Belgium Arrests 14 in Plot to Free Inmate Linked to Al-Qaeda

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 22, 2007

BERLIN, Dec. 21 -- Belgian police said Friday they had arrested 14 people who were planning an armed raid to free an al-Qaeda follower convicted of plotting to detonate a truck bomb on a NATO base in Belgium.

The Belgian federal prosecutor's office said the suspects were arrested overnight in different cities and that police recovered firearms and explosives. It did not provide details on how advanced the alleged plot was.

In response, Belgian authorities bolstered security measures throughout the country, particularly in public places such as airports and outdoor Christmas markets.

"Other acts of violence cannot yet be ruled out," Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt told Belgian public radio. "The police services will show increased vigilance as a precaution, of course." Interior Ministry officials said extra police would be deployed until the end of the Christmas and New Year's holiday period.

"Since it could not be excluded that the group had other plans and because of the heightened terror threat this time of year, it was decided no risk should be taken," Lieve Pellens, a spokeswoman for the Belgian federal prosecutor's office, told reporters in Brussels.

Authorities said the suspects wanted to free Nizar Trabelsi, 37, a former professional soccer player who abandoned his athletic career to train in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. In 2003, Trabelsi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting to drive a truck bomb into Kleine Brogel, a NATO air base in Belgium, where he hoped to target U.S. military personnel.

A native of Tunisia, Trabelsi played professional soccer in Europe as a teenager but fell into drugs and served time in prison in Germany. He became radicalized after attending a mosque near Duesseldorf and traveled to Afghanistan to attend al-Qaeda training camps, where he met Osama bin Laden.

He was arrested in Brussels two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings in the United States. He was convicted of the NATO plot in September 2003, along with 17 other defendants.

French prosecutors said Trabelsi was a key member in a broader European network and that he had been personally recruited to act as a suicide bomber in an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris in 2001. Six French-Algerian men were convicted of terrorism charges in that case in 2005, although Trabelsi was never brought to France to stand trial.

Officials declined Friday to identify where Trabelsi was being detained. Belgian media reported that he had been moved recently.

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