Thu, Oct 02, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Bin Laden disciple gets 10 years for Belgian plot


One of Europe's most significant terrorism trials since Sept. 11 ended in Belgium on Tuesday when a disciple of Osama bin Laden was jailed for 10 years for plotting a suicide bomb attack on a US military base.

The Brussels court found 18 Islamist extremists guilty of a range of terror-related offences -- Belgium has no specific anti-terrorism law -- including recruiting young men to help wage a Taliban-inspired jihad against the west in Afghanistan.

It acquitted five of the 23 defendants of all charges.

Nizar Trabelsi, 33, a Tunisian who spent several years as a minor league professional footballer in Germany and smiled and joked throughout the proceedings, admitting meeting the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden several times.

The court found that he had accepted direct orders from Bin Laden -- whom he regarded as his "father" -- to carry out a suicide bomb attack on the Belgian air force base at Kleine Brogel, which is used by the US and is believed to stock nuclear weapons.

When the police arrested him two days after the Sept. 11 attacks they found an Uzi sub-machinegun in his Brussels flat and a bomb-making recipe identical to that used in the 1998 bombings of US embassy buildings in east Africa.

Several key ingredients for a bomb were later found at his brother's property in central Brussels.

Trabelsi later admitted planning an attack, saying that he intended to drive a lorry full of explosives into the base's canteen, where up to 110 servicemen and women eat each day.

He told the court that he had intended to kill American soldiers, not to detonate the US base's nuclear warheads.

He said he had decided to become a martyr to Islam after seeing pictures of a Palestinian baby girl who was killed in the Gaza Strip in 2001.

The presiding judge, Claire Degryse, said that the attack, if carried out, would have been a disaster.

"Everything points to the fact that on the evening before his arrest he was determined to carry out this project," she said. "He tried to commit one of the most heinous crimes Belgium has ever known since its independence [in 1830].

"You shudder when you think about what would have happened in Belgium if this attack had been carried out," Degryse said. "While Bin Laden was preparing for attacks on the United States, Trabelsi with others was preparing and looking for explosives in Europe."

Trabelsi's accomplice and "zealous lieutenant" Abdelcrim el-Haddouti was sentenced to five years for supplying bomb-making chemicals.

Tarek Maaroufi, 37, who was said to be the "backbone" of al-Qaeda recruitment in Belgium, and possibly Europe too, was jailed for six years.

Maaroufi, of Tunisian origin like Trabelsi, was found guilty of recruiting for terror training in Afghanistan and and of procuring false Belgian passports for two men who posed as journalists to kill Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, two days before the Sept. 11 attacks on the US.

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