Belgian broadcaster releases interview with then-fugitive Paris attacks suspect

RTBF reporter unwittingly spoke to Salah Abdeslam, alleged kingpin of attacks that killed 130

A day before he goes on trial in the French capital, Belgian public broadcaster RTBF has released an interview with the alleged kingpin of the Paris terror attacks, recorded as he was fleeing France in the aftermath of the 2015 massacre.

Salah Abdeslam and 19 others are accused of planning, aiding and carrying out the 13 November suicide bomb and gun attacks on the Stade de France, bars, restaurants and the Bataclan concert hall that killed 130 people and injured 490.

RTBF said a reporter from its Hainaut bureau, Charlotte Legrand, had interviewed motorists while police were checking ID cards and searching cars at one of the many checkpoints thrown up between France and Belgium in the hours after the attacks.

“I don’t remember the make of the car, or the colour,” Legrand said. “There were three young men inside it who looked very tired; their faces looked worn. The one in the back was wrapped up in a kind of puffa jacket or duvet.”

The men were “not particularly friendly, but they answered my questions while their identity cards were being checked,” Legrand recalled. “But as soon as they got their papers back, they cut the conversation short and wound up their window.”

Asked what they thought of the checks, the three replied in quick succession: “This is the third one.” “The third check.” “Frankly, we thought it was all a bit over the top.” “But then we sort of understood the point of …” “Why.” “After, we saw why.” It is not clear who said what.

At the time, Abdeslam’s name had not been circulated to police as a possible suspect in the attacks and the men were allowed to continue on their way.

Legrand edited her 90-second piece, featuring the interview with “three young men of north African origin”, and thought no more of it until details of Abdeslam’s flight, with accomplices Mohamed Amri and Hamza Attou, began to emerge.

“When we started to see the CCTV pictures from the petrol station where Abdeslam stopped with Amri et Attou, our suspicions began to grow,” she said.

They were confirmed only after Abdeslam’s arrest, in the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels on 18 March 2016, and the subsequent leak to the media of a conversation between him and two other inmates in Bruges prison.

Abdeslam told Mehdi Nemmouche, who killed four people in a 2014 attack on Brussels’ Jewish museum, and Mohamed Bakkali, an alleged member of the logistics team behind the Paris attacks, that he had spoken to a radio reporter while the car he was in was stopped, for a third time, outside Brussels.

Bakkali, along with Amri and Attou, who have both admitted collecting Abdeslam from the southern outskirts of Paris by car after he called them in the early hours of 14 November, are among the 14 suspects set to appear in France’s biggest-ever criminal trial, expected to last up to nine months in a purpose-built facility on the Île de la Cité.

Six more are being tried in their absence: five are presumed dead in Iraq or Syria, and one is in prison in Turkey. Abdeslam, 31, a Brussels-born French citizen, is believed to be the last survivor from the cell of 10 men who carried out the Paris attacks. Most killed themselves or were killed by police.

He is alleged to have been central to the huge logistics operation that saw the jihadists return to Europe from Syria via the migrant route, and is believed to have escorted three bombers who blew themselves up at the Stade de France.

Abdeslam, whose brother also blew himself up in a Paris bar during the attacks, is suspected of perhaps planning to carry out his own suicide attack in Paris’s 18th arrondissement, but then backing out. He hid south of Paris after the attacks before calling Amri and Attou in Brussels at 5.30am.

Legrand said she was trying to “stay objective” about the discovery. “I did feel a certain malaise,” she said. “I was worried I would be accused of lacking awareness during this interview. I felt, bizarrely, a bit guilty. Then I recall the facts. At that moment, I simply didn’t have the information to recognise Abdeslam. Nor did the police.”


Jon Henley Europe correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam charged with murder
Alleged logistical mastermind of attacks in French capital flown in by helicopter from Belgium, where he was arrested last month

Kim Willsher in Paris

27, Apr, 2016 @5:46 PM

Article image
Trial of Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam opens in Belgium
Charges relate to shootout in Brussels suburb shortly before arrest in March 2016

Kim Willsher

05, Feb, 2018 @12:02 PM

Article image
Paris attacks: Najim Laachraoui named as suspect by prosecutors
Authorities identify one of two men being sought as Laachraoui, stopped while in a car with Salah Abdeslam last September

Kim Willsher in Paris

21, Mar, 2016 @3:26 PM

Article image
Emmanuel Macron attends low-key memorials two years after Paris attacks
French president lays wreaths and speaks to families and survivors, while only surviving suspect remains silent in custody

Kim Willsher

13, Nov, 2017 @2:43 PM

Article image
Belgium extradites Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam to France
Man who investigators say has admitted arranging logistics for atrocity is due to appear before French judges on Wednesday

Kim Willsher in Paris

27, Apr, 2016 @10:46 AM

Article image
Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam still on run after Belgian police raids
Twenty-one arrested but key target remains at large as Brussels continues lockdown, with schools and metro closed

Jason Burke in Brussels

23, Nov, 2015 @12:16 PM

Article image
French police hunt for ‘ninth suspect’ believed to be involved in Paris attacks
Video footage from the attacks shows a previously unnoticed attacker, who is now thought to be on the run

Julian Borger

18, Nov, 2015 @12:11 AM

Article image
Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam will fight extradition
French president says he will seek ‘rapid’ handover of Abdelslam although Belgium says extradition could take several weeks

Kim Willsher and Jennifer Rankin

19, Mar, 2016 @4:58 PM

Article image
Paris attacks: suspect's fingerprint found in Belgian raid apartment
Officials confirm evidence of Salah Abdeslam, who is on the run, found in flat raided earlier in the week

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

18, Mar, 2016 @2:08 PM

Article image
Belgian soldiers and police 'held orgy' during Brussels lockdown
Two policewomen and eight soldiers alleged to have engaged in group sex while colleagues hunted for Paris terror attack suspects

David Batty

30, Dec, 2015 @5:43 PM