PARIS — Salah Abdeslam, a key suspect in the terrorist attacks in Paris in November, was handed over to French authorities Wednesday to stand trial in the coming months in a case that could shed further light on Islamist militant recruitment and networks in Europe.
After appearing before investigative judges Wednesday afternoon, Abdeslam faces charges of terrorist murder and the possession and use of weapons and bombs, according to Frank Berton, his French lawyer. Jean-Jacques Urvoas, the French Justice Minister, announced that Abdeslam would be held in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison near Paris.
Although complete details of his role in the November attacks remain unclear, Abdeslam is suspected to have been among the logistical planners of the Paris attacks, organizing the hotel rooms and rental cars that facilitated the bloodiest massacre on French soil since World War II.
Abdeslam, a 26-year-old Belgian citizen of Moroccan descent, was arrested in the Brussels district of Molenbeek on March 18 after eluding authorities in both Belgium and France since the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks, which killed 130 people. Four months after the attacks, he was apprehended just a short distance from his childhood home.
His capture came just four days before the March 22 bombings at Brussels’ international airport and one of the city’s metro stations, which left 32 people dead and hundreds injured.
Since his arrest, Abdeslam had been detained in a prison in northern Belgium. His transfer to France follows a European arrest warrant that was issued immediately after his capture.
Abdeslam’s arrest was a watershed moment in the ongoing investigation into a cell of largely European-born jihadists who are thought to have orchestrated the Paris and Brussels attacks. Authorities believe these militants were inspired by the Islamic State, and used their European citizenship to ease their way across borders and other potential checks.
But Abdeslam’s capture was also a plot point in the evolving terrorist activities of the Brussels-based cell. The group had initially planned a second attack in France, officials believe, but opted to strike in Brussels as counterterrorism units closed in.
In recent weeks, links between the Paris and Brussels attacks have become increasingly clear, with significant crossover between the suspects in each attack.
Najim Laachraoui, 24, identified as one of the two suicide bombers at Brussels airport, is also suspected of having made the bombs used in the Paris attacks.
Similarly, Mohamed Abrini, 31, the so-called “man in the hat” depicted in surveillance footage at Brussels airport minutes before the attacks, had also been caught on camera driving Abdeslam across the French-Belgian border in the days before the November attacks.
Belgian authorities arrested Abrini earlier this month.
The extent to which this cell of terrorists remains active remains unclear, although much of Europe remains on highest alert.
Last week, French officials proposed extending the national “state of emergency” enacted after the November attacks through the summer, which would cover the 2016 Euro football tournament as well as the famous Tour de France bicycle race.
For many, Abdeslam’s forthcoming trial provides a unique opportunity for authorities to learn more about plans that still may be in the works.
“He probably knows a lot about who might carry out other attacks in Europe,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, the head of the French Center for Analysis of Terrorism. “What he might say could really be crucial to foil other plots in Europe in the coming weeks or months.”
Daniela Deane in London contributed to this report.