Courtesy of The Clarion Project (www.clarionproject.org):
Belgium’s largest-ever terrorism trial has begun under tight security in the port city of Antwerp, where 46 members of the Islamist group Sharia4Belgium are being accused of recruiting dozens of young Muslims to fight for the jihadist group, Islamic State.
Sharia4Belgium, a radical Salafist group, was founded in 2010 with the purpose of implementing Islamic Sharia law in Belgium. The group generated controversy in September 2011, when it announced the opening of a Sharia Law court in Antwerp, the second-largest city in Belgium.
Although Sharia4Belgium announced its voluntary dissolution in 2012, when some of its leaders were imprisoned, Belgian authorities say it has continued to operate underground to recruit and funnel jihadists.
Belgium is a key source of European jihadists: Some 400 Belgian nationals are now estimated to have travelled to join jihadist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. Of these, approximately 10% have been recruited by Sharia4Belgium, according to Belgian prosecutors.
Sixteen of the 46 defendants are charged with being leaders of Sharia4Belgium and face up to 15 years in prison, as well as fines of €30,000 ($38,000). The other 30 are charged with being members of the group and face sentences ranging from 12 months on probation to ten years in prison.
Only nine of the accused have appeared in court, however; the rest are believed either to be still fighting in Syria or to have been killed.
On the first day of the trial, which began on September 29, prosecutors told the Antwerp Criminal Court how members of Sharia4Belgium approach young men and women on the streets of Antwerp and Vilvoorde, a town just north of Brussels, and invite them to private meeting places in Antwerp.
Once in Antwerp, prosecutors say, the recruits are indoctrinated into jihadist ideology through intensive guided studies of the Koran and sustained exposure to Islamist literature. After their “brainwashing” into the subculture of Islamism, they are trained to become Syriëstrijder or “Syria warriors.”
“The activities of Sharia4Belgium are clearly aimed at violent struggle in Belgium and abroad,” Luc Festraets, one of the prosecutors, told the court. “Other religious groups are to be threatened and political regimes are to be overthrown,” he added, referring to Sharia4Belgium’s anti-Western propaganda.
According to prosecutors, Sharia4Belgium’s members are recruited through social media, but also by means of so-called street dawah. Dawah (Arabic for “invitation” or “summons”) refers to proselytizing, calling people to embrace Islam. Muslim preachers doing street dawah have become increasingly commonplace in towns and cities across Europe and have emerged as a key means to expose, convert and recruit European youth to militant Islam.