“We did not twiddle our thumbs”: a Brussels anti-terrorism judge detailed through the menu and defended the “long investigation” on the Belgian side into the attacks of November 13, 2015, Tuesday before the special assize court in Paris. Dressed all in black, thin glasses and Chanel necklace around her neck, judge Isabelle Panou testifies with her face uncovered, evoking with an ultra-rapid flow and without practically consulting the voluminous notebook placed in front of her, an “exceptional” file.
This experienced magistrate was seized of it “on November 14, 2015 around 3 am”, just a few hours later. the attacks that left 130 dead and hundreds injured in Paris and Saint-Denis. A “GSM” (mobile phone, Editor’s note) found in a trash can near the Bataclan, a vehicle registered in Belgium rented by Salah Abdeslam, resident of Brussels and today the only surviving member of the commandos: the first elements point to Belgium, recalls Judge Panou.
A joint Franco-Belgian investigation team was immediately set up: “we sent the files by whole vans”, recalls the magistrate, welcoming “incredible collaboration” between the authorities of the two countries. “All the Belgian police officers”, even those “who did VAT”, are mobilized to “go up the trail” of the commandos, who left Belgium the day before the attacks, and “track down” the survivors, recalls Isabelle Panou.
She “stalked” Abaaoud
A man is quickly identified as one of the killers of the café terraces in Paris, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and “it was excessively bad news,” said the judge. If she has “never seen” him, the name of this figure of French-speaking jihadism sought by Western services is not unknown to him: he is accused of having coordinated from a distance the jihadist cell of Verviers (Belgium), dismantled in extremis in early 2015 by the Belgian authorities warned of an imminent attack plan, a case that she herself investigated.
When we say “what did the Belgians do to find Abaaoud?” We did not twiddle our thumbs
“I tracked him down”, there is “not a person, not a place that has not been investigated” to find him, assures the Belgian magistrate. “When we say ‘what did the Belgians do to find Abaaoud?’ We did not twiddle our thumbs, ”she defends herself. Abdelhamid Abaaoud will be killed on November 18, 2015 during a police assault, in the building of Saint-Denis where he was entrenched with an accomplice.
Salah Abdeslam who fled to Brussels will be found after four months on the run, on March 18, 2016. Four days later, the same jihadist cell hits the metro and the Brussels airport and kills 32. “I was not seized until November 14, 2015. I learned the name of Abdeslam that day”, vigorously answers the witness to questions about possible “failures” of the Belgian authorities.
“Complex” international investigations
The dossier of the Paris attacks is “difficult, let’s not lie to ourselves” and cannot be reduced to a “Franco-Belgian investigation”, it required “complex” international investigations and “to work in an artisanal way”, considers the judge. . The majority of men tried by the Special Assize Court of Paris resided in Brussels and lived in an environment “where everyone knows each other”, but “closed”, she notes again. “It is difficult to work on a family, social and economic fabric at this closed point. And it’s obviously not easy to denounce a cousin, a friend, ”she said.
In the box, the defendants cross their arms, their heads bowed. Non-French speakers abandoned the translators’ headphones after more than five hours of presentation. “You have to stop or I talk too much,” agrees Judge Isabelle Panou, attracting a few laughs on the benches of civil parties and lawyers. “I know I was long, but the scope of the investigations deserved” this long presentation, assures the witness, who can be called back to the bar after the interrogations of the accused, scheduled for 2022.
Before suspending the hearing in the early evening, the president of the court Jean-Louis Périès told the defendants that they could make a spontaneous statement on Wednesday noon when the proceedings resumed.