The changed face of Salah Abdeslam, former 'soldier of Allah'

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The rhythm and atmosphere at the Paris attacks trial changed dramatically on Tuesday, with the opening of the examination of the personalities of the accused.

Since the 14 men before the court testify in alphabetic order, Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the terror squads which caused the deaths of 131 persons in the 2015 attacks, was the first to give evidence.

Salah Abdeslam is a changed man

In place of the black-clad, self-proclaimed "soldier of Allah" who belligerently rejected the authority of French justice at the September opening of this trial, who refused to identify his parents by name, who has repeatedly and angrily interrupted proceedings, the court was yesterday faced with a charm offensive which bordered on the obscene.

Salah Abdeslam wore a white shirt and a light grey sweater. He followed instructions. He answered questions carefully, thoughtfully. He was polite, humble and cooperative. He managed, on occasion, to be respectfully humorous.

It was a remarkable performance.

It is, of course, possible that the harrowing testimony from survivors and the families of victims which the court has heard over the past five weeks has had a profound effect on Salah Abdeslam.

It is also possible that he has been warned by his defence team that any further provocation will simply ensure that he spends the rest of his life in jail.

Whatever the motivation or the logic of the change, the man who testified on Tuesday was not the Salah Abdeslam of September.

Friendship with Abdelhamid Abaaoud

Testifying from inside the glass enclosure which protects the accused, Salah Abdeslam explained that he was a French national of Moroccan origin who had spent most of his life in the Brussels' suburb of Molenbeek.

He described his childhood as "normal", saying he had grown up in a happy family atmosphere, with three older brothers and a younger sister. He was recognised as "polite and helpful" by neighbours.

Regarded by his teachers as an "average" student, Abdeslam completed his secondary education without incident, earning the Belgian equivalent of a technical Baccalaureat.

He began his professional career as a technician in the tram company where his father worked as a driver.

In 2011, Abdeslam was sacked from that job after 18 months, following his arrest and detention in the wake of an attempted house-breaking. His co-accused in the case was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, described as a close friend from the accused's early teens.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud was one of the killers who opened fire at several bar terraces in central Paris, and is believed to have masterminded the entire November 2015 operation.

He was notorious for his participation in several horrific murders filmed in Syria and diffused by the propaganda wing of the Islamic State terrorist organisation. He was killed by French police in Paris five days after the 2015 massacres.

Salah Abdeslam also spoke of his close relationship with his brother Brahim, who died when he detonated a suicide vest on the crowded terrace of the Voltaire bar on the night of the attacks.

"I was closest to him," Salah said of Brahim, "because he always looked after me. He was the one I loved the most."

A careful defence performance

Salah Abdeslam's subsequent career was a sequence of failed efforts in the transport and café sectors. He began the training demanded of those seeking a taxi license.

He was regularly in trouble with the Belgian police, for driving while under the influence, speeding, driving while his license was suspended.

He was jailed for four months in Morocco following a brawl. Abdeslam told the Paris court that he had been wrongly accused and had done no more than defend himself. "Moroccan justice is not like here in France," he wryly observed.

He has since been sentenced to 20 years in jail for the attempted murder of Belgian police officers sent to arrest him in Molenbeek in March, 2016.

He faces life imprisonment if found guilty in this trial.

Questioned by Olivia Ronen, the young lawyer leading Abdeslam's defence team, the accused, surprisingly addressed by his first name, underlined his reputation as a balanced, sociable, friendly and helpful young man.

He admitted that his 2011 arrest and brief detention, after the failed house-breaking, had been a turning point, since he lost his job as a result.

He also described the conditions of virtual solitary confinement in which he has lived since his arrest in April 2016, conditions which his lawyers claim are in contravention of European recommendations on the humane treatment of prisoners.

The trial continues

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