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The Paris Trial For The November 2015 Attacks Is Set To Begin On Wednesday

Updated September 7, 2021 at 5:05 PM ET

On Wednesday, 20 men accused of planning and carrying out the largest peacetime attacks on French soil will go on trial in Paris.

Nearly six years ago, 10 attackers killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more in coordinated shootings and suicide bombings at the Bataclan concert hall, a sports stadium and bars and restaurants across the French capital. The ISIS attacks took place on an unusually balmy November Friday night in 2015, when outdoor café tables were full.

Starting this week, nearly 1,800 witnesses and victims of these attacks will testify in a trial expected to last nine months, one that will include more than 300 lawyers, hundreds of volumes of documents and unprecedented security. There will also be thousands of spectators.

A special courtroom built for the trial includes a high-security witness box for the sole survivor among the militants who carried out the attacks. Salah Abdeslam, a French citizen who lived in Belgium and is currently imprisoned in France, will be joined by 13 others accused of helping plan and provide logistics and weapons on Nov 13, 2015. He is faced with charges of murder linked to a terrorist enterprise.

A view of the temporary courtroom set up at the Palais de Justice of Paris, built especially to host the trial.
Thomas Coex / AFP via Getty Images
A view of the temporary courtroom set up at the Palais de Justice of Paris, built especially to host the trial.

Six others — ISIS members, most of whom now are believed by French intelligence to be dead in Syria — will be judged in absentia.

It will be one of the rare French trials that is filmed, though footage won't be made public until 50 years from now.

"It is enormous and historic. After nearly six years of investigation, this will be a trial for history," says retired Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, who used to head France's anti-terrorism investigation unit.

Media coverage is plunging France back into memories of the attacks as the trial approaches. A radio documentary that aired last week on public broadcaster France Info played the chilling calls to first responders from that night for the first time. As the calls flooded in from across the city, Nicolas Poirot, then head of the city's ambulance service, said they had a hard time making sense of them.

"Then we looked at a map and realized it was a coordinated, massive attack," he recalled in the documentary.

Stéphane Lacombe, who worked for a victims' advocacy group at the time, says this trial is extremely important.

"The victims need to feel that a democratic state not only supports them," he says, "but also that it's using all its skills, resources, time, money, judges, to do what it can in order to get some answers."

Lacombe says unlike the attacks that took place 10 months earlier in Paris, targeting the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, the attacks in November 2015 were more widespread.

"People said to me, 'My God, it's on cafés and in the street and against young people — it's against everybody.' So I think there was a real change in our country in the perception of terrorism on that day. From then on, everybody felt vulnerable," says Lacombe.

Bruguière says the attacks were planned in Syria and carried out by Europeans who had joined ISIS and were able to travel back and forth undetected with the flow of migrants. The attackers were mostly French and Belgian citizens, born in Europe to immigrants from North Africa.

Such planned, coordinated attacks would be extremely difficult to carry out in France or Belgium today, he says.

"Unfortunately, they weren't detected in time," he says. "But French and Belgian intelligence services have since been hugely reinforced. These kinds of attacks are now thwarted because we can pick up their communications."

New anti-terrorism legislation in France gives police extended powers to search homes and make house arrests without prior judicial approval. Religious sites deemed radical can be closed down. Such measures have drawn an outcry from civil rights advocates.

The worst carnage of that November 2015 night came when three of the gunmen laid siege to the Bataclan concert hall, killing 90 people and wounding hundreds more. Alexis Lebrun was in the Bataclan audience at a rock concert that night. He hopes the trial will bring some answers and closure. But he says he is dreading it.

"It's a frightening moment," says Lebrun, "because going through the Paris attacks again for the next nine months, it's just too much."

Lebrun is a spokesman for Life for Paris, a victims' association formed after the attacks. He considers himself lucky because he wasn't physically injured. He says he's largely been able to pick up his life again — though he had to change jobs because he could not bear the anxiety he felt taking public transport at rush hour.

"You just can't escape the fact that you'll never be the same person again," he says. "It changes you forever. So you just have to accept that and deal with the consequences."

The trial, says Lebrun, won't change that.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.