Belgium in autumn. On October 3rd, 2013, a patrol wagon leaves Bruges’ prison. Inside, Nizar Trabelsi, 43, looks for a comfortable position. Encircled, he has a hood on his face and earphones play deafening music, the fate reserved for special prisoners. The former player of the CS Sfaxien (CSS) and Fortuna Düsseldorf thinks that he’s being transferred, for the 37th time in twelve years, to Brussels. Wrong. His jailers are going to Zaventem airport, from where he will be extradited to the US. The day before, Annemie Turtelboom, the Belgian Minister of Justice, gave a favorable reply to the extradition request that a judge of the District of Columbia issued in December 2007.
On September 13th, 2001, Trabelsi is arrested in Brussels. He is suspected of preparing a terrorist attack. After nine months, he admits to have intended to blow up a NATO base, in Kleine-Brogel in Limburg. Three years later, the verdict falls: ten years of prison for "attempting to use explosive materials, ownership of prohibited weapons, criminal conspiracy... "
Nizar Trabelsi’s existence could almost be a commonplace, a lost kid joining the jihad.. Here is a story of a young Tunisian, landing in Germany to become a professional player, drifts into drugs and petty crime before plunging into radical Islam and joining Al-Qaeda. A destructive life on four continents which ends, for now, in the Rappahannock penitentiary, Virginia (USA)…
1989-1996 : Germany, year(s) zero(s)
Athletic (6 foot 3, 88kg), fast, gifted, Nizar Trabelsi is a promise in this summer of 1989. He played for two years as a forward for the main CSS team. The future belongs to him. When he does not sting defenses, Nizar drinks a bit, crashes some racing cars and visits brothels. At 19, he already imagines a Technicolor destiny for himself.
In June 89, Nizar is tried by the Standard of Liège. "My husband absolutely wanted Nizar to play for Fortuna ", says Aziza Jalali, his aunt, in Düsseldorf. Bar manager Hadri Habib, his uncle by marriage, knows the Rhenish club’s president. The Sfaxien finally signs for Fortuna a semi-professional contract. His dreams can start.
“ He trained hard and got along well with the rest of the group. He did not play any game of the season, but he had beautiful future prospects ", remembers Aleksandar Ristic, Düsseldorf coach at the time. Shortly after his arrival, he meets Simone and marries her one year later in September 1990. " He has an irresistible charm. Everybody adores him ", says Aziza.
In Fortuna, the second season looks like the first one: he plays with the second team. Nizar is close to Anthony Baffoe. The kid of Sfax, and the son of diplomat become friends. " I helped him like a brother. We sometimes went out to eat African food. He made everybody laugh but he lacked discipline. He had the talent but not pro mentality ", tells the ex-Black Star. Trabelsi grows tired. The exile far from home weighs on him.
He spends his nights in clubs and begins to snort coke. He comes home late, in spite of the birth of a daughter, Sarah, in February 1991. His contract with Düsseldorf is not extended. “ As a person, there was nothing you could criticize him for, but –as a player- he was a chicken. He could return in the locker room for a wrong word ", says Alex Sprengler, Fortuna’s intendant.
Every summer, on holidays, Trabelsi goes partying in Tunis with Riad Sghaier, his former team-mate of the junior selection. "We went everywhere in his Opel cabriolet. He drank, fought, went the wrong way down one-way streets in Tunis…", tells Sghaier. The Sfaxien finds a way out in Germany. It will be Wuppertal SV, a club of 3rd division.
In Wuppertal, Trabelsi starts on the bench. At home, things hardly improve. Simone and Nizar have fights. "He was a chameleon, she said to Der Spiegel, in October 2001. Two people at once. Adorable one moment, an uncontrollable asshole the next. " The Tunisian become a cocaine addict. "He often called up Friday evening, depressed. He spoke for hours then stopped for two minutes to go to snort", tells Sghaier. The following year will be worse.
In the summer of 1992, he and his wife breaks up. Wuppertal loans him to the FC Wülfrath (3rd level) where he only stays for two months. He ends up on another loan at the SV Wermelskirchen (4th division). His time there is even shorter. 20 minutes on the pitch and a red card. Wuppertal and Trabelsi end their contract. The summer after, he joins VFR Neuss (5th division) for a meagre salary and a flat. Soon, the neighbors receive police visits. The Sfaxien is suspected of dealing cocaine and procuring.
His Neuss’ team-mates always wonder if he is going to show up for the next game. Freddy Zwiebler, the coach, is understanding: " After he disappeared, he came to beg me to take him back, as a little boy. » His life has fallen apart since his first disappearance during the spring of 1994.
On March 3rd, he takes the train to Rotterdam to buy cocaine. 17 grams, 80 % pure. He is arrested upon his return home by the local cops who have been watching him recently. The day after, he’s imprisoned. He stays in preventative custody for 160 days during which he encounters radical Islam. After his release, he learns that Simone has divorced him and forbids him to see his daughter again. Just like an inverted remake of his own childhood.
1970-1989 : A Sfaxien youth
Mohamed Aloulou, 73, was a Secretary of Sports in 2011, after Ben Ali. He is also a friend of the Trabelsi family. He remembers: " Nizar’s dad, Azaïez, was a good football player in El-Ralwy, the second team of Sfax. Once his career ended, he wanted to go to Europe to earn money. He went in France before returning to Sfax for the birth of his daughter, Nadia (in 1972). ” Then he left without ever coming back. His wife, Naïma had to assure the sustenance of her childrens.
The El-Bahri district looks like any other Arabic street. Small white-washed buildings, paths with bare ground surface and kids out playing. "My brother could not stay quiet, he was always agitated. At that time, all he did were the stupid things of his age, mainly fights", says Mohamed Jalali, one of Naïma’s brothers. Nizar is looking for the limits his absent father cannot give him. "
Nizar Trabelsi has found a way. Football. « He was talented and worked hard. He had all the cards to pursue a career in Europe. I called him ‘the little thug’, he was sturdy, cunning and he frightened the opponents" asserts Mokhtar Tlili, coach of the CSS in 1987-88, who put him in first team.
Spring of 1989, Trabelsi, 19, looks for Europe. "His uncle changed his mind regrets Dr Aloulou, who was then the president of the CSS in 1988-89. His mother begged me to let him leave. I told her: " if he leaves now, he is done for. " She held it against me. Finally, Nizar left. Too early … " Hadri Habib, the uncle -and so-called agent, sells him against some shirts and balls. It already seems that Nizar Trabelsi doesn’t cost much.
1996-2000 : the point of no return
At only 26, Trabelsi frequents the Dostrum mosque, close to Düsseldorf. In summer 1996, he leaves for Saudi Arabia to do the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. " During these years, he was brainwashed", thinks a Belgian policeman who questionned him. Every time he went back in Tunisia, his "transformation" impressed his friends. "In Tunisia, everybody can fall into radical Islam. Everybody, but not Nizar Trabelsi. Never ", says Riad Sghaier. In Germany, Trabelsi lives on expedients and drifts into petty crime.
Nizar is travelling a lot. To Belgium, France and especially to England. In London, he frequents the Finsbury Park mosque and the Four Feathers club in Baker Street, the unofficial headquarters of Al-Qaeda in Europe. Trabelsi still does not know what his future will be made of.
In July, 1999, his uncle Mohamed visits his sister Aziza and finds Nizar. The police often visit the first about the second. "He made an appointment with me in his apartment. When I arrived, there were two Lebanese and a Syrian who were tidying up heaps of passports, visas, hundreds of phone cards on a table and I even glimpsed weapons in an open drawer. I took my children and got out of there. I never saw Nizar again." Trabelsi definitively went over the edge. May 2000, his probation agent indicates his "disappearance". On October, 21st, in Amsterdam, he leaves Germany for good and takes a plane to Peshawar.
2001, code name : Sarah
With his second wife, a Frenchwoman he met in Germany, he goes to Jalalabad.. He dreams of building a mosque and wishes to help the people. "According to the testimonies that we collected over there, he was great, strange, generous, says the anonymous Belgian policeman.. Even if he’s a unpredictable, he went down a classic route for our ‘customers’: a black sheep who is sheltered by a group where he become somebody. "
Trabelsi joins the Derunta camp. A basic training place where Trabelsi draws the attention of Abou Zoubeïda, Al-Qaeda’s recruter in the area who is asked to test the promising recruits. Nizar has the pedigree: he went through Finsbury Park and knows some members of the sleeping cells in Europe. His dedication drives Zoubeïda to organize a meeting with Bin Laden. Both men see each other seven times in sheik’s residences in Jalalabad and Kandahar.
" He was aware of my difficulties, said Trabelsi to a Belgian TV, in 2002. I like him very much. For me, he’s my father. (…) What he made does not interest me." He’s even in Bin Laden’s helicopter during the destruction of the Bamyan’s buddah by the Talibans in March, 2001. Abou Hafs, a Bin Laden’s lieutenant, gave him videos of a Muslim raped by Christians in Indonesia. " These images turned in my head, I lost control. I wanted to be on the martyrs’ list. Before looking at these videos, I did not know the hatred ", said Trabelsi during his trial. At the end of June, with 50,000 dollars, he goes back to Europe, getting ready to make a move.
He rents an apartment in Uccle, a Brussels’ district. " As he frequented the radical islamic sphere, Trabelsi was targeted, by our services, at the end of August. Under normal circumstances, we would have waited by following them, but there, after September 11th, the risk was too big ", asserts a senior official of Belgian intelligence service.
On september, 13th, 2001, Nizar Trabelsi is arrested by the special forces. At home, the cops find a Uzi submachine gun and an book with the list of elements needed to make a bomb. Shortly after, the police stumbles in a restaurant, the Nile, runs by a friend, Abdelkrim el-Haddouti, across some sulfur, acetone and nitrate in quantity.
Worse, Richard Reid -who is not yet "Shoe Bomber", stopped on december 22th as he wanted to blow up a passenger plane (Paris-Miami) - has left him messages between september 12th and 15th, about a mysterious operation, called "Sarah". Too late. Trabelsi is in the shade. For a long time.
2002-2012 : Belgium vs Nizar Trabelsi
In prison, Trabelsi has to answer to five foreign agencies, including, the FBI. The Americans put a bargain on the table. Against any information on Al-Qaeda’s oligarchy and the Afghan camps, he could join the witnesses protection’s program once out of prison. "They were surprised by his state of mind , says Mehdi Abbès. They wanted Nizar to prove his good will. " When he refused the deal, an FBI agent told him: "you will never see the sky again", recalls Oum Maryam, his third wife. " He’s infantile, impulsive, not a balanced model. He could be capable of being your best buddy a day and, the night after, to promise you: ‘I throw myself through the window and I take you with me ", adds the Belgian policeman.
Judge Christian de Valkeneer runs the instruction. He takes time. He respects Trabelsi, forges links. He allows him to see his son, Mehdi, born in February, 2002. The Tunisian comes loose. " He’s not a cold killer. His life was only a suite of breakdown : the absence of a father, the social rise and fall, the exile ", analyzes the judge. During his 14th interrogation, in June, 2002, Nizar confesses that he wanted to attack the Kleine-Brogel’s air base (NATO). " He is capable of everything. Scheduled, he can become very dangerous. He was a victim of a very subtle indoctrination ", supports de Valkeneer.
Nevertheless, his lawyers, the policeman and the Secret Services source hardly believe in Kleine-Brogel’s hypothesis. " The base is in the middle of nowhere. With a truck of explosives, you’re going to kill some rabbits and that’s it. To kill 50 unknown Americans in a countryside casern is pretty stupid. An embassy in Europe would have been more interesting ", jokes the source from the Belgian Intelligence. Nizar Trabelsi’s confession is convenient for everyone. The authorities because they hold a perpetrator and Nizar Trabelsi himself, who can stay in Belgium, where he risks ten years maximum because the country had no anti-terrorist legislation yet. That also allows him to hide the real nature of the "Sarah" operation.
On May 22nd, 2003, Trabelsi appears in his trial, he says : « I became a machine. » Six months previously, he confessed to the RTBF: " I am guilty, I have to pay for that." He’s sentenced to ten years in prison. On June 10th, 2004, the judgment is definitively confirmed.
2013-2015 : “Only God is stronger than the Americans”
Between 2001 and 2013, Trabelsi is kept in isolation and frequently transferred. He wasn’t on the page. During the trial, he said : "when I shall go out of prison, I’ll not try to find a second Bin Laden. There will be no second half-time. " The Americans do not forget him. In december 2007, a judge of the Washington issue an international arrest warrant. A long battle begins. It lasts more than five years. The main stake rests on the non bis in idem: you cannot judge someone twice for the same offence.
The Americans change the name of the charges retained against Trabelsi. A decoy. In February, 2015, the European Court of the Rights of the Man condemns definitively Belgium to pay 90,000€ to Trabelsi to have extradited him illegally. Nobody gets this decision, not even the policeman and the Intelligence Services’ source." Nizar pays for his non-collaboration and the portrait we made. For his closeness with Bin Laden, too. Since the WW II, a western European country can’t refuse anything to the American older brother " , says Abbès. Since October, 2013, Trabelsi is imprisoned in Stafford, Virginia. He risks the perpetuity for an already judged offence.
" When he was younger, he ate during Ramadan, went out. He liked flavors, beautiful clothes ", remembers Naïma, Nizar’s mother. All his life, Nizar will have looked for the other people's opinion. He had some arguments : His good mood, his smile and his generosity. " He would have given his last blouse, as we say in Germany ", assures Aziza, his aunt. All his life, Nizar will have looked for a father figure.
The real one, first, which he eventually found in Paris at the end of the 90s and "that didn’t go well", thinks Aloulou. Substitutes too, shortly: Aloulou, Tlili (CSS), Freddy Zwiebler (Neuss), bin Laden and, even, judge de Valkeneer…
His fall also began when he understood that he could not support his family as well as he wanted. From Sfax, Naïma, small energetic woman, offers tea and cakes. " I like getting on the phone with him, hearing the sound of his voice ", she says. She cries, steps down on the face and starts again: "Only God is stronger than the Americans. They are not even afraid of him. Nizar refuses to sell them his religion. He spent his time to offer things, to make it for the others. Now, he gets ready for his new life. " Right now, in this one, he’s still waiting for his trial, in the penitentiary of Rappahannock, Virginia …