ROTTERDAM, Netherlands – The lead suspect in the trial of four suspected Al Qaeda terrorists described himself Monday as a petty criminal and said he had no knowledge of plans to attack U.S. targets in Europe.
Jerome Courtallier, a French convert to Islam, said his criminal activity was limited to selling counterfeit watches, fake identification papers and stolen credit cards.
"It was a quick way to make money, an easy way to get ahead. But now I'm paying the price," the 28-year-old former butcher told a Dutch court.
Courtallier is accused of running a terrorist support network out of a Rotterdam apartment to assist in strikes against the American Embassy in Paris and a military base in Belgium where U.S. munitions are stored.
Two Algerians and a Dutchman of Ethiopian origin are co-defendants in the case. The suspects are charged with conspiracy to commit murder, membership in a criminal organization and forging documents, passports and credit cards.
The Dutch cell allegedly worked in concert with Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian soccer player arrested on the same day in Belgium and believed to have been the designated suicide bomber for the Paris attack. In an interview with Belgian radio from prison, Trabelsi acknowledged his role in the plot.
Courtallier testified that he didn't know why Trabelsi had telephoned him looking for a place to stay in the Netherlands. He acknowledged meeting the Tunisian at a Dusseldorf, Germany mosque, but said their only shared interest was sports.
"I love soccer. He was a soccer player," Courtallier told the three-member panel of judges. "We talked. That was all."
Prosecutors say that besides the Paris embassy, the group targeted the Kleine-Brogel military base in northeast Belgium, where about 100 U.S. Air Force personnel are stationed. Environmental groups claim the munitions dump also stores 26 B61 free-fall nuclear bombs.
The alleged Dutch cell was uncovered as police carried out a Europe-wide sweep two days after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington. Three of the four men were arrested Sept. 13, 2001.
Searches of the men's apartment turned up stolen passports, videotapes of Usama bin Laden, manuals on explosives and land mines, and equipment often used to falsify documents.
Courtallier denied having links with extremists, said he had never heard about hidden explosives and couldn't have understood Bin Laden's speeches because he doesn't speak Arabic.
Earlier this year, the Dutch parliament enacted legislation expanding the powers of the secret services to monitor suspects. But it remained unclear Monday how such evidence could be used in court.
In a rare courtroom appearance, the head of the Dutch Internal Security Service sparred with judges over what information he could disclose. He declined to answer some questions without prior approval from the internal affairs minister.
"I call on my obligation to remain silent," said Siebrand van Hulst when pressed by defense lawyers for details about secret service operations.
The investigative powers of van Hulst's agency were expanded earlier this year to permit the opening of mail and hacking into suspects' computer systems. Judges are considering whether reports from the Dutch intelligence system are admissible as evidence.
Their decision will also affect two other trials due to start in the Netherlands in coming months involving 10 more terror suspects.
The other defendants with Courtailler are Abdelghani Rabia of Algeria and Amine Mezbar, another Algerian who was extradited to the Netherlands in July, as well as Saaid Ibrahim, a Dutchman of Ethiopian origin. The trial is expected to last through Wednesday.