AFP – Salah Abdeslam, a surviving member of the group that carried out the Paris attacks in November that killed 130 people, will be questioned by French investigators for the first time on Friday.
For months, Abdeslam was the most wanted fugitive in Europe until he was tracked down and arrested on March 18 in the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek where he grew up.
Transferred to France under high security on April 27, he has been held at Fleury-Merogis prison, southeast of Paris.
A childhood friend of suspected ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Abdeslam is thought to have played a key role both on the night of the attacks on November 13, and in their preparation.
Two others have been arrested in France in connection with the attacks carried out by the Islamic State group but they are considered secondary participants.
Abdeslam, 26, is known to have dropped off the three suicide bombers who blew themselves up outside the Stade de France national stadium in northern Paris.
He is said to have backed out of the suicide bombing himself. An abandoned explosives vest was found in a southern Paris district close to where Abdeslam was placed by mobile phone data on the night of the attacks.
CCTV pictures from filling stations showed him fleeing back to Belgium after two friends came to pick him up.
In the build-up to the attacks, he is known to have rented the cars and hideouts used by the gang.
He also transported several other jihadists around Europe in the preceding months, including Najim Laachraoui, the suspected bombmaker for the November attacks who was himself killed in a suicide bombing in Brussels on March 22.
The coordinated attacks in Brussels that day also struck a metro station, killing 32 people overall.
– Limited expectations –
Abdeslam could, in theory, shine a light on the planning and execution of the Paris attacks, the command structure and other accomplices who are still at large.
He could also clear up the links between the attacks in Paris and Belgium, both carried out by a network linked to the Islamic State group.
His French lawyer Frank Berton told AFP that Abdeslam “wants to explain himself”.
But few are expecting any major revelations.
“The investigators have only him in custody. He could help if he collaborates, either to confirm elements of the investigation, or to give fresh leads,” said Gerard Chemla, a lawyer representing some 50 of the victims and their families from the Paris attacks.
“However, we should not hang on his every word and wait for any sensational revelations,” added Chemla, pointing out that the police have already done much of the vital work in dismantling the network.
“The first interviews are often about denials. We should maybe leave the process to unfold for a while,” added Jean Reinhart, another lawyer representing some of the victims.
Reinhart said he was not expecting repentance or any “great sincerity” from the suspect.
Abdeslam’s lawyer before his extradition from Brussels, Sven Mary, has described him as a “little idiot” with the “intelligence of an empty ashtray”.
Mary also said Abdeslam was “more of a follower than a leader”, though some have argued he may have adopted this attitude to lessen his responsibility.
In his two interrogations in Belgium, Abdeslam gave the impression he was merely a pawn of Abaaoud and his own brother Brahim, who blew himself up outside a Paris cafe during the November attacks.
But he has already been caught in a lie, saying that he only met Abaaoud once before, when in fact they had a record of teenage delinquency together in Molenbeek.
Hundreds of friends and families of victims are still waiting for answers on questions such as how and why the targets were chosen, how the attacks were financed, and the intelligence failures.
French magistrates are holding their first meetings with them between May 24 and 26 in Paris.