Ex-footballer jailed over al-Qa'ida web in Europe

A former footballer and confessed follower of Osama bin Laden was jailed for 10 years yesterday for plotting to blow up a US military base and co-ordinating a "spider's web" of al-Qa'ida operatives in Europe.

Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian who once played football in Germany, admitted planning to drive a lorry bomb into the canteen of the Kleine Brogel air base in Belgium, home to 100 US military staff and believed to be a nuclear weapons site.

Europe's biggest terror trial since 11 September exposed a network of underground contacts, and 18 people were convicted of playing a role in a terror campaign which stretched from Afghanistan to Belgium and beyond.

Alongside 33-year-old Trabelsi, two other men were found guilty for their role in the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massood, the leading Afghan military commander opposed to the Taliban. Tarek Maaroufi, a Tunisian, was jailed for six years for his part in that murder, which took place just two days before the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, and is believed to have been a signal to the hijackers.

Few had doubted that Trabelsi would be convicted since he gave an interview to a Belgian broadcaster last year, accepting his role in the Kleine Brogel plot, claiming to love Osama Bin Laden like a son and professing his "hatred of Americans".

According to his own testimony Trabelsi, who looked relaxed in court yesterday, met Bin Laden in Afghanistan and asked to become a suicide bomber. He was arrested at an apartment in the Brussels suburb of Uccle on 13 September, and his capture led to the discovery of the raw materials for a huge bomb in the back of a restaurant.

But what emerged from the four-month trial was the scale of the conspiracy in Europe. Prosecutors argued that the group around Trabelsi formed a "spider's web" of Islamic radicals plotting attacks and recruiting fighters in Europe for al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.

Prosecutors had argued that Trabelsi had been in contact with the "shoe-bomber", Richard Reid, the British citizen who tried to detonate explosives on a transatlantic American Airlines flight in December 2001.

Yves de Quyve, for the defence, promised an appeal and said the court had ignored his client's remorse during the trial and was making an example of him.

But a picture of Trabelsi at the heart of a network of al-Qa'ida operatives was accepted yesterday by judge Claire de Gryse, who argued that, "while Bin Laden was preparing for attacks on the United States, Trabelsi and others were preparing and looking for explosives in Europe". The terror attack planned by Trabelsi would have been the "one of the most heinous crimes Belgium has ever known", the judge said. The relatively light sentence reflects the fact that Belgium does not have specific anti-terrorism laws. That meant Trabelsi was charged instead with attempting to destroy public property, illegal arms possession and membership of a private militia.

Trabelsi has denied claims, which are subject to an investigation in France, that he also tried to blow up the US Embassy in Paris.

Maaroufi, 41, was accused of helping provide fake passports to the killers of Massood. Tunisian-born but a Belgian citizen, Maaroufi was seen by the authorities as the "focal point" of the country's radical Islamic movement.

The other accused who are of North African origin, faced a range of charges including forgery, conspiracy to commit a crime, handling stolen goods or membership of a private militia. Most pleaded not guilty and five were acquitted.