Brussels 2016 bombing suspect Salah Abdeslam denies knowledge of plot

The 33-year-old Frenchman claims attacks were planned while he was in jail

Defendants Salah Abdeslam, left, and Osama Krayem, right, arrive at the 2016 Brussels terror attacks trial. AFP
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The main suspect in the trial of nine alleged extremists accused of taking part in the March 2016 bombings in Brussels denied on Wednesday having any knowledge of the plot.

Salah Abdeslam, a 33-year-old Frenchman already jailed over his role in the Paris terror attacks of November 2015, was facing his first day of cross-examination in the Brussels trial.

On March 22, 2016, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the Belgian capital's airport and another one targeted a metro station, killing 32 people and wounding many more.

Investigators believe the ISIS cell behind the attacks was linked to the group that carried out the Paris attacks, which left 130 dead.

Abdeslam has been sentenced to life in prison without parole for his role in the French massacre, but on Wednesday he insisted that he had no knowledge of the Belgian plot.

“My presence in the dock is unjustified,” he told the court. “This is not justice, this is trying to make an example of someone.”

Abdeslam argued that he could not have taken part in planning the Brussels attacks because, he claimed, they had been planned in the four days between his March 18 arrest and the fatal blasts.

“I was not aware of anything,” he said.

Co-defendant Sofien Ayari, a 29-year old Tunisian national who was arrested with Abdeslam, made a similar argument.

Both men were sentenced in 2018 to 20 years in prison for shooting at police with terrorist intent on March 15 in Brussels.

Ayari said the attacks that shook the capital a few days later were developped "precipitously". "I didn't expect be charged for it," he said.

Ayari said he left Tunisia for Syria in 2014 despite local police turning him back the first time. Police was suspicious of young men travelling alone to Turkey, according to him, as thousands of Tunisian men joined ISIS at the time.

He eventually managed to leave with help from his father, who was duped into believing that his son was travelling with the intent of opening a shop with a friend.

"I caused a lot of sadness and problems to my family," said Ayari.

The trial began on December 5 last year, in a specially built high-security courtroom in the disused former headquarters of the Nato military alliance.

Wednesday was the first day of questions for the defendants.

'Too many sins'

Abdeslam's childhood friend and fellow accused, 38-year-old Mohamed Abrini, also downplayed his role, even though he is accused of being the only surviving member of the attack team.

Abrini has been identified by prosecutors as the so-called “man in the hat” seen on airport surveillance footage, apparently changing his mind at the last minute and deciding not to detonate his bomb.

Two more attackers, Najim Laachraoui and Ibrahim El Bakraoui, went through with their suicide bombings, and a third, Khalid El Bakraoui, attacked the Maalbeek metro station.

Abrini told the court: “They're trying to pin this all on us. Just like in Paris, they'll convict for what others did.”

Abrini left Paris on the eve of the attacks, but the French court concluded that he had planned to carry out a suicide bombing there before another last-minute change of heart.

He was given a life sentence, with no chance of parole before 22 years served, but did not lodge an appeal.

“After 10 months on trial, we were at the end of our tether. Even if I had been sentenced to death I would not have appealed,” he told the Belgian court.

Wearing an orange hooded T-shirt under a dark jacket, with close-cropped hair and a full beard, Abrini argued that the defendants appearing in Belgium were “not the tip of the pyramid”.

“You never caught those pulling the strings, but you have to trot out someone, and that someone is us,” he said, accusing the prosecution of pandering to a public thirst for revenge.

The defendants' version of the events in the run-up to and day of the attacks will be examined later in the trial, but on Wednesday they were cross-examined about their character and motivations.

Asked by the presiding judge Laurence Massart to describe his qualities, Abdeslam said: “I've always tried to do good. It's what I've always done throughout my life.”

“And your faults?” the judge continued. Abdeslam paused for a moment to reflect, then replied: “I don't know of any.”

Faced with the same question, Abrini responded that his belief in God was a strength but that he has “millions of faults — I commit too many sins”.

Defendants will be questioned on Thursday about their alleged crimes.

The trial continues.

Updated: April 05, 2023, 3:46 PM