Belgian trial of al Qaeda cell suspects underway
Brussels: Nine alleged members of an al Qaeda terror cell, suspected of having recruited jihadists and prepared attacks, go on trial in Brussels on Monday.
It comes 15 months after dramatic raids in Brussels and Liege when police arrested nine suspects ahead of what the security services feared was an imminent attack.
The arrests, in December 2008, came just days ahead of a European Union summit in the Belgian capital.
Seven of the suspects will be in court when the trial gets underway on Monday morning, with an experienced terrorist case judge presiding. Two others, still on the run, will be judged in absentia.
While no details of an imminent terrorist attack or explosives were uncovered, the accused face a possible 10 years in jail for their alleged membership of a terrorist group.
The central figure in the trial is 50-year-old Belgian-Moroccan Malika El Aroud.
Aroud, who is being held under high security, is the widow of one of the killers of Ahmed Shah Massoud, head of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.
Massoud was assassinated in 2001 just days before the September 11 attacks against the United States.
According to the Belgian federal prosecutor Aroud, an admirer of Osama bin Laden, led the recruitment of jihad fighters in Belgium, sending young Muslims off to train on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
They were sometimes escorted by her second husband, Moez Garsalloui, who is one of those being tried in absentia. According to the prosecutor, he had ties with "important" al Qaeda figures.
The prosecution evidence includes a farewell video, the kind of last testament left by suicide bombers.
In this case it was made by another of the accused: Hicham Beyayo, 24, according to press reports.
He had received the "green light to carry out an operation from which he wasn't expected to return," and "had said goodbye to his loved ones”, Belgium's federal prosecutor Johan Delmulle said.
Beyayo has denied intending to carry out a terror attack. Malika El Aroud has dismissed the prosecution case as "empty".
The terror probe got underway in late 2007, following information gleaned during investigations into an escape plan made by Tunisian Nizar Trabelsi.
He was serving a 10-year sentence in Belgium for planning an al Qaeda attack in September 2001.
Under that plan, a truck bomb was to have targeted a military base housing US troops.