A french assize court does not arrive at a verdict through proof or reason, but by something called ‘conviction intime’. On the last day of the trial for the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015, the presiding judge, Jean-Louis Périès, reminded the court that the law
does not require each of the judges and jurors … to give an account of the means by which they have convinced themselves. It does not prescribe rules by which they must evaluate the fullness and sufficiency of the evidence. It requires them to question themselves in silence and in contemplation, and to seek, in the sincerity of their consciences, what impression the evidence adduced against the accused and the means of his defence have made on their minds. The law asks them only this one question, which contains the full measure of their duties: ‘Do you have a deep-seated conviction?’
Logic and certainty depart. After an investigation that produced more than a million pages of documents, and a ten-month trial featuring hundreds of witnesses, the cour d’assises was told to go with its gut.
The deliberations came to an end on 29 June, when nineteen of the twenty defendants were found guilty of participating in the attacks. The decision, which was accompanied by a 126-page judgment, was not based solely on feeling. But I was struck, leaving the courtroom for the final time, by how much remains unknown, unresolved.*
The first half of the trial gave voice to the victims of the attacks; in the second half, the court looked more carefully at the accused. But the people whom one would most wish to hear from were absent. We can’t hear from Samy Amimour, who blew himself up on the stage of the Bataclan. We can’t hear from Abdelhamid Abaaoud, though we watched him jump gleefully over a turnstile in security footage from the Paris Metro, helped by a passer-by who didn’t know that Abaaoud and his accomplices had just killed 39 people. He died during a police raid a few days after the attacks. We can’t hear from Oussama Atar, who is thought to have conceived the attacks, or from the four others said to have been killed in Syria or Iraq, denying them a starring role in the trial of the century.
There were fourteen men on trial: eleven in a plexiglass box, three who sat on jump seats behind their lawyers. Only one of them, Salah Abdeslam, was present in Paris on the day of the attacks. It didn’t take long for the French press to notice that many of the men did not fit the stereotype of someone who has been radicalised, which in French popular understanding tends to entail fervent religious belief and antisocial behaviour. Most of them talked about smoking pot, about going to clubs and drinking. Few were practising Muslims. Abdellah Chouaa said of his fellow accused, Mohamed Abrini: ‘He had never shown me that he was radicalised. The day before, he was playing bingo with a beer!’ Chouaa had driven Abrini to the airport on 23 June 2015. Abrini was on his way to Syria to join IS. Ali El Haddad Asufi, who stood accused of procuring weapons used in the attacks, was asked about Ibrahim El Bakraoui, who later blew himself up in a terrorist attack in Brussels: ‘He wasn’t radicalised!’ El Haddad Asufi responded. ‘He had classic trousers, shiny shoes, he had his hair done. He was like a hairdresser, really!’
The person who said most about his participation in the attacks, Sofien Ayari, described his motivation as political, not religious. He rejected the idea of radicalisation as a form of religious practice. ‘When we talk about radicalisation, we make the link with religion in the sense that it follows on: you start practising a little, you become more rigorous, and one day you wake up and you’re ready to do jihad. For me, it’s completely different.’ What he experienced was a political awakening that shaded into violence. He had been angry, he said, at the Assad regime in Syria. ‘When you see people running in panic, humiliation on their faces, you feel powerless. It was a violence that I was not prepared for. It awakened things in me that were complicated to deal with. I followed my emotions in a context that did not help me to be lucid. And the day I was told, “We need you elsewhere,” well, I left.’
Some observers thought that the absence of outward signs of radicalisation was intentional. The court discussed in great detail the idea that those planning attacks might hide their religious convictions. But in their final statements, the prosecutors returned to a definition of the term based on the same outward signs. Even as they noted that the word ‘radicalisation’ was imprecise, they argued that certain behaviours and customs should be seen as worrying. According to Menya Arab-Tigrine, a lawyer for El Haddad Asufi, these included not only watching propaganda videos and dividing the world into believers and miscreants, but also refusing to shake hands with women, wearing traditional garb, having a long beard. In an interview the day before the verdict, she told me that French case law concerning ‘radicalisation’ had evolved to take into account the desire to commit a violent act: a distinction between thinking that beards and thobes are in themselves evidence of a possible crime and thinking that the law also needs proof of intention and an ideology oriented towards violence. The prosecutors, she claimed, had returned to an outdated notion that risked confusing religious expression with terrorism. In the end, the judgment of the court offered ample evidence for its conclusions. The document details the participation of each of the accused in the attacks, drawing on forensic evidence. But it cites the word ‘radicalisation’ 34 times without providing a precise definition, and retains many of the behavioural criteria used by the prosecution.
The lack of certainty over the definition of radicalisation was laid bare in the case of Salah Abdeslam. His position seemed to shift throughout the trial between hardened IS soldier and everyday delinquent. On the first day of the trial, when asked for his profession, Abdeslam declared: ‘I gave up my job to become an Islamic State soldier.’ (Périès replied: ‘It says here that you’re a temp.’) But Abdeslam also said that he pledged allegiance to IS just 48 hours before the attacks. He wasn’t a diligent Muslim. He liked to go clubbing, to smoke pot. ‘I was like the people in the cafés [where the attacks occurred],’ he said. ‘I wore a nice shirt. I wore perfume.’
As the trial went on, Abdeslam appeared to show more emotion. He cried in court, asking the victims for their forgiveness. He said that he didn’t wish to participate in the attacks, that he had decided not to blow himself up ‘out of humanity’. (The court ruled that his suicide vest was defective.) What, after ten months, could we say for certain about Abdeslam, whose personality continued to shift until the very end? In a visit to the court on 21 April, the psychiatrist Daniel Zagury claimed that Abdeslam had two personas: ‘the little guy from Molenbeek [the largely Muslim district near Brussels where he grew up]’, and ‘the soldier of God’. ‘It is probable that Salah Abdeslam oscillates between two limits: that of hardening and that of openness,’ Zagury said. ‘This issue is a Cornelian dilemma: either to disown the totalitarian camp in which he was engaged, or to disown himself.’
Zagury said that to his mind, Abdeslam represented the idea of the banality of evil. (He took the opportunity to mention that the familiar phrase had not been coined by Hannah Arendt herself, but by a psychiatrist who had guided her reporting.) But could it be a strategy? Near the end of his interrogation by the court, Abdeslam said: ‘I wish to be forgotten for ever. I have not chosen to be the one I am today.’ Yet at times he seemed merely to be mouthing his lawyers’ arguments. On 27 June, the last day of the trial, he discussed the ‘evolution’ of his personality, ‘the return to social life’, and noted that ‘France is losing its values.’ Hadn’t we heard these words in his lawyer’s closing statement, just three days before?
Outside the courtroom, the term ‘radicalisation’ takes up more and more space in French political discourse. A law passed last year requires that ‘radicalisation’ be challenged everywhere from continuing education to public sports teams. In Menya Arab-Tigrine’s view, a definition of radicalisation that is too broad poses not only a legal but a social risk – that of ‘aggravating an existing social divide’.
As for Abdeslam, he faces life in prison. His lawyers have not yet announced whether there will be an appeal. For now, we are left with his final statement to the court. Some people, he said, would accuse him of not being sincere in his remorse. He did not convince the judges when he continued, ‘More than 130 dead and four hundred injured: who can be insincere in asking for forgiveness in the face of so much suffering?’
Listen to Madeleine Schwartz discuss the Bataclan trial with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.