A Belgian court has convicted three leaders of an al Qaeda terror cell accused of recruiting Europeans to fight in Afghanistan.
Those found guilty Monday include Malika el Aroud, a 50-year-old Belgian-Moroccan woman whom authorities have described as an "al Qaeda living legend." She was sentenced to eight years in prison for "creating, directing, and funding" the terrorist cell.
El Aroud is the widow of the al Qaeda operative who killed Ahmad Shah Massoud, the head of anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. He was killed in Afghanistan two days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
El Aroud and eight others had been on trial in Brussels since March. Two of the defendants were tried in absentia, including el Aroud's husband, Moez Garsallaoui. He is a Tunisian who was accused of recruiting a group of six Belgian and French recruits with his wife and escorting them to al Qaeda's camps in the tribal areas of Pakistan in 2008.
Garsallaoui also received an eight-year prison sentence.
The other leading figure in the cell who was convicted is Hicham Beyayo, one of the young men el Aroud and Garsallaoui recruited to fight in Afghanistan. Beyayo is accused of playing a deputy role to Garsallaoui within the group. The court sentenced him to five years in prison, but authorities could release him from prison and put him on probation within months said, his lawyer, Christophe Marchand.
As for the six other defendants, one was acquitted while five received sentences ranging from three to five years.
Defense attorneys had argued that the Belgian-French group's aim had been to fight in Afghanistan, not to become terrorists, but the court ruled that the men became members of al Qaeda when they arrived in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
According to counterterrorism sources, the trigger for the Brussels arrests was an e-mail Beyayo sent in early December 2008, after he returned to Belgium from the tribal areas of Pakistan. The e-mail, which was intercepted by U.S. counterterrorism agencies, suggested Beyayo had been given the green light to launch an attack in Belgium.
Not wanting to take any risks, Belgian police rounded up suspected cell members, including several who had been under surveillance for more than a year, counterterrorism sources told CNN.
When police raided several properties in and around Brussels, they found little evidence of an imminent plot, Belgian counterterrorism investigators told CNN. No explosives or firearms or attack blueprints were recovered. At trial, no evidence of any planned attack was introduced in court. Marchand, Beyayo's lawyer, says his client will not appeal the verdict.
"The trial made a clear distinction between the leaders of the group - Malika el Aroud and Moez Garsallaoui – and the young men like my client they influenced and attracted to go to Waziristan," Marchand said.
Belgian intelligence officials tell CNN that the two suspects tried in absentia – Garsallaoui and Hicham Zrioul – are believed to be at large in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
According to court documents, Zrioul discussed a plot to attack the Brussels subway system in 2008 while walking in the mountains of Waziristan with American al Qaeda recruit Bryant Neal Vinas, who has pleaded guilty to charges of aiding al Qaeda.
Garsallaoui is believed to be mixing in al Qaeda circles, a senior counterterrorism official told CNN. The official said there are indications that Garsallaoui met with British al Qaeda operative Rashid Rauf, an individual suspected of playing leading roles in a plot to bomb airliners in 2006 and a plot to bomb the New York subway in 2009. Rauf is believed to have been killed in a U.S. drone strike in northwestern Pakistan in November 2008.
The guilty verdicts bring to conclusion one of the most high profile trials in Belgium in recent years, with Belgian police on high alert throughout the course of proceedings.
In March, Belgian authorities mounted an unprecedented security operation outside the court house after receiving indications that an attack may be launched to free some of the defendants. No attempt materialized.
During the trial, el Aroud mounted a strident defense of the legitimacy of armed combat against Western military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Her lawyer announced Monday that she will appeal the verdict.
El Aroud made clear her sympathy for Al Qaeda in an interview with CNN in 2006. "Most Muslims love Osama [Bin Laden]. It was he who helped the oppressed. It was he who stood up against the biggest enemy in the world, the United States. We love him for that," she said.