Sixteen people suspected of being part of a terror cell in the eastern Belgian city of Verviers have gone on trial in Brussels. Only seven of the suspects will appear before the judge, however, as nine others remain at large. They are believed to be fighting in Syria with the Islamic State (IS), and are wanted by Interpol.
The other person missing from the trial is Abdulhamid Abaaoud, whom prosecutors have described as the "ringleader" of the Verviers terror cell.
A Belgian national of Moroccan descent, Abaaoud was killed on November 18, 2015, during a police raid in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. Abaaoud was directly involved in the November 13 Paris attacks, opening fire on patrons at restaurants and bars in the 10th and 11th Arrondissements of the French capital.
He has also been linked to a foiled attack onboard a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris in August 2015. Officials believe Abaaoud may also have been implicated in another thwarted terror plot against a church in the Paris suburb of Villejuif.
It is thought that Abaaoud helped set up the Verviers cell from Syria, and also helped rent an apartment in Athens, Greece, where investigators later found a computer containing maps of the Zaventem airport.
Two suicide bombers detonated their explosives at the airport on March 22, killing 16 people.
While there are many similarities and connections between the jihadist cell in Verviers and the cells that carried out the Paris and Brussels attacks, investigators were able to dismantle the one in Verviers before it had a chance to strike.
Sofiane Amghar and Khalid Ben Larbi — two Belgian nationals from Molenbeek, in Brussels — were killed when police raided an apartment in Verviers on January 15. Both men are thought to have traveled to Syria in 2014 with Abaaoud, who also grew up in Molenbeek.
After spending some time in Syria, Amghar and Ben Larbi were smuggled back into Belgium with the help of 27-year-old Pakistani national called Mohammed Hamza Arshad. At the time, Arshad was in contact with a man known as "Omar," whose telephone was traced to Athens, Greece. "Omar," it turned out, was a codename for Abaaoud.
A week before the police raid, Amghar and Ben Larbi moved into an old bakery in Verviers. Police bugged the suspects' apartment, and grew concerned when the two men appeared to talk in code. According to Belgian daily La Libre, investigators overheard the two men refer to "the fat one," who would instruct "what to do with the water." They also mentioned needing "vases for the flowers."
On January 15, officers monitoring the apartment heard the two men, along with a third, Marouane El Bali, raving about a Kalashnikov. Half an hour later, the Belgian police moved in, backed by three officers from France's elite GIGN police unit.
Shortly after the raid, the federal prosecutor in Brussels commended the police for the operation, and revealed that the cell "was about to commit terror attacks, in particular, [attacks] targeting police officers in the streets and police stations." During the raid, officers seized three Kalashnikovs, four handguns, and enough materials to make five kilos of explosives. They also found police uniforms hidden underneath a sofa.
According to French weekly Le Point, GIGN chief Hubert Bonneau said that members of the cell had planned to "abduct a major political leader, and decapitate them in order to post the images online."
Investigators are hoping the trial will shed some light on the inner workings of the cell. It is unclear, however, whether the suspects will be willing to talk.
Attorney Sébastien Courtoy, who represents Marouana El Bali — one of the men arrested during the Colline street raid — has said that his client was "completely unaware of any plot to carry out an attack," and that he did not fire at police officers during the raid. Police suspect El Bali of being one of the ringleaders behind the Verviers cell.
Medhi Abbes, the attorney representing Omar Damache — an Algerian man arrested in Abaaoud's hideout in Athens — is using the same line of defense. "My client was himself a victim of terrorism in Algeria, why would he have taken part?" Abbes said back in April.
Two of the suspects who will be questioned this week are the El Abdi brothers. Ismaël and Souhaib El Abdi both fled Belgium on January 15, after hearing of the raid, traveling first to France, then to Italy. Souhaib, 26, is suspected of having traveled to Syria — a charge he denies. The police also have recordings of phone conversations between Souhaib and Arshad, including claims by Souhaib that he has "everything," and that, "everything is hidden in a warehouse."
The trial is expected to last three weeks, with seven hearings a week.
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