Belgium will be on high alert today as the last surviving suspect in the 2015 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, stands trial in Brussels over a shootout that led to his capture.
Elite forces will guard the 28-year-old’s transfer from a jail near the French capital to the trial, while hundreds of Belgian security forces will protect the court building.
Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French national of Moroccan descent, is charged with “attempting to murder several police officers in a terrorist context” and of “carrying prohibited weapons in a terrorist context”.
The charges concern a gunbattle in the Belgian capital on March 15, 2016, four months after the Paris attacks, which led to his capture days later. Three police officers were wounded and a fellow terrorist was killed.
Abdeslam and the man arrested with him, Tunisian national Sofiane Ayari, 24, could serve up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
The trial is the prelude to a later one in France and prosecutors hope the Brussels trial will yield clues not only about the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris but also the suicide bombings months later in Brussels.
Abdeslam has refused point-blank to speak to investigators throughout the nearly two years since his arrest, which capped a four-month hunt for Europe’s most wanted man.
But he has insisted on attending the Brussels trial, which is expected to last four days, raising the question of whether he will use it to break his silence.
Belgium’s federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said “it is important for the victims” that the trial yield clues behind the two attacks.
Tight secrecy surrounds the plans for transferring Abdeslam from Paris to the Palais de Justice in Brussels, and then back to a prison just across the border in northern France every night.
French and Belgian forces will take joint responsibility for escorting the defendant from France’s Vendin-le-Vieil prison. He will be taken either by road or by helicopter but a decision will not be made until the last moment.
Security forces are leaving no scenario to chance — escape bids, suicide attempts and even another attack — for the first public appearance of the boyish former bar owner.
In Brussels, police will have to guard a building with a surface area greater than that of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Investigators believe Abdeslam’s capture caused members of his terrorist cell to bring forward plans for the attacks in Brussels.
Suicide attacks on March 22, 2016, killed 32 people at Brussels airport and a metro station near the EU headquarters.
The same cell is believed to have been behind both the Paris and Brussels attacks, which were claimed by Daesh or ISIS.
Abdeslam has spent nearly 20 months in isolation under 24-hour video surveillance at Fleury-Merogis prison near Paris, after being transferred to France after his arrest.
Shot in the leg
Police say Abdeslam and Ayari were holed up at a flat in the Brussels district of Forest when it was raided by French and Belgian police in a routine operation after the Paris attacks.
A third suspect, 33-year-old Algerian Mohamed Belkaid, died while providing covering fire for their escape through a back door.
Police say they found Abdeslam’s fingerprints in the flat, confirming they were on the trail of the last suspect in the rifle and bomb attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, bars, restaurants and the national stadium in the French capital on November 13, 2015.
Abdeslam is reported to have disposed of a suicide belt before fleeing. He is also suspected of being the driver in the attacks, in which his brother Brahim was one of the suicide bombers.
Armed officers shot in the leg and captured him and Ayari just yards from Abdeslam’s home in Molenbeek, a gritty Brussels immigrant neighbourhood.
Ayari entered Europe in September 2015 via the Greek island of Lesbos at the height of a migration crisis gripping the continent, and was one of dozen suspected terrorists ferried around Europe by Abdeslam.