The British man who tried to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami over 20 years ago spoke publicly last month for the first time, testifying under oath in federal court. His arms and legs were shackled as he told jurors why he thought his bomb failed to ignite and what regrets he has now.
Richard Reid was not there to advocate for himself or cooperate with the government. He had been subpoenaed by Nizar Trabelsi, a former professional soccer player accused of planning his own suicide bombing at a military base in Belgium.
The unusual move was part of a case that ended with an unusual verdict in an international terrorism trial. On Friday, Trabelsi, 53, was acquitted of conspiring to murder Americans abroad, attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and supporting a terrorist group — after 10 years in custody awaiting trial and 17 years after he was first indicted in D.C. federal court.
A Justice Department official said Trabelsi will be placed in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and then removal proceedings but would not comment further. It is not clear where he will go. He is a citizen of Tunisia, but he was convicted in absentia there on terrorism charges, and the extradition agreement between the United States and Belgium bars sending him to a third country without Belgian approval. Last year, a Belgian court ordered the government to ask for Trabelsi to be returned to Belgium.
Trabelsi was arrested in Brussels two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a few months before Reid’s failed attempt. He confessed to Belgian authorities that he planned to kill U.S. troops stationed at Kleine Brogel Air Base with an ammonium nitrate bomb. He also said he and Osama bin Laden flew by helicopter to take part in the Taliban’s destruction of ancient Buddhist statues carved into a cliff in Afghanistan. After serving a 10-year sentence in Belgium and a lengthy extradition battle, he was put on trial in Washington.
In a deposition played in court, Trabelsi’s wife testified that her husband told her he would commit a suicide bombing, either in Belgium or at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, and showed her a paper from bin Laden labeling him a future martyr. Saajid Badat, another would-be shoe bomber who spent 11 years in prison in the United Kingdom, testified that he was supposed to help with the plot but failed to make contact before Trabelsi was arrested.
But in the six-week trial, Trabelsi claimed his earlier confessions and the incriminating testimony were false and improbable — calling Reid as proof.
Reid testified that he was with al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001 and knew Badat but had never seen or heard of Trabelsi. He also said the terrorist group would not have recruited a married father like Trabelsi to become a suicide bomber and did not write down martyrs’ names, and that an al-Qaeda operative’s wife would not be privy to details Trabelsi’s ex-wife testified about or have gotten weapons training as she claimed.
“As the Americans say, loose lips sink ships,” Reid testified. “Nothing was done in writing.” He said “men and women don’t mix” in conservative Islam, and that he never spoke to a woman in Afghanistan; he raised his shackled hands to show how at homes of married couples food was brought to men on dumbwaiters to avoid such interactions. He said that in his four years in Afghanistan he also never saw a helicopter until the U.S. invasion.
Trabelsi was “a has-been soccer player,” defense attorney Sabrina Shroff said in closings; bin Laden “wouldn’t put aside security concerns to give an important job” to him.
Prosecutors argued that Trabelsi volunteered to be a suicide bomber and insisted on it even after being discouraged by bin Laden.
Trabelsi testified through a French interpreter that his previous accounts were made up with his Belgian interrogators, and that he endorsed them only because he thought that would help him see his newborn child and avoid being sent to Guantánamo Bay. He also said he was sleep-deprived and not yet fluent in French when he signed a detailed confession.
“It was torture,” he said of his treatment. “I can’t sleep for the past 22 years.” In court filings, his attorneys say he has been held for the past decade in solitary confinement and has multiple serious health issues.
Born in Tunisia, Trabelsi became a professional soccer player in his teens and moved to Europe in 1989 to play for a German team. But he said he experienced racism regularly, particularly because he was married to a White woman. One of his two daughters died while he was away at a game. Court documents show he began doing drugs, lost his soccer career and went to prison, where he found religion. “I was not happy,” he testified. “I committed a lot of sins in my past life.”
He met a woman from Morocco, married again and moved with her to Afghanistan in 2000. He testified they were there to do “humanitarian” work and only went to bin Laden for help. Trabelsi said he was introduced to the al-Qaeda leader by his “best friend” Abu Zubaida, a facilitator for Islamic militants in Afghanistan. (Originally believed to be a high-ranking al-Qaeda official, Zubaida was tortured repeatedly by the CIA and has been held by the United States without charges for 22 years). Trabelsi also admitted to knowing Djamel Beghal, described in court as a French al-Qaeda recruiter, but only through loaning him money.
“You might not like Nizar Trabelsi,” Shroff said in closing, but “we are not judged by who our friends are.”
Trabelsi returned to Europe in July 2001, with a notebook containing a list of chemicals that could produce a highly damaging bomb. When he was arrested at an apartment in Brussels on Sept. 13, a man was coming to see him from a nearby restaurant, where authorities found two of the chemicals. They also found a machine gun in Trabelsi’s apartment. On the stand, Trabelsi claimed he was merely delivering the list as a favor to someone in Afghanistan and that the restaurant employee was bringing him a baguette. (That man was also convicted in Belgium.)
Shroff said in closing arguments that a Belgian investigating judge had acted inappropriately, including by following Trabelsi into the bathroom.
“This case comes down to one thing and one thing only,” she said. “Whether you can trust the words of a man who calls himself a judge and acts like anything but.”
Trabelsi’s ex-wife would not come to the United States to testify, so jurors saw only a video deposition in which he questioned her directly, and she refused to answer some of his queries.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Saunders called Trabelsi’s defense an “incredible … fiction” that would require collusion across multiple investigatory bodies and a series of “improbable coincidences.” Even if some claims made by Trabelsi or other witnesses couldn’t be corroborated, he said, the totality of the evidence was overwhelming. And he said criticisms of the Belgian process were misguided because the country has a very different legal system.
“He intended to kill Americans, murder Americans, hundreds of Americans,” Saunders said as he pointed at Trabelsi, who shook his head with indignation.
Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University, said the verdict to him underscored that “the war on terror is over” for most Americans.
“This is a person who in the first decade and a half after 9/11 would probably have been convicted,” Hoffman said.
Reid, who pleaded guilty, calmly discussed his own terrorism plans. He said he got training in Afghanistan in “basic arms,” tactics for city or mountain fighting and making improvised explosive devices. He described washing his passport so he could get a new one to do reconnaissance in Israel before his bombing attempt. He agreed that the suicide mission was probably unsuccessful because rain dampened the fuse in his shoe.
Reid said he regretted “aspects of” what he did and was not the same person he was in 2003. Asked if his remorse included nearly killing 200 people, he replied, “You could say so.” But he refused to say who had made his bomb.
“In Islam you take responsibility for your own actions, and you don’t throw other people under the bus,” he testified.
On the stand, Trabelsi repeatedly said he was promised that “If I confess I went to Belgium to attack the military base, the Belgian government will never extradite me to the United States.”
The extradition process was contentious. He fought in court from prison, arguing that sending him to the United States would violate both European Union human rights laws and a provision of the extradition treaty that bars prosecuting someone twice for the same crime. He was successful, but Belgium nonetheless extradited him in 2013 while the litigation was ongoing. The Belgian government has since been ordered to pay Trabelsi nearly 200,000 euros in damages and to ask the United States to return him to Belgium. But D.C. federal courts repeatedly rejected his appeals over the past decade.
“The jury did a phenomenal job parsing the evidence and realizing the Belgians had treated Mr. Trabelsi in the most despicable of ways,” Shroff and fellow defense attorney Marc Eisenstein said after the verdict.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington said, “We respect the jury’s verdict and thank them for their service.”
Devlin Barrett and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.