Observations of an Expat: Bataclan

The Bataclan Trial which opened this week in Paris has huge domestic and international significance.

Domestically, it will be an act of national catharsis. 1,500 “civilian plaintiffs”—surviving victims and family members of the dead—are scheduled to give five weeks of testimony about the horror of the attack on Friday the 13th 2015 and its life-changing consequences.

The bulk of the nine-month trial, however, will focus on the details of the attack on the Bataclan Theatre, the Stade de France and the street cafes of the 10th and 11th arondissements, and the origins and planning of the operation. The latter will be closely followed by intelligence agencies around the world for information to help identify and defeat future attacks.

And there is a lot of evidence from the Gendarmerie, the Direction General de la Securite Exterieure (DGSE), Direction Generale de la Securite Interieure (DGSI) and Service Central de Territorial (SCRI).

French Intelligence and French and Belgian police have spent six years compiling evidence in 19 different countries. 47,000 depositions have been taken and 52 volumes of evidence have been set before the judges at the historic Palais de Justice.

Some of the evidence has leaked. For instance, it is known that the attack was conceived and planned in the upper echelons of the ISIS command based in Raqqa, Syria. Carefully chosen “commandos” were smuggled into Europe through Turkey disguised as refugees from the Syrian Civil War.

The destination of these Jihadists was the impoverished and overcrowded Brussels district of Molenbeek. Roughly 25 percent of Molenbeek’s 100,000-strong population is Muslim. The unemployment rate is 40 percent. There is strong support in the district for Jihadism and it has been used as a base for several terrorist attacks in France and Belgium. Its own mayor has described Molenbeek as “a breeding ground for violence.”

In Molenbeek the Jihadists did their final planning for the attack that left 130 dead and hundreds wounded. Weapons were gathered, suicide bombs assembled, transport and finance arranged and the Jihadists were assigned their specific roles. As part of the six-year investigation into the attack, security forces interviewed 22,668 individual Molenbeek inhabitants—virtually the entire Muslim population. As a result they discovered 52 people who were directly involved in terrorism and another 75 who had terrorist connections and were put on the watch list.

As with most Jihadist terrorist attacks, the “commandos” did not expect to return from Paris. It was a suicide mission. The one exception was Salah Abdelsalam. He survived. He was expected to blow himself up with a suicide bomb vest, but the bomb was defective. He threw the vest away and fled back to his Molenbeek sanctuary where he was arrested by police three months later.

Abdelsalam will be a key witness in the Batalan Trial. Not only is he the only terrorist survivor, but it appears that he played a key role in assembling the attack team. It is questionable, however, that he will cooperate. Early indications are not good. Asked his occupation by the court, Abdelsalam replied: “Soldier of the State of Islam.”

Abdelsalam is one of 20 defendants. Five are absent. Of these, four are believed to have been killed by subsequent US drone strikes. One is being held in a Turkish prison. 14 defendants are charged with aiding and abetting the attack in some way—either by providing sanctuary, weapons, transport or finance.

The start of proceedings in the Palais de Justice coincides nicely with the West’s defeat in Afghanistan. NATO invaded the central Asian country 20 years ago because it had become a breeding ground for terrorism against Europe and the US.

The fear of many Europeans is that a Taliban government will be unable to prevent a return to the bad old days despite its pledges to the contrary. Or, at the very least, their victory will encourage Jihadist groups elsewhere in the world. That is certainly the opinion of Ken McCallum, head of Britain’s MI5, who this week told the BBC’s Today Show that British Intelligence had foiled 31 “late stage” terrorist attacks in the past four years but that he warned that “the fall of Afghanistan may have emboldened terrorists in Britain.”

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” is published on 15 October.

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