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Men who took part in cash handover with Brussels bombing suspect jailed

Two men who took part in a £3,000 cash handover with Brussels bombing suspect Mohamed Abrini in Birmingham have been jailed for eight and three years.

Zakaria Boufassil, 26, was last week found guilty of engaging in conduct in preparation of acts of terrorism by supplying cash to Abrini, who was dubbed the "man in the hat" over his alleged involvement in the terror attacks on the Belgian capital in March.

Boufassil and Mohammed Ali Ahmed, 27, who pleaded guilty to the offence in November, handed the cash to Abrini on July 11 last year in a secret rendezvous around Small Heath Park.

The pair, both of Birmingham, were sentenced at Kingston Crown Court, south-west London, on Monday.

Mr Justice Baker sentenced Ahmed to eight years in jail plus an additional year on licence, to serve a minimum of four years before being able to apply for parole.

Boufassil was handed a three-year custodial term plus an additional year on licence and will be eligible to apply for parole after serving a minimum of 18 months.

In sentencing, the judge said Ahmed was motivated by "extreme Islamist beliefs" but deemed Boufassil's role to be "more limited".

However, after an earlier reporting restriction was lifted, it was able to be disclosed that Boufassil claimed he was recruited by MI5 after the July exchange with Abrini, who is also wanted by French authorities over a suspected role in the November 2015 Paris attacks.

It can now be reported Boufassil alleged he was contacted by MI5 personnel after the meeting and given up to £3,000 in exchange for information.

His lawyer, Dorian Lovell-Pank QC, had argued, in the absence of jurors, it was important for them to know about the apparent MI5 link as it showed the Belgian national did not hold any allegiance to a particular terrorist movement or cause.

Following a number of meetings agents allegedly gave him money - up to £3,000, which he used to buy a return flight to see his girlfriend in Casablanca - along with clothes and his favourite cigarettes, the court heard.

But when he returned from Morocco via Marrakesh in April he was arrested at Gatwick by counter-terrorism officers.

Mr Lovell-Pank said: "Zakaria Boufassil feels that he was effectively picked up by MI5 and 'pumped and dumped'.

"He feels he may have ceased to be of any use to them and as a result was effectively thrown to the wolves, which is in fact what happened."

Karen Robinson, prosecuting, said she could neither "confirm nor deny" the claims about MI5, and the judge ruled them inadmissible and stopped them being used as evidence in his defence.

At the sentencing hearing on Monday, Mr Lovell-Pank submitted Boufassil was "little more than an errand boy".

It came after Crown prosecutor Max Hill QC said Abrini had identified Ahmed as the man who led him to the forest meeting and Boufassil as the one who handed him the money after asking who sent him, explaining he had to "verify with Syria that he was not an imposter".

The court heard Ahmed took money from an account held by Anouar Haddouchi, an associate who previously lived in Birmingham and had travelled to Syria to fight for Islamic State, into which overpaid housing benefits totalling £5,413 had been paid between December 21 2014 and November 1 2015.

But Ahmed's barrister, Stephen Kamlish QC, said his client changed his mind about travelling to Syria and "was more of a dreamer, in this respect, than a doer".

Mr Justice Baker seemed to disagree, telling the offender: "I am sure that you are an individual who has for some time and continues to hold extreme Islamist beliefs, and that you are committed to the cause of Islamic State."

While both men supplied the cash, Mr Justice Baker noted Ahmed's offending also included participating in physical training and researching "secure methods" by which he and Boufassil's sister Soumaya could travel to Syria "undetected".

Head of CPS special crime and counter terrorism division, Sue Hemming, welcomed the sentences and said it was "clear that you do not need to leave the country to be prosecuted" for such offences.

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