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Terrorism

'Sharia4Belgium' jihadist terror trial begins in Antwerp

The trial against suspected terror organization "Sharia4Belgium" got under way in Antwerp, Belgium. The group is accused of enlisting youths to send to Syria. Some say the state turned a blind eye to the group.

In a jam-packed courtroom in the Belgian city of Anwerp this week, two mothers sat quietly crying. One because her son is one of 46 accused "Sharia4Belgium" members. The other because her son is apparently still fighting for radical Islamists in Syria. The latter uses every break in the trial to vent her anger and explain how the group "Sharia4Belgium" seduced her son into joining the "holy war."

In the middle of the trial, a third mother, whose son is also missing, stood up from her seat and shouted to the organization's alleged founder, "You're a terrorist and responsible for my son and you'll pay for it!" Fouad Belkacem, 32, was brought into the court room, handcuffed, and smiled disparagingly while four police officers led the woman outside.

Converted by hate speeches

Fouad Belkacem

Defendant Fouad Belkacemgives a disparaging smile in court

The trial to determine whether Belkacem is actually the founder of a terror organization will be Belgium's largest terrorism ever. Belkacem allegedly had a key role in sending many young men to fight for terrorist organizations such as "Islamic state" (IS) or the Nusra Front.

According to prosecuting attorney Ann Franssen, there are indications that the organization used hate speeches to fuel violence among their members. The leading members of the group, including Belkacem, could now face a prison sentence of between 15 and 20 years for belonging to a terrorist organization.

Since an attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels at the end of May, the main concern has been that on returning to Belgium, radicalized and battle-hardened youths could also bring terrorism home with them. During the attack, two Israeli tourists, a French woman and a Belgian were killed. The alleged bomber was a French Islamist with who had spent time in Syria. Observers of the trial in Antwerp have said they believe the Belgian government wants to use the trial to dissuade potential copycats.

Islamist hub

According to the anti-terror coordinator of the European Union (EU), Gilles de Kerchove, there are currently some 3,000 Europeans fighting for Islamists in Syria and Iraq. Belgian authorities alone have estimated to have 300 to 400 self-proclaimed "holy warriors." In terms of the total population of 11 million people, that's the highest rate in Europe. According to the prosecution, a tenth of these Belgian jihadists alone were enlisted with the organization "Sharia4Belgium."

Jejoen Bontinck

Jejoen Bontinck - difficult evidence

Evidence to prove this in court, however, is difficult to come by, and the prosecution is largely based on circumstantial evidence, including phone calls, analysis of Facebook pages, and statements from "Sharia4Belgium" member Jejoen Bontinck, who is currently appearing in court both as a defendant and a witness.

Defense blames Belgian state

During the trial, Belkacem's lawyers are striving to play down his role in the organization, claiming that the Internet videos showing the former car mechanic called on followers to destroy Brussels' Atomium landmark and to establish a caliphate are neither more or less provocative than videos by the women's activist groups Femen or Pussy Riot. The defense lawyers have also blamed the Belgian state for making it possible for minors to travel to the crisis region in the first place.

This evaluation was also shared by former social worker Peter Calluy, who has known Belkacem since childhood and was following the trial from the public gallery. Although Calluy didn't agree that the failure of the Belgian state excuses the defendants, the fact that the state allowed an organization like "Sharia4Belgium" to exist for such a long time remains a mystery to him. According to Calluy, he had warned authorities about the hate preacher Belkacem some 10 years ago, but nothing was done.

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