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Al-Qaida Suspect Was Soccer Hopeful

July 6, 2002

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BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ Sometime after moving from Tunisia to Europe to play professional soccer, Nizar Trabelsi got hooked on cocaine, messed up in petty crime and eventually made his way to al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan.

By the time Belgian police arrested him, two days after Sept. 11, in connection with a plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris, Trabelsi had already placed himself on a ``list of martyrs,″ according to evidence gleaned from intelligence and interrogations.

``I have come to Belgium to commit an attack,″ he said during police questioning in Brussels.

Belgian authorities have sought to keep a lid on the Trabelsi case for nine months and decline to comment on their investigation. But Dutch, French and Belgian evidence on him was given to Canadian prosecutors handling an extradition case in June of another suspect in the Paris embassy plot.

The evidence, which includes wiretaps and witness statements, was submitted into the court record and obtained by The Associated Press.

French investigators believe Trabelsi was to be the suicide bomber in the embassy attack, planned for the spring of 2002. Trabelsi’s wife, Amal Halim, told French authorities her husband left Afghanistan for Europe intending to ``commit a suicide action.″

Belgian sources say Trabelsi had other targets in mind, including an air base in Belgium where U.S. nuclear bombs are believed to be stored. Trabelsi told investigators he worked alone. but evidence has tied him to al-Qaida and other key suspects jailed in France and the Netherlands.

Spanish police say Trabelsi was in their country last August and may have met there with Mohamed Atta, the suspected ringleader in the Sept. 11 attacks. They also have tied Trabelsi to an Algerian Islamic insurgent group allegedly financed by bin Laden.

British newspapers have reported that Trabelsi knew Richard C. Reid, charged with trying to blow up a Paris-Miami flight with explosives in his sneakers.

None of that sounds like the Trabelsi described by neighbors on Mozart Avenue in the comfortably middle-class Uccle district of Brussels.

Stephanie Hostin’s memories are of a man who tried to help a woman retrieve a purse snatched on the street below.

``He came down and ran after the guy to get her bag back,″ Hostin says. ``When I heard later that this person is a terrorist, I couldn’t believe it.″

Trabelsi was arrested Sept. 13 on charges of criminal conspiracy and planning to cause explosions.

He was implicated by Djamel Beghal, a 35-year-old French Algerian arrested in the United Arab Emirates in July 2001 and handed over to French custody when he started talking about an al-Qaida plot to blow up the Paris embassy.

Beghal told investigators that he was personally recruited in bin Laden’s Afghan home Trabelsi _ who had placed himself on al-Qaida’s ``list of martyrs″ during a training course in Kandahar, Afghanistan _ was to carry the bomb and ``blow himself up,″ Beghal told interrogators.

Trabelsi acknowledged meeting Beghal in Afghanistan but not in connection with the plot and Beghal later retracted his statements.

According to the court documents, authorities who raided Trabelsi’s apartment found an Uzi machine gun, a false French driver’s license, a false Pakistani visa and notes on chemical substances looking like a formula.

When Belgian investigators asked him about the notes _ scribbled on page 43 of a soccer magazine _ Trabelsi said he’d written them down in Afghanistan, but didn’t know what they meant.

Trabelsi first came to Europe in 1989 for a tryout with the German first-division team in Duesseldorf. Impressed by the 19-year-old forward, Fortuna Duesseldorf signed him to a semiprofessional contract.

Trabelsi never made it off the reserve list, though, and the team let him go.

Over the next few years he bounced from team to team, down a notch each season. As his status fell, he acquired a cocaine habit and criminal record that stretched to 42 offenses.

He was convicted four times for offenses including fraud, shoplifting, drug and weapon possessions, Johannes Mocken, spokesman for the prosecutor’s office in Duesseldorf, told AP. He received only fines and suspended sentences.

Around 1998, Trabelsi dropped out of sight.

``We still had outstanding cases against him, but we looked and never found him,″ Mocken said.

According to the court documents, he was traveling around Europe, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

``The investigation has revealed that Nizar Trabelsi trained in military camps in Afghanistan for a suicide mission in Europe,″ according to evidence the Dutch authorities submitted to buttress their request to extradite another Paris embassy suspect, Algerian-born Amine Mezbar, who was arrested in Montreal.

The Dutch have tied both Mezbar and Trabelsi to several alleged co-conspirators in their custody, including Jerome Courtailler, a Frenchman and apparent forger who was arrested in the Netherlands the same day as Trabelsi.

In a wiretapped conversation recorded by the Dutch National Security Service on Aug. 10, Trabelsi called Courtailler asking whether it was possible to urgently arrange an apartment where he could work quietly. Eight days later, Trabelsi called back asking about buying fake Belgian documents.

One month earlier, he called a former imam at a Belgian mosque and said he was just back from Afghanistan and looking for a place to live. Money was no problem. ``They sent me for an important matter; I have to please them,″ Trabelsi was recorded as saying.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Associated Press reporter Michael Kovrig in Toronto contributed to this report.

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