A Belgian court ruled on Wednesday that Sharia4Belgium, an Islamist group accused of running a jihadist recruitment cell in the country, was "a terrorist organization" and found 45 members guilty of terror charges.
The correctional tribunal in the port city of Antwerp sentenced Fouad Belkacem, the group's 32-year-old leader who goes by the alias "Abu Imran," to 12 years in prison. The other 44 members on trial were sentenced to between three and 15 years in jail, with some of the sentences being suspended.
This is the biggest-ever trial of its kind in Belgium. Only seven defendants were present in court, with the remainder believed to be either dead or still fighting in Syria. The photograph above shows Michael 'Younes' Delefortrie outside the main entrance of the courthouse.
Sharia4Belgium — a group once credited with being a major source of Belgian jihadists to Syria — disbanded in 2012 when Belkacem was arrested and sentenced to two years for inciting hatred and violence towards non-Muslims. But, according to the court, the organization continued to operate as a recruitment cell into 2013.
Belkacem, who has been described by public prosecutor Ann Fransen as "the group's undisputed ringleader," is no stranger to the courts and he has been arrested several times in the past for theft.
"Belkacem is responsible for the radicalization of young men to prepare them for Salafist combat, which has at its core no place for democratic values," Judge Luc Potargent said on Wednesday.
The trial took place amid a wider debate on escalating radicalization in Europe. It opened in September 2014, four months after a French national with links to militant groups opened fire in the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, killing four people. Wednesday's verdict also comes in the wake of the Paris terror attacks that left 17 dead in early January.
There have been several high-profile police raids against suspected jihadist networks since then, including a shootout in the eastern Belgian town of Verviers, when counter-terrorist units reportedly foiled a jihadist plot to stage a major terror attack.
It has been estimated that 450 Belgian nationals could be fighting in Iraq or Syria. On those figures, Belgium has one of Europe's highest per capita ratio of jihadists fighters overseas.
"Sharia4Belgium recruited young men for armed combat and organized their departure for Syria," the judge at the correctional tribunal said.
According to reports, Sharia4Belgium was responsible for 10 percent of these departures. Romain Caillet, a researcher and specialist in Islamic movements based in Beirut, told VICE News that most of the group's recruits are believed to be fighting alongside the al Nusra Front — al Qaeda's branch in Syria.
Sharia4Belgium was a Salafist group that followed in the footsteps of Islam4UK, a UK-based organization formed in 2008 by radical preachers Omar Bakri and Anjem Choudary. Offshoots of the group were subsequently opened in Holland, Denmark, and even in the US. The Belgian version surfaced around the 2010 parliamentary elections and established itself in the northern city of Antwerp.
Belgian sociologist and religions expert Felice Dassetto told VICE News that the group was born of a shared vision with its UK counterpart: "Sharia4Belgium is a classic radical movement which promotes a pro-sharia ideology. According to the movement, a true Muslim must display the religion in the public space, [it is] a political vision of religion."
As its name implies, the group's ambition was to impose sharia law throughout Belgium. In the past, the group has declared Belgian elections illegal and threatened to destroy the Atomium tourist attraction in Brussels. The group also criticized France's full-veil ban, saying it would support any woman who chose to wear a full-body veil in public.
In June 2011, a few months after protesters in Paris staged a demonstration against the French ban on face covering, VICE interviewed Belkacem. At the time, he described himself as "a spokesman" for both Sharia4Belgium and Sharia4Holland. "We're tired of people constantly attacking our Ummah," he said, referring to the worldwide Islamic community. "It's not fair. No one is listening to us."
At the time, Belkacem denied being at the head of a terror cell. "We want to fulfill Allah's wish — that's our mission," he explained. "The true religion must dominate the world. Of course, I mean Islam. We want out message to be clear. Islam does not compromise. We don't beat about the bush. We openly affirm the supremacy of Islam in the world."
"We don't believe in the separation of church and State. Look at what this democracy has brought us: nothing but economic crisis. Our country has had no government in a year. How can we still be boasting the values of democracy?"
There are several theories about why Belgium produces so many militants. For Montasser AlDe'emeh, a researcher who has been studying the Belgian jihadist movement, tensions between the Flemish and the Walloon communities in the country and the ensuing lack of national unity are a factor of radicalization.
"We live in a divided country," AlDe'emeh told Germany's Der Spiegel. "The obvious structure of an Islamic theocracy seems more and more alluring."
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud @meloboucho