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Germany

New Terror Trial Opens in Berlin

German prosecutors in Berlin on Tuesday started to make their case against a Tunisian man accused of planning bombing attacks and seeking to create an al Qaeda sleeper cell.

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The trial is being held under the tightest possible security.

Federal prosecutors have charged the Tunisian with planning to create an al Qaeda cell and to conduct attacks on Berlin and other German cities. Garnaoui, who has been in custody for over a year, is believed to have been trained in the use of weapons and explosives at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan during July 2001. Later, prosecutors say, he also worked as a trainer in the camps and became personally acquainted with Osama bin Laden.

They say he returned to Germany under a fake passport in January 2003 and began planning the cell and a round of attacks. But police may have foiled a Madrid-like tragedy through his arrest on March 20, the first day of the war against Iraq.

Explosives found

"He apparently already began the preparations. He had deposited explosive materials in an apartment in Gelsenkirchen and apparently sought accomplices in Berlin in the Al Nur mosque and asked them if they would be interested in helping out with concrete plans for bomb attacks," Arnd Bödeker, spokesman for the Berlin court hearing the case told public broadcaster ARD.

When police searched Garnaoui's apartment, they found bomb-making materials, as well as wristwatches with timers and cell phones that could be used to detonate bombs. Further searches in connection with his case uncovered aerial photographs of 170 German cities, including nuclear power plants and chemical plants.

At the Berlin mosque, he reportedly won over four accomplices and several supporters for his plot. The links between Garnaoui and the Al Nur mosque also ensure that the case will also look into how some terrorists have used mosques to recruit and train potential terrorists.

Prosecutors believe the suspect was planning an attack in conjunction with a major protest against the start of the Iraq war last year, and that Garnaoui wanted kill as many people as possible in an effort to humiliate the West.

"The goal of this bombing attack was or could have been, especially, American and Jewish institutions, also those here in Berlin," Bödecker said. Garnaoui's trial is expected to run at least through the end of July.

Trying times for German prosecutors

Much attention is likely to be focused on the trial in light of the difficulties German prosecutors have had in their cases against suspected terrorists in Germany.

On March 4, the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe overturned the prosecution and ordered a retrial of Mounir al Motassadeq, the only person convicted of terrorism in Germany who had ties to the cell responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington. Motassadeq had been convicted of 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

And that was only the highest-profile case. Earlier this year, a German court also cleared another suspected terrorist, the Moroccan Abdelghani Mzoudi, of all charges, citing a lack of evidence. In 2003, a trial against Islam fundamentalists accused of planning a terrorist attack on the Christmas market in Strasbourg, France, also ended without convictions.

There is currently only one other major case underway against suspected terrorists in Germany. A court in Düsseldorf is trying a group of Arab men on charges of membership in a terrorist organization. The men, of Jordanian, Algerian and Palestinian descent, are believed to have been planning attacks against Jewish facilities in Berlin as well as restaurants in Düsseldorf frequented by the local Jewish community.

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