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Belgian court sentences jihadist recruiter to 15 years in prison

Nicolas Maeterlinck, BELGA, AFP | Police security officers stand guard at the entrance to the appeals court of Brussels, in the case of Khalid Zerkani

A Belgian appeals court sentenced Khalid Zerkani to 15 years in prison on Thursday for his role as the head of the so-called “Zerkani network” in Brussels, which radicalised and then sent young Muslims to wage jihad in Syria.

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Zerkani, 42, has been described by Belgian prosecutors in the past as the country’s “biggest recruiter” of jihadist fighters.

He was originally sentenced to 12 years behind bars in July 2015. But on Thursday, an appeals court in Brussels increased his prison term after convicting him of recruiting dozens of prospective 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 assaults in Paris and Brussels.

Zerkani 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).

Zerkani’s associates include Reda Kriket, who was arrested last month near Paris in the “advanced stages” of plotting an attack ,as well as Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the November 13 attacks in Paris, and Najim Laachraoui, one of the suicide bombers who struck the Brussels airport on Tuesday, March 22.

"He's the emir, the leader...", a suspect identified as Yacine E. told investigators in a deposition leaked to Belgian daily La Derniere Heure.

‘Perverted a whole generation’

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.

Zerkani was imprisoned for 12 years for his part in recruiting would-be jihadists and sending them to Syria.

Zerkani appealed the decision, prompting federal prosecutor Bernard Michel to call for his prison sentence to be raised to 15 years. “Mr Zerkani has perverted a whole generation, particularly the youth of Molenbeek,” Michel said on February 18.

But 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. The prosecution against him can proceed now that the appeals court 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 AFP, REUTERS)

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