The transfer of Salah Abdeslam, the key suspect in November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, from a high-security prison in Belgium to France on Wednesday was so quick and secret that it even took his lawyer by surprise.
Abdeslam was given a few minutes to pack his belongings before authorities removed him from his cell and flew him by helicopter under armed guard to France.
“It’s obvious the transfer from Belgium to France was very rapid and relatively muscular,” said lawyer Frank Berton, who rushed from the northern French city of Lille to attend Abdeslam’s court hearing in Paris.
Abdeslam, 26, is believed to be the only surviving member of the terrorist teams that carried out shootings at the Bataclan concert hall and a series of suicide bombings at cafés and bars in the French capital November 13 that left 130 people dead. Authorities identified one of the suicide bombers as his brother, Brahim Abdeslam, 31.
“He said today that he would rather not answer questions, because he is tired by the transfer and the judge said he did not want to interrogate him,” Berton told reporters outside the courthouse. “But he has said he wishes to express himself later and he will do so.”
Abdeslam, a French citizen of Moroccan origin, was ordered held in isolation in the high-security prison at Fleury Mérogis, south of Paris.
French Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas said Abdeslam would be watched by guards specially trained to deal with “people reputed to be dangerous.”
Investigators are hoping that Abdeslam can shed light on the shootings and suicide bombings in Paris and the terrorist cell that carried out attacks on a Brussels airport and public transport system March 22.
Earlier, Berton told journalists his client was “falling apart” and ready to cooperate with the investigation.
Salah Abdeslam was a fugitive after leaving France on the night of the November attacks. Authorities said he masterminded the logistics for the November attacks, recruiting attackers and renting several apartments used by the attackers.
He was arrested in Belgium three days after a March 15 shootout with police and faces attempted murder charges. France immediately sought his extradition.
The Islamic State extremist group has claimed responsibility for the series of bombings and shootings in attacks in Paris, which killed 130 and left 349 injured, and Brussels, where three suicide bombers killed 32 people and injured more than 300.
Abdeslam’s lawyer in Belgium, Sven Mary, cast doubt on how much influence Abdeslam could have had on the attacks, reportedly calling him a “little jerk.”
“He’s more a follower than a leader… Salah Abdeslam is a perfect example of the GTA [Grand Theft Auto] generation who believe they’re living in a video game,” Mary was quoted as saying in L’Express magazine. “He has the intelligence of an empty ashtray.”
“He and his mates have succeeded in making an entire religion despised,” Mary said. “I asked him if he’d read the Koran, which I have, and he told me he had read its interpretation on the Internet. For simple souls, the Net is perfect, it’s all they understand.”
Geraldine Berger-Stenger, a lawyer for several of the French victims’ relatives, said they were unlikely to see Abdeslam brought to justice for several years. She warned against pinning too much hope on him making any revelations.
“I expect he will cooperate, but I am very cautious,” she told BFMTV. Abdeslam is a key witness “but we are perhaps hoping for too much.”
Willsher is a special correspondent.