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Six Guilty of Targeting U.S. Embassy in Paris

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page A17

PARIS, March 15 -- A French court on Tuesday convicted six French Algerian men of plotting a suicide bombing against the U.S. Embassy in Paris in the weeks before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Djamel Beghal, 39, whom prosecutors called the ringleader, received the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, and an accomplice, Kamel Daoudi, 30, an engineering and computer specialist who was considered the communications operative, got nine years. The four others received terms ranging from one to six years.

According to prosecutors, the attack was to be carried out by Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian and former professional soccer player. A court in Belgium sentenced Trabelsi to 10 years in prison in 2003 after he confessed to a separate plot to drive a car packed with explosives into a Belgian air base where U.S. nuclear missiles are believed to be stored. Trabelsi denied any involvement in a planned Paris suicide attack.

Prosecutors offered few other details of how the ornate embassy in central Paris would have been targeted. They presented no evidence showing that the men had explosives or such things as maps of the embassy premises.

The six were convicted of criminal association relating to a terrorist enterprise, a broad charge that carries a maximum 10-year prison term.

Since 2001, hundreds of suspected Islamic militants have been rounded up in police raids in several West European countries, and many remain in custody under anti-terrorism laws that allow for prolonged detentions. But only a handful have been brought to trial or convicted of taking part in specific terrorist plots.

Word of a plot against the embassy in Paris first came from a confession that Beghal gave in Dubai, where he was arrested in July 2001. He was extradited to France that September, and the official French investigation opened the day before the hijackings in the United States.

Once in France, Beghal retracted the confession, saying it was obtained after "methodical torture."

During the trial, prosecutors argued that the defendants were Islamic radicals linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and that the plot was conceived in Afghanistan, where Beghal and Daoudi received training in 2000 and 2001. Beghal was said to have ties to the London-based Syrian cleric Abu Qatada, whom Britain has said was a spiritual inspiration for the Sept. 11 attacks.

The six men maintained their innocence throughout the trial and said they were only friends, not a terrorist cell. Beghal and Daoudi, who spoke at length during the trial but stood impassively Tuesday with the others as the verdicts were read, have said they are devoutly religious but have denied being involved in any terrorist plots.

"One would think we're in an Inquisition tribunal," Beghal said when his trial began in January, referring to the Roman Catholic Church's violent rooting out of heretics in past centuries. "I'm one of those who are in permanent search of religious knowledge," he said, according to news agency reports. Beghal said he met Abu Qatada in Germany but was not his follower.

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