Under heavy security, a trial has began in Belgium of a suspected extremist cell linked to the now-dead ringleader of last year’s lethal attacks in Paris.
Sixteen defendants, including nine who are still at large, are accused of involvement in what Belgian authorities say was a terrorist plot being mounted in the eastern city of Verviers.
Police allege members of the group had returned from Syria and were poised to launch a terror attack.
“The group was on the verge of carrying out terrorist attacks, to kill police officers in public roads and in police stations,” federal magistrate Eric Van der Sijpt told a news conference following the raid.
Belgian police raided the Verviers apartment on 15 January 2015, just a week after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a kosher supermarket in Paris. In the ensuing gun battle, two suspects were killed and a third was arrested. Lawyers for some of the accused contend their clients did nothing illegal.
Marouane El Bali, the trial’s star defendant, was “bringing one or two pair of sneakers to his friend” when arrested, attorney Didier De Quevy said. “He’s is not at all a radical.”
Belgian police stormed the suspected plotters’ hideout on 15 January, 2015, killing two men and arresting El Bali, 26, who surrendered. Police were fired on at least 40 times, and reported finding three Kalashnikov-style assault rifles, four handguns, chemicals to make explosives and 23 items of police uniforms inside the Verviers residence.
El Bali has been charged with the attempted murder of police officers, an accusation Sebastien Courtoy, another of his defence lawyers, rejected as “preposterous”.
“Mr El Bali joined the group only on the eve of the raid. So he would have had a hard time planning a terror attack as 24 hours before, he was not involved,” Courtoy said.
According to Belgian authorities, the suspects were being directed from afar by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was hunted down by French police and killed days after the 13 November attacks last year that killed 130 victims in Paris.
In the Paris terror attack, terrorists, armed with assault rifles and explosives, targeted six locations across the city.
Like El Bali and the two men killed in the Verviers raid, Soufiane Amghar and Khalid Ben Larbi, Abaaoud was from the multiethnic Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels.
In a summary of the Verviers investigation read by presiding judge Pierre Hendrickx, Belgian officials said they linked Abaaoud to the plot by tracing a Greek cellphone being used by someone calling himself “Omar”.
The trial is expected to last for three weeks.