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Belgium sentences 'jihadi recruiter'

April 14, 2016

A Belgian court has sentenced the so-called "Emir of Molenbeek" to 15 years for recruiting suspects in the Brussels and Paris attacks. Another judge has extended the detention of Brussels attack suspect Mohamed Abrini.

Police security officers stand guard at the entrance of the appeal court of Brussels, in the case of Khalid Zerkani, jihadist recruiter
Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Maeterlinck

An appeals court in Brussels extended the sentence for the radical Islamist recruiter Khalid Zerkani on Thursday, upping his prison time by three years.

Federal Prosecutor Bernard Michel described Zerkani as "the biggest recruiter of jihadis Belgium has ever known."

Court documents showed his network of recruits included Brussels airport suicide bomber Najim Laachraoui and Paris attacks ringleader Abdelhamid Abbaoud. Both attacks killed a total of 162 people.

The 42-year-old, Moroccan-born Zerkani was originally jailed in July 2015 and sentenced to 12 years for radicalizing young men and sending them to Syria to join the militant group "Islamic State" (IS).

"He actively recruited young men, took care of logistics and the necessary finances, and even while in prison, he has called on inmates to join the jihad," said prosecutor Michel in mid-February.

US Naval War College researcher Nicholas Glavin remarked on Twitter that Zerkani's recruitment was not limited to IS, but may have included al-Shabab as well.

Previously based in Molenbeek, Zerkani was called several things: "guru," "mentor" and even "Santa Claus" because of his long hair and disheveled beard.

"He's the emir, the leader...," a suspect told investigators in a deposition which was leaked to Belgian daily La Derniere Heure.

'Man in the hat' kept behind bars

Another Belgian court on Thursday prolonged the detention of a surviving bomber from last month's Brussels attacks. He will remain in custody on Brussels charges, while a hearing on French charges for his involvement in the Paris attacks was postponed until May 26.

Mohamed Abrini, arrested on April 8, confessed to being the "man in the hat," one of three bombers who targeted the Brussels airport during the March 22 attacks. On Sunday, he was charged with terrorist murders, attempted terrorist murders, and participation in a terrorist group.

The Belgian court also handed down one month extensions of the detentions of six other men who were connected to the Brussels attacks.

One of the detainees, 23-year-old Swedish national Osama Krayem, is suspected of having been present at the attack on the Maelbeek subway station and of having purchased bags used in the airport attack.

The others who will remain in custody include four more suspects charged in the Brussels attacks as well as one man who was accused of aiding the escape of key Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam.

rs/kms (AP, AFP, dpa)

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