The Paris attacks seen through the eyes of Belgian investigators

This court-sketch shows a general view of the courtroom where the trial of the November 13, 2015 Paris and Saint-Denis attacks is taking place, September 8, 2021. AFP - BENOIT PEYRUCQ

The director of the investigation into the Belgian links to the November 2015 Paris attacks told the court on Tuesday that it was "the toughest case" she had ever worked on. She also praised the exceptional collaboration between France and Belgium to track down the killers.

"The events took place in Paris, but grief is no respecter of national boundaries," Isabelle Panou said.

The contrast was striking.

After the almost robotic performance of the anonymous French police witness, SDAT 99, on Monday, Belgian terrorism specialist Isabelle Panou brought emotion and humanity to her presentation of the five-year effort by police in Brussels to unravel the complex international web of links and complicities which led to, and away from, the Paris killings.

Unlike her French counterpart, who could not be identified for security reasons, Isabelle Panou is obliged by Belgian law to testify as a recogniseable individual in open court.

The tribunal president reminded her that she was under French jurisdiction at this trial, and could, if she wished, testify anonymously. Isabelle Panou declined with a smile.

"Thank you Mr President, I'm used to it."

That set the tone for an exposé which was less clinical than the French version, with more room for doubt and questioning.

Centre of European jihadism

The same legal territory was covered, with the same rigour, this time seen from the perspective of Belgium, where the final preparations for the Paris attacks were made.

The roles of the various members of the terrorist cells were described, as were the technical and forensic means by which the facts were established.

The name of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the chief planners of the Paris attacks, was repeated again and again.

"Abaaoud was at the centre of European jihadism at the time," according to Panou. "He wanted to kill as many people as possible, in trains, airports.

"He had files on crèches, on nuclear power plants . . . They intended to attack Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, the Paris métro . . ."

Abaaoud was killed by French security forces in Paris, five days after the Paris attacks.

Heartfelt plea on behalf of Molenbeek

And then there was a brief interlude, where the professional jurist became secondary to someone with a broader sense of justice.

"If you will allow me a few moments, Mr President," said Isabelle Panou, "I would like to say a few words about Molenbeek," the Brussels suburb from which the Paris killers set out, and where Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the murderous expedition, was eventually arrested.

Stressing that she spoke "from personal experience," not as a sociologist or a lawyer or as a tour guide, Panou told the court that it was "nonsense to identify one of the 19 districts of Brussels with Islamic extremism . . . worse than ridiculous to call it 'the heart of European terrorism'.

"This is a densely populated village community in which distances are measured in metres, not kilometres.

"There are mosques, yes. That's normal with such a large Muslim community. There are some radical preachers, yes. But the vast majority of those who live in Molenbeek are peaceful citizens."

The global sweep of the investigation into the November 2015 killings was once again underlined, and along with it the difficulty of pulling elements together from such different sources.

The Pakistani authorities had been unhelpful, said Panou. Turkey had sent huge bundles of documents which had to be translated before their limited usefulness could be established. The United States has sent far too much material, submerging an investigation already under immense strain.

Isabelle Panou finished up by apologising that she has spoken for so long, but "the size of this investigation warrants it," she explained.

She could be called to court again to testify, once the suspects have been questioned at some point in early 2022.

Another unexpected interlude

During one of the pauses in the hearing, I watched a woman wearing the green neckband of a civil witness, walking around with her mobile phone pointing towards the ground, obviously filming.

Since I'd already been reprimanded myself for taking pictures, I warned her that she risked being arrested and expelled. Her humourous eyes glinted maliciously over her face mask.

"I'm filming feet," she said with a laugh. "It's only faces that are illegal."

And she showed me her collection: shoes of all descriptions, some not easy to describe. "Look," she said, showing a pair of sandals under a legal robe. "That must have been a monk."

Our laughter attracted the attention of a young policeman. He offered his own feet to the project, explaining that he and his colleagues can either choose the regulation service shoes, or buy their own. The only rule is that they must "be black, and very well polished".

"They are very nice," my lady said as the gendarme walked back to his post. "The guards, the lawyers, the support staff. You see the same people every day. We're part of a community already."

We've been here for five days. The hearing continues.


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