BRUSSELS: A Belgian court on Tuesday jailed four leaders of a terror cell broken up in a deadly raid in 2015, which had alleged links to the jihadists who staged attacks in Paris and Brussels.
The men received jail terms of between eight and 16 years for their role in leading an Islamic State group in the eastern town of Verviers 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 the capital 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 IS 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.
Prosecutors described the cell as the “rough draft” of the terror cell that attacked Paris on November 13 2015. They said the group was under the orders of Paris ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud.
– ‘Rough draft’ of Paris –
Main suspect El Bali was charged with attempted murder for firing at police during the Verviers gunfight. He denied the charge.
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 police days after the Paris attacks, in which 130 people were murdered.
The two men killed in the Verviers raid were Sofiane Amghar and Khalid Ben Larbi who went to Syria to join IS in April 2014. The two then slipped back into Belgium to the Verviers hideout.
The raid on Verviers also occurred just two weeks after a set of jihadist attacks in Paris against the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and a Jewish supermarket that left 17 people dead.
Authorities have said the November Paris and March Brussels attacks were the work of the same cross-border jihadist group with deep roots in the Belgian capital.