Belgian terrorist cell \'had bomb chemicals\'

Sunday 08/05/2016
Cell was planning to kill and kidnap police officers

BRUSSELS - A Belgian terror cell with links to the Paris and Brussels attacks had acquired bomb-making chemicals before it was smashed by police last year, a judge said Monday at the opening of the trial of the cell's members.

Seven men who went on trial Monday in a Brussels court were arrested after a deadly raid in the Belgian town of Verviers in January 2015 which exposed an alleged plot to kill police officers.

Nine suspects who are still at large are being tried in their absence.

The presiding judge, Pierre Hendrickx, said the police who raided the Verviers hideout discovered weapons, munitions and chemical products that could have been used to make four kilograms (8.8 pounds) of TATP.

TATP is the highly volatile homemade explosives that Islamic State jihadists used in both the November 13 Paris attacks and the March 22 Brussels bombings.

Hendrickx listed the chemicals as five litres (1.3 gallons) of bleach, 15 litres of acetone and 12 litres of hydrogen peroxide. He said police also found an electrical item that could have been used as a detonator.

The judge said the police, backed by French GIGN paramilitary officers, also seized three AK-47 assault rifles, four handguns, hundreds of cartridges and material that could have made police uniforms.

Police believe Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of November's Paris attacks, was giving orders to the Verviers cell by phone from Greece using the name of "Omar."

Abaaoud, who was killed in a shootout in Paris days after the attacks, also had close links to the cell behind the Brussels airport and metro attacks.

French President Francois Hollande has said the same terror cell was behind the Paris massacre, in which gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 people, and the Brussels attacks in which 32 people died.

Both attacks have been claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group.

The main suspect at the trial of the Verviers cell is Marouane El Bali, who is accused of attempted murder for firing at police during the gunfight, during which two suspected jihadists were killed.

He denies the charges.

"He was a small player and was absolutely not aware of any planned attacks," his lawyer Sebastien Courtoy told Belga news agency. "He joined only the group on the eve of the raid. He was not able to plan the attack."

Also on trial is Omar Damache, an Algerian who was arrested at an address in Athens where police believe they had zeroed in on Abaaoud. He was later extradited to Belgium.

Belgian police said at the time the cell was planning to kill and kidnap police officers under orders from Islamic State group.

GIGN director Hubert Bonneau said "their idea was to kidnap a senior Belgian official and decapitate him in order to run the images on the Internet."

By tapping telephones and shadowing suspects, investigators discovered the use of "worrying" coded language that suggested an attack was imminent.

"I have everything," one suspect was heard saying. "Everything is hidden in a warehouse," another added.

Killed in the raid were Sofiane Amghar and Khalid Ben Larbi who went to Syria to join Islamic State in April 2014. The two then slipped back into Belgium to the Verviers hideout which is about 120 kilometres (75 miles) east of Brussels.

The raid on Verviers also occurred just two weeks after a set of jihadist attacks in Paris against the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and a Jewish supermarket that left 17 people dead.