A Belgian court on Tuesday jailed four leaders of a terror cell broken up in a deadly raid last year in the eastern town of Verviers. The suspects had been linked to the jihadists who carried out recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels.
The four men received jail terms of between eight and 16 years for their role in leading a terror cell affiliated to Islamic State (IS) group that was allegedly planning to kill police officers.
Marouane El Bali, Souhaib El Abdi et Mohamed Arshad were jailed for 16 years each while Omar Damache was jailed for eight years by the court in Brussels.
Judge Pierre Hendrickx said there was evidence that the Verviers cell was planning a gun and bomb attack on Zavantem airport in Brussels of the same type as the one that eventually happened on March 22.
Passing sentence on the four men, he pointed to the fact that explosives of the kind used by the IS group and weapons were found in the property, and that some of the men had spent time in Syria.
“These elements left no doubt about the fact that the Verviers cell was planning an attack,” Hendrickx said.
Two suspected members of the group were killed on the January 2015 raid on the house in Verviers, located 120 kilometres (75 miles) east of Brussels near the German border.
Both were from Molenbeek, the gritty suburb of Brussels home to several of the jihadists that would go on to carry out attacks in Paris and the Belgian capital.
‘Rough draft’ of Paris attacks
Prosecutors described the Verviers cell as the “rough draft” of the terror cell that attacked Paris on November 13, 2015, killing 129 people at several night spots in the French capital.
They said Paris attacks ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud was central to the Verviers events, giving orders to the would-be assailants by phone from Greece.
El Bali, the main suspect at the trial, had been charged with attempted murder for firing at police during the Verviers gunfight on January 15, 2015, which took place just a week after the terrorist attack on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
Arshad, meanwhile, told the court he acted on instructions from Abaaoud to buy walkie-talkies, ingredients for explosives and rent two vehicles and a flat in Verviers. The documents were provided by small-time criminal El Abdi.
Damache, an Algerian, was arrested at an address in Athens where police believe they had zeroed in on Abaaoud. Damache was later extradited to Belgium.
Abaaoud was killed by French police after a lengthy siege in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, days after the November 13 attacks.