ANTWERP, Belgium (AFP) — A Belgian group suspected of recruiting European jihadist fighters to travel to Syria is linked to the Islamic State militant organization, prosecutors said Monday.
Forty-six alleged members of Sharia4Belgium, most of them still at large, went on trial in the northern port city of Antwerp on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization.
“Many of the leading figures went to Syria. Many went to fight with Al-Nusra and IS (Islamic State),” state prosecutor Ann Fransen told the court.
The United States is leading coalition airstrikes against Islamic State targets in both Iraq and Syria, where the organization proclaimed a caliphate in June.
Fransen traced the founding of Sharia4Belgium back to 2010 in Antwerp, describing how it held “provocative” press conferences where Western-style democracy was reviled and demonstrations turned into riots.
“There are indications that this movement, Sharia4Belgium, has incited violence with its messages of hate,” she said, calling it a “terrorist” group.
All these activities “can only be interpreted as a call to armed jihad,” she charged.
The trial opened Monday under armed police guard at the court in Antwerp where 16 people alleged to be Sharia4Belgium members, including its head Fouad Belkacem, are being tried on charges of leading a terrorist organisation.
If convicted, they could face 20 years in prison.
In an open letter to the press, Belkacem recently denied all the charges, saying he had “never recruited, incited or sent” fighters to Syria.
Prosecutors say, however, that another of the accused, Jejoen Bontinck, aged 19 and a convert to Islam, had told them he considered Belkacem to be his “spiritual leader.”
Bontinck went to Syria in 2012 but was brought home by his father in a case which has become celebrated in Belgium, where there is growing concern over the number of fighters who have made their way to Syria.
Sensationally, as a key witness for the prosecution, he has accused his co-defendants with having detained and tortured him while he was in Syria, during which time he claims he shared a cell with US journalist Kevin Foley, who was beheaded by IS.
Bontinck, sporting a well-trimmed beard and wearing a white shirt, arrived in court with his father.
Besides the 16 charged with leading Sharia4Belgium, the remaining 30 face charges of belonging to the group.
However, only eight defendants are present in court with most of the rest believed to be in Syria where some of them may have been killed, according to the federal justice office.
Investigators said Belkacem never traveled to Syria, unlike most of the members of the group, but he was the “catalyst” who prompted many to go and fight there.
Sharia4Belgium campaigned for the introduction of Sharia Islamic law in Belgium. In 2012, it said it was disbanding but the authorities suspect that it has continued to recruit dozens of volunteers to fight in Syria.
Officials say that between 300 and 400 Belgian nationals may have gone to fight in Syria, with about a quarter having returned home.
They say about 10 percent of those who went to Syria were members of or linked to the Salafist group.
The trial comes five months after a deadly attack on the Jewish museum in the center of Brussels raised fears of a resurgence of anti-Semitic violence in Europe and of terror strikes from foreign fighters returning from Syria.
The main suspect in the attack which left four people dead is a Frenchman, Mehdi Nemmouche, who spent more than a year fighting with Islamist extremists in Syria and is now also being held in Belgium on charges of “murder in a terrorist context.”