Belgian police arrested 14 suspected extremists Friday on suspicion of plotting the prison break of a charismatic Al Qaeda operative serving a 10-year sentence for planning a suicide bombing of a NATO base. Amid the most urgent terrorism alert in Belgium in years, police rounded up a group that they suspect had intended to use guns and explosives to aid the escape of Nizar Trabelsi, one of the first extremists imprisoned in Europe after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Investigators said that one of those arrested was a central figure in the alleged escape plot, Malika Aroud, the widow of an Al Qaeda suicide bomber who traveled from Belgium to Afghanistan to assassinate the renowned leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, two days before the Sept. 11 attacks.
She had been talking to Trabelsi on a cellphone that had been smuggled into his prison and was being monitored by police, anti-terrorism officials said.
Belgian police beefed up patrols in subways, airports and malls crowded with shoppers because of fears that the group was also plotting an attack during the Christmas holidays, authorities said. Authorities urged caution even after Friday's arrests. Government anti-terrorism experts "have evidence indicating that an attack could be in preparation," Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt told journalists. "Armed actions could have been part of this escape attempt. Other acts of violence have not been ruled out."
But police did not find guns or explosives in 15 searches Friday, said Lieve Pellens, a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor's office. Detectives questioned suspects to determine whether they could be held under Belgian terrorism laws, which require stronger evidence for arrest than in other European countries.
Trabelsi, 37, is a tall, powerfully built Tunisian who played professional soccer in Germany before sliding into drug use, crime and Islamic extremism. He trained at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, where he met Osama bin Laden. Trabelsi told a Belgian radio interviewer during an unauthorized phone call from prison that he "loves [Bin Laden] like a father."
Police arrested Trabelsi in Brussels during frantic roundups a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks. He was part of a Europe-wide network that stockpiled explosives in an Egyptian restaurant for an attack in which he said he had volunteered to be the suicide bomber.
Although U.S. and French officials said his target was the U.S. Embassy in Paris, Trabelsi contended during his trial that he planned to bomb Kleine Brogel air base, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization facility in Belgium with a contingent of U.S. troops.
Anti-terrorism police kept close watch on Trabelsi behind bars even before his conviction in 2003.
He had admitted his eagerness to die in a suicide bombing. Among extremists, he had attained symbolic stature as a frontline Al Qaeda operative and an associate of Richard Reid, the Briton convicted of trying to bring down a U.S.-bound plane with a shoe bomb.
Investigators who have interrogated Trabelsi describe him as domineering and volatile, swinging from jovial to menacing, talkative to taciturn.
In an effort to curb his influence, prison authorities subjected him to special security measures and transferred him several times. Nonetheless, police learned more than a year ago that Trabelsi had managed to have a cellphone smuggled into his cell, according to Belgian anti-terrorism officials.
Instead of confiscating the phone, however, investigators decided to eavesdrop on his calls. The wiretaps put them on a trail of the suspects, many of whom are of Tunisian origin, are already known as extremists and have lived in Belgium for some time.
"Trabelsi has been talking to all kinds of people and talking about doing all kinds of crazy things," a senior anti-terrorism official said. "We have been very concerned. And one of the main people he is talking to was Malika" Aroud.
After her husband, Abdessattar Dahmane, and another Tunisian killed Massoud while posing as a television crew, Aroud, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, underwent investigation in Belgium.
She became known for her outspoken ideological fervor, but was not convicted. She moved to Switzerland, where she remarried and soon was arrested along with her second husband on charges of distributing violent Islamic propaganda via the Internet. She got a six-month suspended sentence in that case.
Trabelsi had been an associate of her husband.
"She has always been very bright and determined," said a Belgian law enforcement official. "She's in the center of this. I think she was the brains."
Aroud still lives in Switzerland, but she was arrested in Brussels during a visit for the Eid al-Adha holiday, officials said.
Police made the arrests because of signs of imminent action during the holidays, officials said. "The intelligence service had information to confirm through different channels what was gathered during the investigation," the law enforcement official said. "The message was: 'Careful in Brussels during the holidays.' We had the impression that an attack could be imminent."
Trabelsi was also among those placed under arrest Friday. Police searched his cell in a prison outside Brussels, but did not transfer him because of the potential risks, said Pellens, the prosecutor's spokeswoman. Trabelsi was expected to be released as soon as 2009 because of time served before his trial and because inmates usually serve less than their full sentence under Belgian law, she said.
The case highlights a concern of European anti-terrorism forces. A generation of convicted extremists imprisoned since Sept. 11 will soon return to the streets. And police say many have continued their radical activity behind bars.
Moreover, Belgium has had its share of prison security problems. There have been two escapes by inmates assisted by accomplices in helicopters in recent years. And last year, 28 inmates fled in a group escape.
Times staff writer Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris contributed to this report.