Brussels jihadists: Belgian recruiter Zerkani given longer term

Police at a raid in Molenbeek, 18 March 2016 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Belgian security forces have been breaking up jihadist networks

Khaled Zerkani has been given 15 years in jail by a Belgian appeal court for recruiting Islamists, including some of the Paris and Brussels attackers.

He was jailed last July for 12 years but prosecutors called for a longer sentence, arguing he had corrupted entire communities of youth.

Among his recruits were Paris attackers Abdelhamid Abaaoud and Chakib Akrouh, and Brussels bomber Najim Laachraoui.

Zerkani's fellow recruiter Fatima Aberkane was also given 15 years.

Based in the Brussels area of Molenbeek, Zerkani was seen as guru of a network that from 2012 to 2014 recruited jihadists to fight in Syria.

When police dismantled the network and put 32 people on trial, at least half of them were tried in absentia because they had travelled to Syria and some of them had died there.

'Santa Claus'

According to court files Khalid Zerkani would not only preach to would-be jihadists but would put them in touch with smugglers in Turkey who would transport them into Syria, and would dole out stolen gifts to them - earning himself the nickname Papa Noel - Santa Claus.

In February, federal prosecutor Bernard Michel told the Brussels court of appeal that Zerkani was "the biggest recruiter of candidates for jihad" that Belgium had known. He also had direct mobile contact with so-called Islamic State, he said.

Thirty-two people were killed in the 22 March bomb attacks on Brussels airport and Maelbeek metro station, four days after Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam was caught near his home in Molenbeek. He had been on the run for four months.

Image copyright Belgian police/Het Nieuwsblad
Image caption Salah Abdeslam, shown here before and after his arrest, was caught by police four days before Brussels airport and metro were bombed

In a separate development on Thursday, German media reports said documents about a nuclear research centre near the Belgian border had been found at Salah Abdeslam's flat in Molenbeek.

The suspect, captured four days before the Brussels bombings, had internet print-outs and photos of the centre's chairman, media network RND said.

However, German intelligence officials insisted the report is incorrect. The Juelich research centre has also put out a statement saying it had no indication of any threat.

Juelich's reactor has been decommissioned and German officials insist all nuclear plants are safe from terror attack.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption There was tight security in Brussels as a closed court session extended the detention of seven suspects

More on Brussels attacks

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Media captionBrussels explosions: Timeline of events

There was tight security on Thursday when another court in Brussels ordered that six suspects held in connection with the attacks in Brussels, and one detained over the November attacks on Paris, should be further remanded in custody.

Mohammed Abrini, who also went on the run after the Paris attacks, has been identified by prosecutors as the third airport bomber. He is said to have told police he deliberately failed to detonate his explosives. "I've never been to Syria, I wouldn't harm a fly," he said, according to Belgian daily SudPresse.

The abandoned bomb, prosecutors said at the time, exploded after the security forces had secured the scene and nobody was hurt, they added.

The other suspects remanded are:

  • Swedish national Osama Krayem is suspected of buying the suitcases used to carry the Brussels bombs. He was also caught on CCTV with metro bomber Khalid el-Bakraoui shortly before he blew himself up - his lawyer told reporters on Thursday that Osama Krayem was co-operating with authorities
  • Belgian brothers Smail and Ibrahim Farisi are linked to a "safe house" in central Brussels used by suicide bomber Khalid el-Bakraoui
  • Belgian Bilal el-Makhoukhi and Rwandan national Herve BM, are being also held over the Brussels bombings

Another Belgian suspect has had his detention extended in connection with the Paris attacks. Hamza A is suspected of helping Salah Abdeslam return to Belgium on 14 November.

'Step aside'

The Brussels attacks have prompted a deepening political row in Belgium, after leaked EU reports from 2011 and 2015 highlighted flaws in security at the country's airports.

Belgian federal transport agency chief Laurent Ledoux has resigned, complaining of a lack of funding from the Transport Minister, Jacqueline Galant.

He told Belgian radio station RTL that by stepping down he was doing what Ms Galant herself should have done - "take responsibility and step aside".

Mr Ledoux said he had asked the minister in February for extra funding and staff to carry out security checks but she and her staff had refused to listen. However, he said it would be absurd to blame the minister for attacks.

The 2015 European Commission report, published by public broadcaster RTBF (in French), cited "serious deficiencies" and said airport security programmes, air carriers and suppliers were "not adequately monitored".

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