Belgium charges 6 netted in anti-terror sweep

Image: Belgian police officers outside the European Council headquarters at the start of a two-day EU leaders summit in Brussels
Heavy security is evident outside European Council headquarters for the start of a two-day EU leaders summit in Brussels on Thursday. Police officers raided 16 locations in Belgium hours before the meeting got under way.Yves Herman / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Belgian authorities on Friday charged six suspected al-Qaida-linked extremists with membership in a terrorist group, including a woman known for preaching jihad on the Internet.

A judge decided there was insufficient evidence to hold eight other suspects who were also picked up in an anti-terror sweep on Thursday, spokeswoman Lieve Pellens of the federal prosecutor's office said.

Pellens said the six charged early Friday constituted the hard core of a terrorist group and included one militant who allegedly was plotting a suicide attack.

The raids came hours before the start of a European Union summit of 27 government leaders in the Belgian capital.

All suspects under arrest are Belgian, and include Moroccan-born Malika El Aroud, who writes online in French under the name of Oum Obeyda.

El Aroud was the only woman among those arrested. Most of the others are in their 20s or early 30s and only one of those was known from other terror investigations, Pellens said.

Woman's husband in key suicide mission
El Aroud was caught in a pre-Christmas terror sweep last year but was released because of insufficient evidence. She moved to Belgium from Morocco when she was very young, and began writing online after her first husband died in the suicide attack in Afghanistan that killed anti-Taliban warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud, just before the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

Pellens said that despite a yearlong investigation, it remained unclear whether a terrorist attack was imminent. Nearly 250 police officers raided 16 locations in the capital and one in the eastern city of Liege early Thursday, confiscating computers, data storage equipment and a pistol.

Police considered they had to move at that point because it was too risky to have the suspects at large when the EU summit opened. Pellens said it was unlikely, though, that the suspects would have picked such a top-security target.

She said a possible terror attack might have been planned in Iraq, Pakistan or a European location.

Suspect 'said goodbye to his loved ones'
Federal Prosecutor Johan Delmulle said one of the suspects had recently "said goodbye to his loved ones because he could go to paradise with a clear conscience."

Investigators waited a year before moving in — opting to ferret out the entire cell rather than a single part.

The investigation centered on people linked to Nizar Trabelsi, a 37-year-old Tunisian sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2003 for planning to a drive a car bomb into the cafeteria of a Belgian air base where about 100 American military personnel are stationed.

Security services in several European nations suspect Trabelsi, who trained with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, had links with extremists in Britain, France and elsewhere in Europe.