Paris attacks suspect 'backed out of suicide bombing'

Salah Abdeslam's trial, likely to be held in France, could reveal a wealth of information about ISIS and the Paris attacks last November.
Salah Abdeslam's trial, likely to be held in France, could reveal a wealth of information about ISIS and the Paris attacks last November.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS • The prime surviving suspect for the Nov 13 Paris attacks planned to blow himself up at a sports stadium with fellow militants but changed his mind, he told Belgian investigators.

Salah Abdeslam, Europe's most wanted man, was charged last Saturday with "terrorist murder" for his role in the assaults that were claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Abdeslam, who was caught after being shot in the leg in a dramatic police raid last Friday, was also charged in Brussels with participating in a terrorist group. He was later taken to a maximum security jail.

He is cooperating with the authorities, but he will fight his extradition to France, said lawyer Sven Mary.

"He wanted to blow himself up at the Stade de France and... backed out," said the lead French investigator, Mr Francois Molins, quoting Abdeslam's statement to a magistrate in Brussels.

The gun and bomb attacks on the stadium, bars and a concert hall killed 130 people and marked the deadliest militant assault in Europe since 2004.

Mr Molins told reporters in Paris that people should treat with caution initial statements by the 26- year-old French national.

But his capture and apparent urge to talk marked a major breakthrough for investigators after the trail had seemed to go cold.

French President Francois Hollande said shortly after Abdeslam's arrest that he wanted to see him transferred to France as quickly as possible to face prosecution.

"I can already tell you that we will oppose his extradition," Mr Mary told reporters.

Legal experts said this could delay but not prevent his handover to the French authorities under a European Arrest Warrant which the European Union introduced specifically to speed up extradition cases.

"Salah Abdeslam is a key actor in the attacks in Paris and St Denis (Stade de France). He had a central role in the make-up of the commandos and in the logistical planning of the Nov 13 attacks," Mr Molins said, as reported by The Guardian.

Days after the attacks, an explosives-filled suicide vest was found in Paris in an area where mobile phone signals indicated Abdeslam had been.

Mr Molins said Abdeslam had a central role in bringing members of the terrorist cells into Europe and that he had travelled to several countries where he was believed to have used the Balkan route to take militants to Belgium.

He said investigators had established that Abdeslam had rented at least two vehicles used in the Paris attacks, and had bought 12 remote detonators as well as peroxide used to fabricate the explosives.

Abdeslam potentially represents a huge prize for investigators. His trial, likely to be in France, would also be extraordinary, potentially revealing a wealth of information about the Paris attacks and ISIS.

That is because it is rare that a violent extremist involved so deeply in such a prominent attack has been detained, let alone tried in a normal court of law, particularly in Europe, The Guardian reported.

In the past, there have been trials of militants whose plots were thwarted by security services but, in many cases, militants die in suicide blasts or are killed by police during shoot-outs.

While Abdeslam's arrest was hailed by European and US leaders as a blow to ISIS, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said last Saturday that the threat level remained "extremely high".

He said France was deploying extra police officers to its borders.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Paris attacks suspect 'backed out of suicide bombing''. Print Edition | Subscribe