Belgium charges six with connections to a terrorist group

A yearlong investigation led to the arrests and charges, which come amid an EU summit in Brussels. One suspect is believed to have been preparing for a suicide attack.

Belgian authorities on Friday charged six people suspected of links to Al Qaeda with membership in a terrorist group. On Thursday, 14 people suspected of Al Qaeda links were arrested by police. The sweep occurred on the eve of a European Union summit in Brussels. According to Belgian federal officials, at least some of the detained suspects had traveled to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border for training and were said to have been affiliated with "important people" in Al Qaeda. Eight suspects were released on Friday after a judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to keep them in detention.

According to the Associated Press, the six charged included one who may have been plotting a suicide attack.

A judge decided there was insufficient evidence to hold eight other suspects picked up in Thursday's anti-terror sweep. The raids came hours before the start of a European Union summit of 27 government leaders in the Belgian capital.
Spokeswoman Lieve Pellens of the federal prosecutor's office said the six charged early Friday constituted the hard core of a terrorist group and included one militant who allegedly was plotting a suicide attack.

The suspect had been making preparations for the attack, the BBC reports.

The man suspected of planning the suicide attack had "received the green light to carry out an operation from which he was not expected to come back", the federal prosecutor [Johan Delmulle] quoted investigators as saying.
"He had said goodbye to his loved ones, because he wanted to enter paradise with a clear conscience," he added.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the detained suspects included militants who had fought against US and Nato forces in Afghanistan.

Belgian investigators said they had intercepted Internet communications from militants who described their experiences in combat in Afghanistan during the last year.
"They would say things like, 'I wasn't able to communicate for a while because it was really tough, we got bombed by the Americans,' " said a Belgian anti-terrorism official who requested anonymity because of the continuing investigation. "Or they talked about helping a brother who had been wounded in combat."
...The suspects were active in the underworld of Belgian robbery gangs before they became Islamic extremists, the anti-terrorism official said.

Police uncovered information regarding the possible attack several days before taking action, reports the Financial Times. On Dec. 7, police intercepted a message in which suspects discussed "whether or not women and children should be evacuated."

According to CNN, the arrested suspects include Malika El-Aroud, a female Al Qaeda champion who posts extremist screeds online under the pseudonym Oum Obeyda. Ms. El-Aroud is also the widow of one of the men who assassinated a key opponent of the Taliban in Afghanistan two days before September 11, 2001.

El-Aroud's late husband was one of two men who killed Ahmed Shah Massoud, a leader of the Northern Alliance, in a suicide mission ordered by Osama Bin Laden.
Belgian police aimed to prevent El-Aroud, whom the police source called an "al-Qaeda living legend," from moving to Afghanistan to play a role in the fight against the coalition forces there, the source said.

El-Aroud's current husband, Moez Garsalloui, is also believed to have been arrested, reports the International Herald Tribune.

Garsalloui was released in July 2007 after serving three weeks for promoting violence and then disappeared.
Belgian officials said he fled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and [Claude Moniquet, chairman of the European Strategic Intelligence & Security Center, a research organization in Brussels] said that Garsalloui was one of the three people arrested whom prosecutors said had recently returned from training camps along the Pakistani-Afghan border.
A fourth suspect was tracked to South Asia but has not yet returned, the officials said.

Police sources told CNN that all of the detained suspects are of Moroccan descent and that most carry Belgian passports.

According to the Guardian, Belgian authorities remain unclear about where the attack was to take place. On Friday, security remained high while the EU summit was underway even though there is no evidence that the meeting had been targeted.

[Federal prosecutor] Delmulle said it was unclear where the attack had been planned to take place. He said it was possible that a suicide bombing plan might have been drawn up during visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was not clear if any planned attack was aimed at Europe or elsewhere, he added.
Belgian politicians supported the police action. "It is now clear to all that we were dealing with a real risk," the justice and interior ministers said in a statement. "It is more than likely that an attack in Brussels has been prevented."...
British counter-terrorism officials said last night that they were working with Belgian and other European security services to try to establish whether the EU summit was the target. They said they were keeping an "open mind".

According to Mr. Delmulle, Thursday's raids were linked to a similar sweep in December 2007 when 14 people were arrested and accused of plotting to free a convicted Al Qaeda member, Nizar Trabelsi, reports the Guardian. Last year, the accused were released without being charged. But the current detainees are believed to have links to Mr. Trabelsi.

The investigation is focusing on individuals linked to Nizar Trabelsi, a 37-year-old Tunisian former footballer sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2003 in Belgium for planning to a drive a car bomb into the cafeteria of the Kleine Brogel airbase, where about 100 American military personnel were stationed.
Almost exactly a year ago, Belgian police arrested 14 people alleged to be extremists planning to free Trabelsi. At the time, the government also claimed that it had information suggesting the "preparation of an attack".

Belgian authorities say the yearlong investigation leading up to Thursday's terror sweep will yield a strong case against those arrested, reports the International Herald Tribune.

Lieve Pellens, a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor's office said ...
she believed the cases against the 14 arrested were strong, based on a year of investigation, surveillance and wiretapping carried out by a team of 80 police officers....
The case, Pellens said, is about terrorism but also about "grand theft and robbery as a way to raise money for the group." She said that "the investigation was complex and intense, and there were times when all the wiretapping chambers were occupied with anti-terrorism guys working this case."
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