Bataclan massacre: Why has it taken seven years to prosecute suspects accused of terror attack?

Salah Abdeslam is seen as the key suspect in the case and the only suspected attacker to have survived. Credit: AP

Almost seven years after France's worst peacetime terrorist attack, the suspected lone survivor of the Islamic State extremist team that attacked the Bataclan theatre is due to find out his fate.

It's been a long road for victims’ families and survivors of the attacks who have had to wait years for the police to finish their investigation and then sit through months of testimony at the biggest trial in French history.

The trial for Salah Abdeslam and his 19 suspected accomplices has been excruciating in detail as the families of the victims fight for justice.

After staying quiet for months Abdeslam opened up in April and wept apologising to his victims and pleaded for judges to forgive his mistakes.He faces up to life in prison without parole on murder and other charges, the toughest sentence possible under France’s justice system.

France was put under a three month lockdown after the attack. Credit: AP

The sentence has only ever been handed out four times in French history.The 2015 Bataclan Theatre terrorist attack led to the deaths of 130 people.

Abdeslam, a 32-year-old Belgian with Moroccan roots, was the only defendant tried on several counts of murder and kidnapping as a member of a terrorist organisation.

The other defendants are largely accused of helping with logistics or transportation, but many are charged with being complicit in "terrorist murder" which carries a life sentence.

What happened?

On Friday, November 13, 2015, France was playing a friendly football match against Germany with then-president François Hollande and then-chancellor Angela Merkel in attendance.

At the Bataclan concert venue, the American band Eagles of Death Metal were playing to a full house.

The theatre has now reopened. Credit: AP

Three explosions happened outside the football ground with the sound of the first suicide bombing at 9.16 pm barely carried over the noise of the stadium’s crowd.

Soon after a squad of gunmen opened fire at several bars and restaurants in another part of Paris.At 9.47 pm three more gunmen burst into the Bataclan, firing indiscriminately.

Ninety people died within minutes. Hundreds were held hostage – some gravely injured – inside the concert hall for hours before Mr Hollande, watching people covered in blood make their way out of the Bataclan, ordered it stormed.In all there were six distinct attacks carried out by 10 people, Abdeslam was the only survivor after his suicide vest malfunctioned.

In his own testimony, Abdeslam claimed he had chosen not to detonate the explosives.

The American band the Eagles of Death Metal were playing in the theatre at the time of the attack. Credit: AP

He fled to his home city of Brussels and hid there for months until he was arrested in March 2016.

In response to the attack, France declared a three-month state of emergency and brought in harsh counter-terrorism measures - most of which were soon made into law.

In Belgium, the government tightened its border with France and soon put Brussels under lockdown after it was learned the Islamic State group cell responsible for the attack had links to the city.

The same cell was responsible for the March 2016 terrorist attack on Brussels which struck key transport hubs in the city and left 32 people dead.Who claimed responsibility?

The Islamic State soon claimed responsibility for the attack.

At the time the group controlled large swathes of Syria and Iraq and was subjected to a fierce western airstrike campaign.

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The group said they had carried out the attack in response to France's involvement in the strikes on their territory.

At the time IS had sent terrorist cells to several locations in the west as well as several Islamic countries.

A similar group was apprehended by German special forces in the north of Germany in 2016.Why the trial has taken so long?

The main reason for the length of time it has taken for the suspects to face justice is just the size of the investigation.

It took six years and its written conclusions stretched to 53 metres when lined up.When the trial opened it was immediately the largest in French history.

Nearly 1,800 victims were named as plaintiffs in the case and 330 lawyers were representing them or the 20 defendants.

The 13th century court house had to be specially adapted for the trial. Credit: AP

It took nine months to go through all of the evidence, with entire months being dedicated to police and forensic evidence, witness testimony, and testimony from all the officials involved in the response to the attack.

The first three months of 2022 were dedicated to questioning the defendants.

The trial has also required dozens of senior officials to take the stand, including former President Hollande who dismissed claims that his government was at fault.

The case has been held in a packed specially designed main chamber and 12 overflow rooms in the 13th-century Justice Palace.

The court is on the same island in the Seine that Notre Dame Cathedral is on in the centre of Paris.

The security operation around the court has been enormous with the island completely locked down while the court is in session with no traffic permitted and only limited pedestrian access.

For many of the witnesses to the attack although they hoped for justice they just wanted to make sure their voices were heard as they recounted the horrors they saw.

The security operation around the trial has been enormous. Credit: AP

The other defendants are largely accused of helping with logistics or transportation.Fourteen of the defendants have been in court, including Abdeslam.

All but one of the six absent men are presumed to have been killed in Syria or Iraq; the other is in prison in Turkey.Abdeslam said innocent civilians were targeted because of France’s policies in the Middle East and said their deaths were "nothing personal".He was silent for years, refusing to speak to investigators but in April he opened up claiming listening to the victims had changed him.

He told the court that he was a last-minute addition to the group.

He said he “renounced” his mission to detonate his explosives-packed vest in a bar in northern Paris that night.

Prosecutors emphasised contradictions in Abdeslam’s testimony — from pledging allegiance to the Islamic State at the start of the trial and expressing regret that his explosives strapped to his body failed to detonate.

During closing arguments on Monday, Abdelslam’s lawyer Olivia Ronen told a panel of judges that her client is the only one in the group of attackers who didn’t set off explosives to kill others that night. He can’t be convicted for murder, she argued.

Abdeslam apologised to the victims at his final court appearance, saying his remorse and sorrow is heartfelt and sincere. Listening to victims’ accounts of “so much suffering” changed him, he said.

“I have made mistakes, it’s true, but I am not a murderer, I am not a killer,” he said.