Belgium's largest-ever terrorism trial has begun under tight security in the port city of Antwerp, where 46 members of the Islamist group Sharia4Belgium are being accused of recruiting dozens of young Muslims to fight for the jihadist group, Islamic State.
Sharia4Belgium, a radical Salafist group, was founded in 2010 with the purpose of implementing Islamic Sharia law in Belgium. The group generated controversy in September 2011, when it announced the opening of a Sharia Law court in Antwerp, the second-largest city in Belgium.
Although Sharia4Belgium announced its voluntary dissolution in 2012, when some of its leaders were imprisoned, Belgian authorities say it has continued to operate underground to recruit and funnel jihadists.
Belgium is a key source of European jihadists: Some 400 Belgian nationals are now estimated to have travelled to join jihadist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. Of these, approximately 10% have been recruited by Sharia4Belgium, according to Belgian prosecutors.
Sixteen of the 46 defendants are charged with being leaders of Sharia4Belgium and face up to 15 years in prison, as well as fines of €30,000 ($38,000). The other 30 are charged with being members of the group and face sentences ranging from 12 months on probation to ten years in prison.
Only nine of the accused have appeared in court, however; the rest are believed either to be still fighting in Syria or to have been killed.
On the first day of the trial, which began on September 29, prosecutors told the Antwerp Criminal Court how members of Sharia4Belgium approach young men and women on the streets of Antwerp and Vilvoorde, a town just north of Brussels, and invite them to private meeting places in Antwerp.
Once in Antwerp, prosecutors say, the recruits are indoctrinated into jihadist ideology through intensive guided studies of the Koran and sustained exposure to Islamist literature. After their "brainwashing" into the subculture of Islamism, they are trained to become Syriëstrijder or "Syria warriors."
"The activities of Sharia4Belgium are clearly aimed at violent struggle in Belgium and abroad," Luc Festraets, one of the prosecutors, told the court. "Other religious groups are to be threatened and political regimes are to be overthrown," he added, referring to Sharia4Belgium's anti-Western propaganda.
According to prosecutors, Sharia4Belgium's members are recruited through social media, but also by means of so-called street dawah. Dawah (Arabic for "invitation" or "summons") refers to proselytizing, calling people to embrace Islam. Muslim preachers doing street dawah have become increasingly commonplace in towns and cities across Europe and have emerged as a key means to expose, convert and recruit European youth to militant Islam.
"The 'Dawas' are a very important recruiting tool for Sharia4Belgium," Festraets told the court. "This has occurred not only in Antwerp but also in Vilvoorde. Young people are indoctrinated through lessons and lectures about radical Islam."
Belgian prosecutors say the ringleader of Sharia4Belgium is Fouad Belkacem, a 32-year-old Belgian-born Islamist of Moroccan descent who also goes by the name Abu Imran. He is said to be close to the British Islamist Anjem Choudary, and prosecutors allege that Sharia4Belgium was actually inspired by Choudary after he declared that his Sharia4UK group should be replicated in other European countries.
Although Belkacem—who is being charged with leading a terrorist group—has not been accused of travelling to Syria himself, Belgian prosecutors say he is guilty of being a "catalyst" by encouraging others to go there.
Prosecutors presented the court with taped telephone conversations, as well as public speeches, street sermons and videos, in which Belkacem called for violence against the West and said that becoming a jihadist was the greatest act of submission to Allah.
"Belkacem is the one who has spread the ideology of jihadist Salafism, including through videos, to preach hatred and violence," Festraets said, adding: "During raids, police found Belkacem's material and also a text calling for armed struggle. He plays a leading role in the recruitment and indoctrination of youth. The clear aim was to prepare them for armed combat."
Festraets was referring to police raids that were conducted in April 2013 on the homes of 46 Islamists suspected of being linked to Sharia4Belgium. The raids took place in Antwerp and Brussels as well as in a number of smaller towns and suburbs in an operation involving more than 200 officers.
Another prosecutor, Ann Fransen, told the court about Sharia4Belgium's organizational structure and Belkacem's role as the group's "undisputed leader," who repeatedly incited Muslims to violence against non-Muslims. "Belkacem's words," she said, "can only be interpreted as a call to violence and jihad."
If he is found guilty, Belkacem—who is already serving a two-year prison sentence for incitement to hatred against non-Muslims—could face an additional 15 years in prison.
Separately, Belkacem also faces charges in connection with a June 2012 head-butting incident which occurred in the Sint-Jans-Molenbeek district of Brussels, where a young female convert to Islam named Stéphanie broke the nose and two teeth of a policewoman trying to enforce Belgium's burqa ban.
In a press conference the following day, Belkacem declared he was proud of the Muslim woman—who defied the burqa ban by being covered from head to toe—and advised the injured policewoman to seek cosmetic surgery because, "Western women like to position themselves as objects of desire."
Belkacem added that the police officers who confronted the Muslim woman became "enraged like dogs" and were "servants of Satan" trying to "make war on Muslims," but who will "never win in Belgium." He also had a message for the Belgian government:
"If you want to land in hell like all unbelievers that is your problem. But let us live the way we want. We do not have an ounce of respect for you, infidels, nor for the way you live. Our religion and way of life are superior to yours."
Another defendant in the Sharia4Belgium trial is Jejoen Bontinck, a 19-year-old Belgian convert to Islam who prosecutors allege was a core member of the group. He was arrested in Belgium in October 2013, shortly after returning home from a six-month stint as a jihadist in Syria.
Bontinck, who was raised in a Roman Catholic family, converted to Islam at age 15 when he became infatuated with a girl from Morocco. In 2013, after turning 18, he asked his parents if he could move to Cairo to study Islam. Soon afterward, however, it emerged that Jejoen had travelled not to Egypt but to Syria.
Bontinck's father, Dimitri, says he alerted Belgian authorities after he discovered that his son was in Syria, but they took no action. "They told me there is no law forbidding a child to be a member of this organization [the Sunni Muslim jihadist group al-Nusra]," Dimitri said at the time. "It is freedom of speech. It is freedom of religion. It is freedom of organization," he said the Belgian authorities told him.
In 2013, Dmitri, made headlines when he travelled to Syria—twice—to search for his son. After finally finding him, Dmitri escorted him back to Belgium.
The younger Bontinck has acknowledged that he travelled to Syria, but he says he was there as a humanitarian aid worker, delivering medical supplies, and not as a jihadist seeking combat experience. Jejoen also claims he was kidnapped by other Sharia4Belgium "comrades" in Syria. They delayed his return to Belgium, he says, making him a victim, not a perpetrator.
Jejoen is now a key witness for the prosecution, making him both a defendant and a plaintiff in the trial. He has reportedly provided the prosecution with information about the inside workings of Sharia4Belgium. Jejoen faces four years in prison for participating in terrorist activities and a fine of €6,000 ($7,800).
Another key defendant in the trial is Brian De Mulder, a 21-year-old Belgian who converted to Islam while still in high school, where he became radicalized after hearing Fouad Belkacem preaching on the streets of Antwerp. De Mulder left for Syria in January 2013.
Raised in a Roman Catholic family in Antwerp as the son of a mother who emigrated from Brazil, De Mulder also uses the nom de guerre Abu Qasem Brazili. In 2013, he was the subject of an article in Time magazine, which profiled his path to radicalization.
De Mulder is still in Syria, but his mother and sister were present at the trial in Antwerp. They blame Belkacem for indoctrinating Brian, transforming him from a normal teenager with "a golden heart" to "a programmed robot."
After prosecutors outlined their case against Belkacem, Brian's mother interrupted the trial by standing up and shouting, "I wish Belkacem, Mr. Fouad Belkacem, hell. That is all I want for him. He ruined my life and my family."
The trial goes on.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.