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Court rules extradited Tunisian athlete linked to al-Qaida must face terrorism charges

Prosecutors say Nizar Trabelsi met with Osama bin Laden in the spring before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to volunteer for a suicide bombing.

WASHINGTON (CN) – The D.C. Circuit ruled Friday that a Tunisian athlete who was extradited to the U.S. in 2013 for allegedly plotting a suicide attack on an American military post in Europe can be tried again for charges he already faced abroad.

The federal appellate court rejected Nizar Trabelsi’s claim that it should defer to the Belgian executive branch’s ruling that he could not be tried twice because the Belgian judiciary’s opposing ruling trumps it.

The Belgian Court of First Instance found that he could not be tried again due to the “overlap” of the terrorism charges in both countries, while the Belgian Ministry of Justice did not place any limitations on his extradition or prosecution. 

“In the context of extradition proceedings, courts have refrained from finding extradition orders issued by the state executive invalid under the act of state doctrine,” the 18-page opinion states. “Even Trabelsi conceded in the briefing that the decision to extradite an individual is a political act controlled by the executive, not by the judiciary.”

Friday’s decision brings an end to Trabelsi’s yearslong battle to have the indictment against him thrown out. The ruling was penned by U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Wilkins, a Barack Obama appointee, who was joined by Neomi Rao, a Donald Trump appointee, and Amy Berman Jackson, another Obama appointee. 

Trabelsi, who played for two German soccer teams, was arrested by Belgian authorities on Sept. 13, 2001, and sentenced to 10 years in prison for the plot. 

In 2006, he was indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington on four counts of conspiracy and material support for terrorism. He was extradited to the U.S. in 2013 and has since filed a slew of motions seeking to have the indictment dismissed.

According to the indictment, Trabelsi began plotting the bombing after meeting with Osama bin Laden in the spring of 2001.  The two are said to have met in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where Trabelsi allegedly accepted the codename “Abu Qa’Qa” and completed explosive training. 

Prosecutors believe Trabelsi and his co-conspirators were planning to launch a suicide bombing on the Kleine-Brogel Air Force Base in Brussels, which is used by the U.S. Air Force.

In the summer of 2001, he allegedly researched how to purchase chemicals in the Netherlands and traveled to Pakistan to grab the money for the attack. By August, prosecutors say he was renting an apartment in Brussels and had bought the ingredients necessary to construct a 1,000-kilogram bomb.

In September, according to the indictment, he moved the chemicals to a restaurant "operated by a conspirator known to the grand jury, after police had visited his apartment for an apparently innocuous purpose,”

He was arrested less than one week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has been incarcerated ever since. Trabelsi could be sentenced to life imprisonment for the charges he faces in the U.S.

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