BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A series of bugged, coded communications over two months led Belgian police to storm a suspected Islamic State cell in the town of Verviers last year, thwarting an alleged plot, a Brussels court heard on Monday.
One unidentified conspirator used the cover name “Fatty”; another in the plot which Belgian authorities have said intended to target police officers, went by the handle “Big Lanky”.
Among seven accused present on the first day of a terrorism trial that began in Brussels under heavy security seven weeks after suicide bombers killed 32 people in the capital was Marouan El Bali. He survived the gunfight in January 2015 when police shot dead two armed men who had returned from fighting with IS in Syria.
In summarizing the case against the 16 accused, nine of whom are still at large, the judge offered details of how security services had used telephone taps to help combat a potential threat from more than 300 Belgians who have fought in Syria.
In a tapped call in November 2014 an unidentified man told another who was on a police watchlist: “I’ve got everything.”
Six months after a first Islamist attack in Belgium, when a Frenchman shot dead four people at Brussels’ Jewish Museum, that was enough to set off an intensive monitoring operation. It led to the Verviers raid, a week after Islamist attacks on the Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery had shocked Europe.
The judge said investigators had heard cryptic messages, some from Turkey and Greece, to various alleged members of the Belgian cell, including those named Fatty and Big Lanky.
Among those involved was Abdelhamid Abaaoud from Brussels, who fought with Islamic State in Syria and is believed to have been an organizer of several attacks in Europe, including those in Paris last Nov. 13. Abaaoud was killed in a gunbattle with French police five days after militants killed 130 people.
Criticized by some for failing to prevent the March 22 IS suicide bombings at Brussels airport and on the city’s metro, Belgian leaders have highlighted the operation at Verviers, a rundown industrial town near German border, as a major success.
As well as the two dead gunmen, both from Brussels’ Arab immigrant community, police found assault rifles, bomb-making material and items of Belgian police uniform. Abaaoud later boasted online that he had eluded capture and returned to Syria.
El Bali, who was found in the safehouse, has protested his innocence. His lawyer told reporters outside the court on Monday that he had merely been visiting a childhood friend.
He is accused of being a leader in a terrorist group, attempted murder, making and keeping of bombs and planning an attack on a non-specified building, his lawyer said. The trial is expected to last several weeks.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald