, though judges may read a summary of how the attacks unfolded.
Victims’ testimonies are set to start on Sept. 28, with one week devoted to the attacks on the Stade de France and cafes, and four to the Bataclan.
The questioning of the accused will start in November but they are not set to be questioned about the night of the attacks and the week before them until March.
A verdict is expected in late May.
(Reporting by Tangi Salaun, Michaela Cabrera, Antony Paone, Benoit Van Overstraeten, Ingrid Melander, Blandine Henault; Writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by Philippa Fletcher, William Maclean and Timothy Heritage)