Al Qaeda trial gets underway in Belgium

This 2003 file photo shows Malika El Aroud during an interview in Brussels.
By Jeroen van der Kris in Brussels

Belgium's most notorious Muslim extremist appeared in court on Thursday. She is said to have founded the local branch of Al Qaeda.

Malika El Aroud's black hair was uncovered. On Thursday, she appeared before a Belgian judge without the burqa she reportedly always wears.

El Aroud is Belgium's most notorious Islamic extremist and the chief suspect in a case against nine people believed to have set up the Belgian branch of Al Qaeda.

The trial against them started this week and is expected to last for several more. The court was heavily secured as El Aroud testified on Thursday. Before entering room 01.17 of the Brussels' court of justice, visitors had to take of their shoes for inspection.

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El Aroud became known as the wife of the man who committed the suicide attack that killed Afghan military leader Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 7, 2001. In her testimony, she acknowledged that her new husband, Moez Garsallaoui, had contacts with Osama bin Laden.

Recruiting jihadi

El Aroud is accused of having helped Garsallaoui to recruit youngsters from Afghanistan to fight against the Americans and their allies. She also traveled to Turkey, where her second husband and some of those young recruits made a stopover. "But I did not know what their project was," she said in court.

Malika El Aroud

Malika El Aroud (50) is a Belgian woman with Moroccan roots. On September 11, 2001 she lived in Afghanistan. Two days earlier, her then-husband had carried out a suicide attack on Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan fighter. She later spent some time in Switzerland, where she was sentenced in 2007 to a six month suspended prison sentence for inciting hatred on several websites. She has given a number of - veiled - interviews to Belgian and international media. In 2006 she told CNN: " It's the pinnacle in Islam to be the widow of a martyr. For a woman it's extraordinary."

The case has attracted much attention in Belgium. It is not the first terrorism trial there, but a case with an interesting history. In December 2007, the arrests of 14 people, including El Aroud, made international headlines. They had been taken into custody after their houses were searched during an EU summit in Brussels. With all the European government leaders in town, police believed an attack might have been in the works. The security measures that followed remained effective into 2008. The traditional fireworks to celebrate the new year in the Belgian capital were cancelled.

But lack of evidence meant all suspects were quickly released. One year later however, El Aroud and a group of acquaintances were arrested again. This week, Belgian media revealed details from the judicial records in the case. One of the suspects is said to have returned from a training mission in Pakistan in December 2008. He was allegedly trained as a bomb expert there. Back in Belgium he wrote an email saying: "Bring all women and children to safety. The organisation has told me to perform my mission. Goodbye."

An American witness is said to have testified that the defendant wanted to cause an explosion in the Brussels metro, but a detailed plan for an attack was never found.

Acting like animals

Three suspects have admitted they visited camps in Pakistan. But that is not enough to convict them, one of their lawyers said. Participating in a war abroad does not qualify as terrorism, he argued.

El Aroud herself is accused of leading a terrorist organisation. It is not the first time she has been indicted in Belgium. In 2003 she stood trial on suspicion of being connected to the murder of Afghan fighter Massoud. "Your ideas are extreme," the judge said at the time. "But I can not convict you for that."

During her first testimony this week, El Aroud denied all accusations. She had accepted money from people, she said, but that was not meant to finance jihad (holy war). Youngsters who were considering becoming jihadi fighters did come to her for advice, but that was because she had become famous for being the widow of a martyr. It did not mean she had prompted them to go to Afghanistan to fight against international troops there, she said.

But her ideas are still radical, the hearing showed. She referred to Americans stationed in Afghanistan as the enemy. "If the enemy falls, we will be happy. This is a war," she told the court. American soldiers, she said, act like pigs and dogs. She later offered her apologies for this statement - to the animals.

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