Islamist attacks on the night of Friday, November 13th, 2015, in Paris and at the Stade de France claimed the lives of 130 people and wounded hundreds more. Though casualties were far lower than in the US on September 11th, 2001, the Friday the 13th massacre is considered France’s 9/11.
By coincidence, the trial of 20 men accused of involvement in those attacks will open on Wednesday, three days before the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Six men are to be tried in absentia, including five high-ranking members of Islamic State, also known as Isis, who are believed to have died in Syria. Most of the other 14 defendants risk sentences of 20 years to life in prison for their role in the slaughter.
The French attacks were planned inside Isis’s former “caliphate” in Syria. Ten Arabs, most of them Belgian or French passport holders, detonated suicide vests or gunned down civilians on cafe terraces and inside the Bataclan concert hall.
Salah Abdeslam, a 31-year-old Franco-Moroccan born in Belgium, was the only alleged attacker who had not fought in Syria, and he is the only alleged survivor of the three commando squads that spread panic across the French capital that terrible night.
Medics stand by victims in a Paris restaurant, on Friday, November 13th, 2015. Photograph: Thibault Camus/File/AP Photo
He has refused to co-operate with the investigation and he sued authorities on the grounds that solitary confinement was a violation of his human rights. Even if he refuses to talk on the witness stand, Abdeslam will be the centre of attention at the trial.
The other nine attackers took advantage of the mass migration of refugees from Syria in 2015 to travel unnoticed to Europe. Abdeslam is accused of spending the late summer and early autumn of 2015 going to fetch the other perpetrators of the attacks in Hungary and Germany, where the refugee flow terminated. He allegedly purchased the chemicals used to make the home-made explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP) used in the suicide vests, rented three cars used in the attacks, and booked the hotel rooms outside Paris where the killers spent their last night.
At about 9pm on Friday the 13th, investigators say, Abdeslam dropped three suicide bombers, two Iraqis and a French man, off outside the Stade de France. The first Iraqi detonated his vest at 9.16pm, killing a retired Portuguese bus driver outside the stadium. The other two blew themselves up outside the stadium but caused no further fatalities.
Abdeslam drove to Paris’s 18th district, where he abandoned his rental car and took the metro to Montrouge, south of Paris. He dumped his suicide vest in a rubbish heap and subsequently told co-defendants two versions of his failure to complete his mission: either the detonator malfunctioned or Abdelsam decided he could not go through with it. The real reason is one of several mysteries that could be resolved at the trial. But French officials say it is immaterial. Abdeslam is considered a co-author of 130 murders regardless of his motivation.
Two of Abdeslam’s buddies drove from Brussels to rescue him. He spent four months in safe houses until he was arrested in his home neighbourhood of Molenbeek on March 18th, 2016, four days before his accomplices bombed the Brussels underground and Zaventem airport, killing another 32 people.
I had lost half of my face. I was swallowing my teeth. I knew I mustn’t make a sound. He had to think I was dead
Eight minutes after the first explosion at the Stade de France, a commando unit led by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a childhood friend of Abdeslam, opened fire on Le Carillon bar and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant in Paris’s 10th district, killing 13 people and wounding dozens more. They drove 400m farther, to La Bonne Bière cafe and the Casa Nostra restaurant, where they shot dead another five people and wounded dozens more.
Survivors noticed Abaaoud’s fluorescent orange sneakers, which later made it possible to identify him on CCTV footage.
A third attack, on the terrace of La Belle Équipe cafe, claimed another 21 lives. Abaaoud and Chakib Akrouh abandoned Salah Abdeslam’s brother Brahim outside Le Comptoir Voltaire cafe. He walked inside and detonated his suicide vest, but it malfunctioned and Brahim Abdeslam died alone amid the cafe tables in a cloud of feathers from his shredded down jacket. Abaaoud and Akrouh were killed five days later when Akrouh detonated his suicide vest during a police siege in St Denis.
Customers sit on the terrace of the former Comptoir Voltaire, where a jihadist set off his explosive belt on November 13th, 2015. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty
The most murderous episode of the evening began 31 minutes after the first explosion at the Stade de France. Three French-born Islamists, newly returned from Syria, burst into the packed Bataclan concert hall during a concert by Eagles of Death Metal. At the onset of the attack, Foued Mohamed-Aggad, originally from Strasbourg, tossed his mobile telephone into a rubbish bin. His WhatsApp messages to accomplices in Brussels would later help investigators.
Survivors of the Bataclan massacre recounted how a gunman smiled as he mowed down concert-goers. “Allahu Akbar. This is for Syria,” he shouted. “You bomb our brothers in Syria, in Iraq. We’ve come to do the same thing,” could be heard on a tape recording. The first gunman was shot by a policeman 12 minutes after the attack started and detonated his suicide vest.
Ninety people were murdered in the first 33 minutes inside the Bataclan. The two remaining Islamists retreated with hostages to a corridor on the first floor. Police commandos advanced slowly, evacuating the wounded as they went. At 12.19am, police opened fire on the extremists. One detonated his suicide vest. The other was riddled with bullets. The nightmare inside the concert hall had lasted 2½ hours.
Pedestrians walk past the Bataclan theatre in Paris. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty
France is about to relive all this in “the trial of the century”, which is scheduled to last nine months. Five judges spent 4½ years amassing hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence.
A special courtroom that can hold 550 people has been built within the old Palais de Justice on the Île de la Cité. It will later be used for the trial of the Bastille Day 2016 attack, which killed 86 people on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.
The Palais can accommodate a maximum 2,000 people. On peak days, officials anticipate 3,000 will want to attend. They include 1,780 civil plaintiffs, 330 lawyers, hundreds of journalists and members of the public. Proceedings will be relayed by video link to a dozen annex rooms. Civil plaintiffs will have the option of watching the trial on an encrypted internet website.
A police officer behind a shield outside the Paris courthouse last week. Photograph: Francois Mori/AP Photo
The trauma of the Friday the 13th massacre remains intact. In the run-up to the trial, French media have published and broadcast interviews with survivors, relatives of victims, rescue workers and investigators. This week, a young woman called Gaúlle with a badly scarred face told France 2 television that she was with her boyfriend when he was killed at the Bataclan concert.
“When I opened my eyes, a terrorist was stepping over my body and I discovered that my arm was in pieces. I had lost half of my face. I was swallowing my teeth. I knew I mustn’t make a sound. He had to think I was dead,” she said.
The Fondation pour l’Innovation Politique in Paris this week published a study cataloguing Islamist attacks in the world in the 42 years since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The vast majority of the 48,035 attacks and 210,138 fatalities occurred in Muslim countries, with Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia the worst hit. France was the country hardest hit in the EU, with 82 Islamist attacks and 332 people killed.