On Wednesday, 20 men accused of planning and carrying out the largest peacetime attacks on French soil will go on trial in Paris.
Nearly six years ago, 10 attackers killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more in coordinated shootings and suicide bombings at the Bataclan concert hall, a sports stadium and bars and restaurants across the French capital. The ISIS attacks took place on an unusually balmy November Friday night in 2015, when outdoor café tables were full.
Starting this week, nearly 1,800 witnesses and victims of these attacks will testify in a trial expected to last nine months, one that will include more than 300 lawyers, hundreds of volumes of documents and unprecedented security. There will also be thousands of spectators.
A special courtroom built for the trial includes a high-security witness box for the sole survivor among the militants who carried out the attacks. Salah Abdeslam, a French citizen who lived in Belgium and is currently imprisoned in France, will be joined by 13 others accused of helping plan and provide logistics and weapons on Nov 13, 2015. He is faced with charges of murder linked to a terrorist enterprise.
Six others — ISIS members, most of whom now are believed by French intelligence to be dead in Syria — will be judged in absentia.
It will be one of the rare French trials that is filmed, though footage won't be made public until 50 years from now.
"It is enormous and historic. After nearly six years of investigation, this will be a trial for history," says retired Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, who used to head France's anti-terrorism investigation unit.
Media coverage is plunging France back into memories of the attacks as the trial approaches. A radio documentary that aired last week on public broadcaster France Info played the chilling calls to first responders from that night for the first time. As the calls flooded in from across the city, Nicolas Poirot, then head of the city's ambulance service, said they had a hard time making sense of them.
"Then we looked at a map and realized it was a coordinated, massive attack," he recalled in the documentary.
Stéphane Lacombe, who worked for a victims' advocacy group at the time, says this trial is extremely important.
"The victims need to feel that a democratic state not only supports them," he says, "but also that it's using all its skills, resources, time, money, judges, to do what it can in order to get some answers."
Lacombe says unlike the attacks that took place 10 months earlier in Paris, targeting the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, the attacks in November 2015 were more widespread.
"People said to me, 'My God, it's on cafés and in the street and against young people — it's against everybody.' So I think there was a real change in our country in the perception of terrorism on that day. From then on, everybody felt vulnerable," says Lacombe.
Bruguière says the attacks were planned in Syria and carried out by Europeans who had joined ISIS and were able to travel back and forth undetected with the flow of migrants. The attackers were mostly French and Belgian citizens, born in Europe to immigrants from North Africa.
Such planned, coordinated attacks would be extremely difficult to carry out in France or Belgium today, he says.
"Unfortunately, they weren't detected in time," he says. "But French and Belgian intelligence services have since been hugely reinforced. These kinds of attacks are now thwarted because we can pick up their communications."
New anti-terrorism legislation in France gives police extended powers to search homes and make house arrests without prior judicial approval. Religious sites deemed radical can be closed down. Such measures have drawn an outcry from civil rights advocates.
The worst carnage of that November 2015 night came when three of the gunmen laid siege to the Bataclan concert hall, killing 90 people and wounding hundreds more. Alexis Lebrun was in the Bataclan audience at a rock concert that night. He hopes the trial will bring some answers and closure. But he says he is dreading it.
"It's a frightening moment," says Lebrun, "because going through the Paris attacks again for the next nine months, it's just too much."
Lebrun is a spokesman for Life for Paris, a victims' association formed after the attacks. He considers himself lucky because he wasn't physically injured. He says he's largely been able to pick up his life again — though he had to change jobs because he could not bear the anxiety he felt taking public transport at rush hour.
"You just can't escape the fact that you'll never be the same person again," he says. "It changes you forever. So you just have to accept that and deal with the consequences."
The trial, says Lebrun, won't change that.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This week, France begins a trial for those allegedly involved in terror attacks in November 2015. Suicide bombers and gunmen killed 130 people in cafes and restaurants outside France's national stadium and at a concert hall. The complex trial, expected to run for months, will stir up many memories. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED DOCUMENTARY)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: As the trial approaches, French media have been looking back at the Paris attacks. This documentary on France Info radio plays some of the chilling 911 calls that flooded the city's emergency system that night.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED DOCUMENTARY)
NICOLAS POIROT: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Nicolas Poirot, head of the city's ambulance service, recalls how hard it was to comprehend that they were being hit by multiple coordinated attacks.
With that as the backdrop, the trial opens Wednesday. It's expected to go eight months or longer if delayed by the pandemic. It will hear evidence from nearly 1,800 people, including witnesses and victims. There'll be more than 300 lawyers and massive security for the thousands of daily spectators and the media. A special courtroom has been built for the event. It will be one of the rare French trials that is filmed, though footage won't be made public until 50 years from now. Stephane Lacombe worked for a victims' advocacy group at the time of the attacks.
STEPHANE LACOMBE: It's really important for the victims to feel that a democratic state not only supports them but also uses all their skills, resources, time, money, judges to do what they can in order to get some answers.
BEARDSLEY: ISIS claimed the attacks. Only one of the suspected 10 militants who carried them out is alive. The others died that night. Defendant Franco-Belgian Salah Abdeslam will sit in the box, along with 13 others accused of helping plan and provide logistics and weapons. Six more ISIS members, most likely dead in Syria, will be judged in absentia. Victims advocate Lacombe says these attacks made all French people feel vulnerable to terrorism for the first time.
JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Retired judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere used to head France's anti-terrorism investigation unit. He says such planned, coordinated attacks would be extremely difficult to carry out today.
BRUGUIERE: (Through interpreter) French and Belgian intelligence has been hugely reinforced, and these kinds of attacks are now thwarted because we pick up all the communications. And there is a huge cooperation between nations.
BEARDSLEY: Bruguiere says France has reinforced its anti-terror legislation. Police also have extended powers to search homes and make house arrests without prior judicial approval, measures that have drawn an outcry from civil rights advocates.
The worst carnage from the November attacks was inside the Bataclan concert hall, where three gunmen killed 90 people and wounded hundreds. Alexis Lebrun was there. He knows the trial must take place, but says he is dreading it.
ALEXIS LEBRUN: It's a frightening moment because nine months going through again the Paris attacks is just too much.
BEARDSLEY: Lebrun is a spokesman for Life for Paris, a victims' association formed after the attacks. He considers himself lucky because he wasn't physically injured. And he's largely been able to pick up his life again but says things aren't back to normal.
LEBRUN: You just can't escape the fact that you will never be the same person again. So it changes you forever. So you just have to accept that and deal with the consequences.
BEARDSLEY: The trial, says Lebrun, won't be able to change that.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "BLUE SUNGLASSES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.