Suspect for Paris terror attacks that killed 130 goes on trial
Hundreds of armed police are guarding the Brussels court where the trial of Salah Abdeslam, the prime suspect behind the November 2015 Paris attacks, opens today after his secret transfer from a prison outside the French capital.
Mr Abdeslam, a French national of Moroccan descent, is being tried on charges of terrorism, possession of weapons and attempted murder during a shoot-out with police in Brussels three days before his arrest in March 2016.
He will face another trial in France at a later date for his alleged role in the Paris attacks that left 130 people dead and hundreds wounded.
During the court hearings in Brussels, Mr Abdeslam (28) is being held at a jail in northern France near the Belgian border from where he can more easily be brought to court by helicopter or road. Hundreds of elite officers will escort him and guard the route.
Another 200 officers are posted inside the court building in case of an attempted attack while security has also reportedly been stepped up across Brussels.
Mr Abdeslam's capture in Brussels after four months on the run following the slaughter in Paris is believed to have prompted his jihadist cell to bring forward a plan for attacks in the Belgian capital.
He is believed to be the survivor of the 10-man Isil cell that terrorised Paris in 2015, and has refused all pleas to shed light on the attacks.
After nearly three years jailed in isolation and silence, he goes on trial today.
The man who covered for his getaway with a spray of automatic gunfire died.
Mr Abdeslam's escape was short-lived - he was captured on March 18, 2016, in the same Brussels neighbourhood where he and many of his Isil fighter colleagues had grown up.
Four days later, Isil suicide attackers struck again, this time at the Brussels airport and subway.
In all, that sprawling network of Isil fighters killed 162 people in the two European capitals.
Most of the extremists were French speakers, raised in one of the cities they struck. The plot's execution depended on Isil's success in uniting crime and religion.
Mr Abdeslam, who along with his brother was suspected of dealing drugs from the bar they ran, is the starkest example of that convergence.
The lines between terrorists and criminals were less clear now than ever, said Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.
"Isil is perhaps the first jihadist group that has explicitly targeted this demographic, and they've done it very consciously and especially in Europe," he said. "What we saw in Brussels and Paris - this is not an isolated case. This is actually reflecting the situation across Europe. If you go to Sweden, Norway, Holland, Germany, they will all tell you that 50pc plus of the people who have turned up traveling to Syria or involved in domestic plots have previous criminal convictions, often for petty crime."
Belgian police raided Mr Abdeslam's Brussels hideout on March 15, 2016, but he escaped through a window over the rooftops.
He was traced to a cousin's apartment on March 18, 2016, near his Molenbeek home. Still more members of the cross-border Isil cell struck Brussels on March 22, 2016, including the bomb-maker for both attacks. Thirty-two people were killed in Brussels, along with three suicide attackers.
Mr Abdeslam has been imprisoned ever since. This week's trial marks the first time he has been seen in public since his capture.
According to the French radio network France Inter, Mr Abdeslam stored a message in his computer similar to the farewells written by other jihadis ahead of suicide attacks.
In it, France Inter reported, he said his suicide belt malfunctioned in Paris and that he dreamed of going to Syria.