The leader of a jihadist recruitment effort in Belgium has been jailed by the Belgian courts, in a precedent-setting case. In Antwerp, a judge found 45 members of “Sharia4Belgium,” a group which promoted radical Islamism and recruited Europeans for fighting for ISIS (Islamic State), guilty of terrorism-related crimes. The group’s leader, Fouad Belkacem, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Another high-level member of the group, 20-year-old Jejoen Bontinck, received a suspended sentence of 40 months. Bontinck ‘s particular case had caused media sensation in the country – his own father traveled to Syria to bring him back home and ultimately testified on behalf of the prosecution, claiming that his son had been brainwashed by Sharia4Belgium and presented no threat in and of himself. Of all the accused, 38 were tried in absentia, most of them assumed to be in the Middle East or even dead. However, Belgian law allows for the trial of possibly-deceased individuals, if there is not enough evidence to prove death.
Belkacem was accused of locating and brainwashing tens of emotionally vulnerable adolescent men with the goal of sending them to fight for jihadist groups in Syria. His tools included spoken lectures and social media. The prosecution presented as evidence video and voice evidence which proved the nefarious goals of Belkacem and his group Sharia4Belgium. He denied the charges against him, arguing that he “never recruited, incited or sent” fighters to Syria.
Statistics show that approximately 350 Belgian nationals have already traveled to Syria and Iraq for Islamist militant purposes – which makes it the biggest such population in Europe per capita. The fear of European officials and civilians alike is that these radicalized fighters could return home and carry out terrorist attacks. The Sharia4Belgium trial began in September of 2014 and since then garnered a lot of media attention, due to ISIS’ shocking continued executions of Westerners caught in their grip.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January of this year, Belgian authorities deployed troops throughout the country in order to protect potential targets of terrorist attacks. In addition, they carried out raids on suspected terrorist cells.