Does Abdeslam hold key to Paris attacks probe?

28th April 2016, Comments 0 comments

Salah Abdeslam is sitting on a potential goldmine of information as the last surviving member of the Paris attacks terror squad.

The 26-year-old, accused of playing a key logistical role in the attacks, has promised to "explain himself" to French investigators, but it remains to be seen how much he will reveal.

His Belgian lawyer Sven Mary has sought to portray Abdeslam, who was charged with terror crimes in Paris on Wednesday, as someone with the "intelligence of an empty ashtray" -- possibly to suggest he was only a bit player in the attacks.

- What is he sitting on? -

To investigators and victims' families, the Islamic State jihadist holds the key to making sense of the carnage that left 130 people dead, and Mary described his potential testimony as "worth gold".

Abdeslam was a close friend of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a known ringleader of the attacks and member of the team of gunmen who targeted Paris cafes and restaurants.

Abaaoud was killed in a police raid five days after the attacks.

Questions abound: How were the attackers recruited? Who provided the weapons? Who financed them? Are there other ringleaders?

Abdeslam, who rented cars and hotel rooms and bought components for explosives, could have many of the answers.

Another mystery is why he decided not to blow himself up like the rest of his team.

Abdeslam has also been linked to several jihadists directly involved or implicated in the Brussels attacks on March 22 -- four days after his arrest.

Belgian investigators believe the perpetrators of the two attacks belonged to the same terror cell -- Abdeslam could help unravel their tangled ties.

A key question is what he knew about the Brussels attack.

Belgian prosecutors have said the group had originally intended to strike France again but, under pressure from police after Abdeslam's arrest, had switched plans.

Most crucially, investigators hope to learn whether other accomplices are out there waiting to strike.

- What has he said? -

Abdeslam has been questioned at least twice by Belgian investigators, but has given little information and has lied on at least one point.

He confirmed he was in Paris on the night of November 13, and said he had been meant to blow himself up at the national stadium, but changed his mind.

He also admitted renting the cars and hotel rooms, but said he had only done so at the request of his brother Brahim -- who went ahead with his suicide mission.

He said Abaaoud was "the leader" of the killings, but that he had met him only once even though they are known to have ties stretching back to childhood and were convicted together for a robbery in 2011.

- Will he seek to minimise role? -

His Belgian lawyer has certainly given this impression, calling him a "little moron, more a follower than a leader" and saying he did not have the intelligence to orchestrate anything.

"He has every interest in minimising his role because, considering the seriousness of the charges, he can't hope for any reduction in sentencing," said a source close to the investigation.

On Wednesday Abdeslam promised investigating judges he would "explain himself" at a later stage, and his first hearing will take place on May 20.

Another source close to the investigation worried that he would end up simply "revealing a few elements which are already known."

"He doesn't have the personality and charisma of someone who wants to appear as a hero for the jihadist cause," the source said.

- Cross-border probe -

Aside from his hearing on May 20, Abdeslam faces numerous interrogations. These could take place at the Paris courthouse or via videolink to his prison.

Complicating investigators' task is that the probe involves other suspects linked to the attacks who are currently held in Belgium, Turkey and Austria.

© 2016 AFP

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