ALGIERS (Reuters) â€” An Algerian court on Wednesday sentenced to 10 years in prison an Algerian described by Britain as a key conspirator in an Al Qaeda plot to launch attacks in London using ricin and other poisons, court officials said.
Mohammad Meguerba, 37, who trained in Afghanistan, skipped bail in Britain in 2002 and is thought to have been smuggled back to Algeria by rebels, was convicted of setting up and belonging to a foreign terrorist organisation.
The “ricin plot” involved a group of young Algerians based in Europe who formed contacts with al Qaeda in the late 1990s. Algeria has been fighting militancy for more than a decade and has repeatedly criticised Western governments, and Britain in particular, for failing to listen to its warnings and for harbouring extremists. In court, Meguerba denied belonging to a terrorist group operating abroad and said a confession he had given to Algerian interrogators had been made under duress.
“If I was really a terrorist, why did British authorities arrest me and then release me?,” he asked the judge.
Information he gave the Algerian interrogators was crucial to the capture and conviction in Britain of another Algerian, Kamel Bourgass, and made him a central figure in Britain’s biggest terrorism case of recent years.
According to British prosecutors, Meguerba told the interrogators that he, Bourgass and others had been making poison in a flat in North London, keeping it in a skin cream jar and planning to smear it on door handles.
British police, tipped off by the Algerian authorities, raided the apartment and found poison recipes and instructions on making explosives, triggering a nationwide sweep and more than 100 arrests â€” including that of Bourgass.
Bourgass, accused of being the leader of the group, was convicted in April this year by a British court of plotting to “use poisons or explosives to cause disruption, injury or fear” and jailed for 17 years. But eight other North Africans alleged to be fellow conspirators were cleared of any role in the plot.
A year earlier, Bourgass had been convicted in a separate trial of murdering a British detective during the the raid in which he was arrested.
Mergueba, like many other Algerians who left their country in the 1990s amid a violent conflict there, moved around Europe before attending London’s Finsbury Park mosque, known to attract young Muslims, a security expert familiar with his Algerian dossier said.
Mergueba, who spoke fluent French, English and Arabic, is believed to have married an Irishwoman in London in 1997.
In 2000, he went to Afghanistan and trained at the El Farouk Camp run by Osama Ben Laden, the expert said. Thousands of men, including many North Africans, went to such training camps run by Ben Laden and the Taleban regime.
Meguerba told interrogators he had trained at the Afghan camps and met bin Laden, but in court retracted the statement.
“During questioning I made these confessions under pressure,” he said, adding he had been in Afghanistan only for charity work.
He has not been charged with any crimes in Britain, which is not expected to seek his extradition.