Khalid Zerkani, Brussels’ jihadist preacher who ‘perverted a generation’
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Thursday’s arrest near Paris of a man alleged to have been in the “advanced stages” of plotting a terrorist attack has cast the spotlight back on a Brussels-based jihadist recruitment network that Belgian authorities cracked but failed to neutralise.
Reda Kriket, whom French police arrested in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil on Thursday, had been convicted in absentia by Belgian authorities for his role in the so-called “Zerkani network” – which radicalised Muslim youths and pushed them to wage jihad in Syria.
The network’s leader, radical preacher Khalid Zerkani, has been described by Belgian investigators as the country’s “biggest recruiter” of jihadist fighters.
The Moroccan-born Belgian national operated from underground mosques in the now notorious Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, which has been linked to a string of terrorist attacks ranging from the 2001 killing of Afghan hero Ahmad Shah Massoud to the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Zerkani, 42, ran a network of petty criminals and used the proceeds to send jihadists to Syria. His long beard and habit of allowing thieves to keep part of the spoils earned him the nickname “Father Christmas”.
The radical preacher is known for his secrecy, including the use of coded speech to avoid detection, and his violent aversion to all things “kuffar” (infidel).
In addition to Kriket, Zerkani’s associates included Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the November 13 attacks in Paris, and Najim Laachraoui, one of the suicide bombers who struck Brussels’ airport on Tuesday, March 22.
Trial in absentia
Belgian prosecutors launched an investigation into the Zerkani network in April 2012. Its members were monitored but allowed to move freely for the next two years, until Belgian police carried out several round-ups at the start of 2014.
In the meantime, several of the network’s members were able to move backwards and forwards between Belgium and Syria, where they joined jihadist outfits such as the Islamic State (IS) group.
When their trial opened in Brussels in the spring of 2015, only 13 of the 32 accused were present, including Zerkani. The remaining 19 were presumed to be in Syria or to have died there.
Among them were Kriket and Abaaoud. The former, a 34-year-old French national, was condemned in absentia to ten years for recruiting jihadist fighters. Abaaoud, who would later be killed in a dramatic police raid five days after the Paris attacks, was handed a 20-year sentence.
Others sentenced in absentia included Chakib Akrouh, who took part in the Paris attacks and blew himself up in the police raid that resulted in Abaaoud’s death.
Akrouh is believed to have travelled to Syria in September 2012 with Gelel Attar, a Belgian national who was given a five-year jail sentence in Brussels and was later arrested in Morocco on January 15, 2016.
As for Zerkani, he was jailed for 12 years for his part in recruiting would-be jihadists and sending them to Syria. Judges are due to rule on his appeal on April 14.
'Perverted' youth of Molenbeek
“Mr Zerkani has perverted a whole generation, particularly the youth of Molenbeek,” said prosecutor Bernard Michel on February 18, calling for Zerkani’s jail sentence to be raised to 15 years in the forthcoming appeal.
The radical preacher has strenuously denied all accusations levelled at him.
He was also involved in a second trial earlier this year, in which Belgian prosecutors requested jail terms of between two and 15 years for 30 alleged members of another jihadist cell linked to Zerkani.
The accused included Laachraoui, the suspected bomb maker for both the Paris and Brussels attacks, who blew himself up in the Belgian capital’s airport on March 22. The court’s ruling is expected on May 3.
At the start of the trial, Zerkani obtained the right to be tried separately. His prosecution will begin once the court of appeal has ruled on his first conviction.
Belgian officials estimate that some 500 people have left the country to wage jihad in Iraq and Syria, the highest number per capita in all of Europe.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)