10 December was the last day of one of Europe’s biggest and most ambitious terrorism trials ever, taking place in the Belgian city of Antwerp. The prosecution wants radical Muslim organization Sharia4Belgium declared a terrorist group and is out to convict members for war crimes in Syria. A verdict is expected in January next year.
Focus on Belgium:
The court case opened on 29 September in the northern Belgian city of Antwerp, under tight security. Some 46 people stood trial for terrorism. Only nine have actually been present during the proceedings, including the alleged leader of Sharia4Belgium, Fouad Belkacem, also known under his nom de guerre Abu Imran. The rest are believed to be dead or still fighting in Syria or Iraq for the group now calling itself the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL), or for other extremist militias.
“It could very well be that they are dead,” Belgian public prosecutor Ann Fransen said in court, “but we have no certain confirmation of this. It could be that they have simulated their deaths to avoid prosecution.”
A two-year investigation
The investigation into Sharia4Belgium has lasted for more than two years. Now, the prosecution hopes to have Belkacem convicted as a terrorist leader and to have Sharia4Belgium declared a terrorist group. The prosecution claims group members, including dozens of young Muslims it sent, have taken part in “terrorist activities” in Syria. The prosecution also claims to have a confession from one of the accused – 22-year-old Hakim Elouassaki – of killing a man, a claim that his defence attorney rejects.
The prosecution says Belgian police confronted Hakim with a recording of a wiretapped phone conversation they claim was between Elouassaki and his girlfriend while he was in Syria. The voice on the tape says: “Guess what? I have killed a man today. He was an unbeliever that was captured long before. His family only raised 30,000 euros for him, while they had to pay 70,000 to set him free. I killed him with a bullet in the head. Bang! I wanted to film it, but my camera was badly placed so that went wrong.”
Police said Elouassaki at first denied killing anyone, claiming he just made up the story to impress his girlfriend. However, the prosecution says he changed his story a couple of weeks before the trial, claiming he had to carry out the murder or he would have been killed himself for disobeying an order. According to the Belgian daily Het Laatste Nieuws, Elouassaki’s lawyer dismisses any such confession as meaningless, since Elouassaki suffered brain damage in a grenade attack. Elouassaki’s case has since been separated from the main trial.
Phone taps and video images
The prosecution has also been presenting other evidence at the trial, including wiretaps and video images they claim show suspected Belgian fighters involved in executions. Numerous news reports also refer to such videos. In a video obtained by the French magazine Paris-Match and posted online, three men identified as Belgians are shown removing dead bodies after a massacre in the Syrian town of Hraytan near Aleppo. Another video shows a man being beheaded. The killers in the latter video speak French and Dutch with a distinct Flemish (Belgian) accent.
One of the defendants, Jejoen Bontinck, has also been a key witness for the prosecution. Bontinck went to Syria as a teenager and has claimed he only went to help distribute humanitarian aid, while the prosecution accuses him of going to Syria to fight.
He has been quoted as saying that he soon wanted to return home, resulting in his detention by his Belgian ex-confederates for suspected disloyalty. At that time, the Belgians were allegedly fighting for a group called Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen. Bontinck has claimed that the same group – believed led by a Dutch jihadist named Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi (a nom de guerre hinting at Moroccan roots) – also held several Western journalists, including American James Foley, who was beheaded in August, and John Cantlie, a British hostage.
The credibility of Bontinck has been a central topic in court. The lawyer of Houssien Elouassaki, Abderrahim Lahlali, stated that there is no evidence that Bontinck was ever held captive.
“A central recruiter”
In court, Belgian prosecutor Fransen described Belkacem, who they say is the Sharia4Belgium leader, as a key recruiter who actively used both lectures and social media. As the first day of the trial drew to a close, the mother of Brian De Mulder – one of the young Belgians believed to be fighting in Syria – was removed from the courtroom after yelling at Belkacem, calling him a bastard, saying that he had turned her life into hell and that he should go to hell himself. The outburst came from a mother who says she now has virtually no contact with her son, a Belgian-Brazilian who converted to Islam and turned radical after joining Sharia4Belgium. Currently, he and many of the other Belgian recruits are believed to be fighting as part of the forces of the self-declared Islamic State.
During the trial, several parents have made similar remarks. In late November, as the trial nearing the end, the mother of Brian De Mulder – a Brazilian-Belgian who has left for Syria – attacked Belkacem. “I have lost everything: my house, my job and my son”, the mother, Ozana Rodrigues Viana, said, adding that she would never give up on her son, and that she hoped Belkacem would be punished in hell.
On the last day of the trial, Belkacem’s lawyer John Maes said that Belkacem may have been provocative, but that he never intended to become a terrorist or form a terrorist organization and never encouraged youngsters to go to Syria to fight. Fouad Belkacem also spoke himself. “I am no terrorist”, he said, “and I have not sent anyone to Syria. We would much rather see all those youngsters remaining here. We simply wanted to show who we were, what we stood for. Is it such a crime to promote your faith?”. Three other defendants, Michael Delefortrie, Mohamed El Youssofi and Elias Taketloune also spoke, all of them stating that they had not gone to Syria upon Sharia4Belgium’s request, and that they regretted their decisions. “I am sorry that I abandoned my family, and left my job,” Elias Taketloune said. “I have two young children. I hope that you will give my family and me a chance.”
Belgium has seen a relatively large number of people go to Syria to fight. In July, independent researcher Pieter van Ostaeyen estimated that 385 Belgian citizens or residents are taking part in the Syrian civil war. At least 50 of them are in some way affiliated with Sharia4Belgium, van Ostaeyen writes on his blog.
“In total, at least 50 Belgians are affiliated with the Islamic State, eight are linked to Jabhat an-Nusra, one with Kata’ib Al Muhajireen Fi Ard Sham, the previously mentioned one with Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa’l-Ansar, one is linked to Liwa Shuhada Idlib, one is affiliated with Faylaq as-Sham and 10 are linked to Suqur as-Sham,” he wrote. In reality, the numbers fighting for various Islamist militias are likely to be higher. One Belgian is also believed to be fighting for the Syrian regime. At the time of that post, 32 Belgians were believed killed.
In a March interview with Hate Speech International, Belgian journalist Guy Van Vlierden, who has written extensively on extreme Islamism in his country, said he believes Sharia4Belgium became a major factor in the high number of Belgian recruits.
“In the beginning, few outsiders, including the authorities, took them seriously enough,” he said. “They were seen as a loud-mouthed, but rather innocent group. Before the authorities reacted, they had hundreds of young supporters. When the authorities did react, these youngsters were sufficiently radicalized to see this as an additional motivation. When preaching on the streets, disrupting lectures and similar activities were no longer possible, the young Muslims came to see fighting in Syria as an even better way of getting involved.”
Belgium is also the first European country to have been targeted in a successful terrorist attack that appears to be connected to ISIS. A suspected former ISIS fighter – Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche – is accused of opening fire at visitors and staff at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May, killing four.
Recently, Rachid El Boukhari, a Moroccan Sunni Muslim, was convicted to 27 years imprisonment in an unrelated case. In March 2012, El Boukhari stormed into the Shiite Rida mosque in the Anderlecht area of Brussels, wielding an axe and a knife, spreading a flammable liquid on the floor and then setting it on fire. The mosque’s imam, Abdullah Dadou, died of smoke inhalation after fighting the fire. According to the Belgian news agency Belga, El Boukhari told the court that he did not intend to kill anyone, but just wanted the Shiites to wake up to abuses suffered by Sunnis under President Bashar al-Assad, who is member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. His attack has no apparent connection to Sharia4Belgium and Fouad Belkacem has dismissed him as “unstable”. El Boukhari was not found guilty on terrorism charges.