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Thwarting terror cells in Europe

Police say two men in custody, Nizar Trabelsi and Djamel Beghal, attended this central London mosque in the late '90s  

By CNN's Diana Muriel

PARIS, France (CNN) -- The arrest of French-Algerian Djamel Beghal was a major breakthrough for French prosecutors tracking the operations of terrorists in Europe.

He had been caught by airport authorities in the United Arab Emirates, trying to travel to Europe on a fake French passport.

Intelligence sources close to investigators in the UAE say that, under days of interrogation, Beghal told of planned attacks in France, including the U.S. Embassy in Paris, as well as details of terrorist cells operating in Paris and Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

Intelligence sources say Beghal's interrogation was tough -- they didn't rule out the use of torture.

At the request of the French authorities, Beghal was extradited to France last month for further questioning by French anti-terror magistrates.

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"Beghal was accused of being associated with a terrorist organisation. Now we have to prove that he had started to put his terrorist plans into action. This will take a long time. He confessed in Dubai ... but he's retracted his testimony here in France," says Alain Marsaud, founder of the French Anti-Terror Prosecutor Unit.

Retraction or not, the leads were a bonanza for European police.

By early August, Dutch police had a four-person cell under surveillance in Rotterdam.

Then, intelligence sources say, police learned of a connection between the cell in Rotterdam and another based in an apartment in Brussels -- a cell allegedly headed by a Tunisian ex-soccer player, Nizar Trabelsi.

Police say Trabelsi and Beghal go back a long way. Both men had lived in London in the late 1990s and attended several London mosques. At some of them, Abu Qatada preached his sermons.

A fundamentalist Muslim cleric, Qatada lives in a west London house where, investigative sources say, he nurtured two of his followers -- Beghal and Trabelsi.

Through Qatada, intelligence sources say, both Beghal and Trabelsi went to two terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.

It was on Beghal's return trip, sources say, when he was arrested in Dubai.

Trabelsi, meanwhile, moved to Brussels and stayed out of sight. There, French investigators say, he put into practice the recruiting and surveillance skills he had learned in Afghanistan.

Quick response

Anne-Marie Lizan, a Belgian parliamentarian who has been following police investigations into European terror cells, says Belgium was a perfect base from which to plan attacks.

"We are not a target, but we are such a quiet country that we could be a good preparation country," says Lizan.

Sources say the U.S. Embassy in Paris was the target of a planned terror attack  

Intelligence sources believe Trabelsi was using the Rotterdam cell as a logistics base for the planned attack on the U.S. embassy in Paris -- and possibly another attack on NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Two days after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, police in Rotterdam and Brussels moved in as part of a coordinated operation.

Four arrests were made in Rotterdam, while Trabelsi and a Belgian Moroccan were arrested in Brussels at separate addresses.

Belgian police also raided an Egyptian snack bar in the heart of Brussels, where they found 220 pounds of sulfur and 13 gallons of acetone -- the basic ingredients for a bomb big enough, experts say, to blow up a building.

In the raid on Trabelsi's apartment, sources say, police recovered an automatic pistol and ammunition, detailed plans of the U.S. Embassy in Paris, chemical formulas for bomb making -- and a smart business suit.

Intelligence sources say Trabelsi was planning to attack the U.S. Embassy by strapping explosives to himself and becoming a human bomb -- the smart business suit providing him with the perfect cover.

French Anti-Terror Magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere, sources say, was quick to act on the information Beghal had given authorities in Dubai.

On September 10 -- the day before the attacks in the U.S. -- he formally ordered a team to begin surveillance on another group of suspected terrorists living in the Paris suburb of Corbeil-Essone. Police say the alleged cell leader was 23-year-old Kamel Daoudi, a gifted computer student. Police say he was also trained in making bombs.

Several days after the U.S. attacks, investigative sources say, French surveillance officers overheard members of the cell discussing the destruction of computer equipment and other evidence.

Police decided to move in, and they arrested seven men on September 21.

Daoudi himself escaped to Britain, where he was captured the following week. He was then extradited to France for questioning by the investigating magistrate.

With Daoudi and Beghal in custody in France and Trabelsi held in Belgium, European police believe they hold some of the key players in what may have been a planned second wave of terror attacks in Europe.




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