It begins Wednesday in a secure modern complex embedded in Paris’ original 13th-century courthouse. The main chamber and 12 overflow rooms can accommodate 1,800 victims, 330 lawyers and 141 accredited journalists for the nine-month trial.
Twenty men are going on trial, six of them in absentia. All but one of the absent men are presumed dead in Syria or Iraq. Most are accused of helping create false identities, transporting the attackers back to Europe from Syria, providing them with money and phones, and supplying explosives and weapons.
On that fateful Nov. 13, a cell of nine IS supporters armed with automatic rifles and explosive vests struck across French capital. Nearly all were from France or Belgium, as were the cell’s 10th member and sole survivor, Salah Abdeslam. Abdeslam, who ditched his car and malfunctioning explosives vest, is the only defendant facing murder charges in the trial.
Another key defendant, Mohammed Abrini, reappeared months later in footage of the IS attack on the Brussels airport and subway.
Many of the dead attackers, along with Abdesalam and Abrini, were childhood friends from the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek. Some joined the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, including the Paris attack ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Driving three rental cars, they took their “convoy of death” to the highway linking Brussels and Paris on Nov. 12, 2015, and scattered in reserved hotel rooms.
Now there are questions that only the men on the stand can answer.
Abdeslam’s decision to abandon the Renault Clio in northern Paris and call Brussels for help is a puzzle. Two friends drove through the night to fetch him, and on the road back to Belgium he slipped through three police checkpoints.
Abdeslam was finally arrested in his Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek in March, days before the IS network attacked the Brussels airport and subway, killing 32 more people.
Abrini’s role is murky as well. He spent a night with the IS attackers, but left Paris on Nov. 12, hiring a driver to take him three hours back to Brussels because he had missed the last train. He popped up again in Brussels months later, accompanying two suicide bombers to the airport but walked away as the bloodshed started.
Two of the defendants are charged with plotting a simultaneous attack at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport in 2015 and went to the airport on Nov. 13, but returned to Brussels for unknown reasons.
The day after the murderous evening, a Frenchman in Syria claimed responsibility for the attacks in the name of IS.
Abaaoud and another attacker died days later in a police raid.
Abdeslam refused to speak to investigators or his lawyers in Belgium. But he did request a young attorney in France known for her eloquence, Olivia Ronen. She will be his primary lawyer.
For many victims, speaking out is the point. A month is dedicated to their testimonies. “It’s really the participation that is important for them,” said Jeanne Sulzer, a lawyer representing 10 victims. “What they’re seeking is the establishment of truth, justice.”