A Belgian court convicted 18 men Tuesday in the largest trial of Al Qaeda suspects arrested in Europe after the Sept. 11 attacks two years ago, handing down a 10-year sentence to a former professional soccer player for plotting to attack a NATO base in Belgium.
The ruling ended a four-month trial in Brussels involving members of a predominantly Tunisian network who also were accused of aiding the killers of Ahmed Shah Masoud, a legendary Afghan commander of anti- Taliban forces. Masoud was blown up in his mountain headquarters two days before the Sept. 11 attacks by two Tunisian suicide bombers posing as television journalists and carrying stolen Belgian passports.
The judge sentenced Tarek Maaroufi, a Tunisian militant who also is wanted by Italian police, to six years in prison for his role in the Brussels-based network that supplied the fraudulent documents to Masoud’s assassins before they went to Afghanistan via London and Pakistan.
The convictions of Maaroufi, 37, and his associates were the first by any court in connection with the Masoud case, according to the Afghan ambassador to Belgium.
Most of the 18 defendants who were convicted received sentences of six years or less because prosecutors did not prove their direct involvement in the plot against Masoud. Five other defendants, including the widow of one of Masoud’s assassins, were acquitted of all charges.
“It was a logistical network that gave support to the killers,” Afghan Ambassador Homayon Tandar said in a telephone interview. “Unfortunately, there was no concrete proof that the defendants were aware of the assassination plot.”
European and U.S. counter-terrorism officials welcomed the verdicts, but they said the trial ran up against perennial obstacles to prosecuting Islamic networks, which are loosely organized and often more agile than Europe’s justice systems.
Those complexities colored the day’s chief victory for law enforcement: the conviction of Nizar Trabelsi, 33, who confessed to planning to bomb the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Kleine Brogel air base. Trabelsi is one of the most dangerous terrorists captured in Europe’s campaign against Al Qaeda, officials said.
“He attempted to commit one of the most odious crimes that Belgium has known since its independence in 1830,” said Judge Claire Degryse as she imposed the maximum, 10-year sentence.
Authorities said the threat posed by the Tunisian immigrant, a former first- division professional soccer player in Germany, stands out compared with that posed by many militants in Europe who are accused of nonviolent crimes such as recruitment, financing or logistical support.
When a Belgian SWAT team burst into Trabelsi’s Brussels apartment on Sept. 13, 2001, it found an Uzi machine pistol and chemical formulas. The trail led to a stash of bomb-making chemicals that Trabelsi had hidden in the basement of an Egyptian restaurant owned by a friend in downtown Brussels.
Trabelsi converted to Islam in the 1990s after sliding into drug addiction and crime. He testified during the trial this summer that he met Osama bin Laden while training at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and came to see the Saudi-born Islamic extremist as a father figure.
The trial showed Trabelsi had ties to Richard Reid, the Briton sentenced in January to three life terms plus 110 years for trying to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight, and to Al Qaeda cells in Spain, France and the Netherlands.
Trabelsi’s volatility, his expertise with guns and explosives, and his alleged threats against a lawyer and police have convinced investigators that he is violence-prone.
“It’s a good thing they took him off the street,” said an investigator who asked to remain anonymous. “He’s a real player. He goes through the whole range of emotions. He’s a big enough guy, and you could see how he could get violent.”
Because Belgium has yet to pass laws specifically aimed at punishing terrorism, Trabelsi was convicted of lesser crimes, including attempting to damage public property. His lawyer plans to appeal on the grounds that the judge did not give Trabelsi credit for admitting guilt.
“He should have gotten five years,” said the lawyer, Didier de Quevy. “Mr. Trabelsi was very calm when the verdict was read. He understands how the judge may have felt about him, but he was very disappointed that she ignored his expressions of remorse.”
Trabelsi’s confession is a matter of dispute. Although he described plans for an attack on U.S. troops at the base, French and U.S. investigators suspect that his real target was the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Trabelsi was fingered in a plot against that site by Djamel Beghal, a French Algerian arrested in July 2001 in the United Arab Emirates and turned over to France.
Beghal admitted that he was the leader of a group that, acting on orders from top Al Qaeda official Ayman Zawahiri, enlisted Trabelsi as a suicide bomber for an attack on the embassy in Paris that would use either an explosives-rigged vest or a car bomb, according to French officials. Beghal later retracted his confession, telling French authorities that interrogators in Dubai had tortured him.
Nonetheless, French and U.S. investigators have told The Times that they suspected Trabelsi concocted the idea of a Belgian target because he wanted to evade prosecution in France or the United States, which have tough anti-terrorism laws.
Beghal and his alleged accomplices are behind bars in Paris awaiting trial. French prosecutors are likely to press ahead with the theory of a plot against the embassy, although the outcome of the Trabelsi trial makes their case murkier. In another potentially adverse ruling, a Dutch court in December acquitted a Rotterdam-based group of defendants charged with acting as a support cell for Trabelsi.
U.S. authorities will study the evidence to see if it is feasible to prosecute Trabelsi under U.S. law, according to a U.S. official.