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.
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.