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It might seem like an unlikely place to begin a jihadi war with the West, but Antwerp, Belgium, is at the center of Europe’s biggest trial of young men accused of plotting violence in the name of Islam.
The trial began in September and verdicts were being delivered Wednesday in the prosecution of 46 alleged jihadis who are accused of travelling to Syria to fight for ISIS. Eight of them were arrested in Belgium while 38 others are still believed to be in Syria.
Fouad Belkacem, the 32-year-old head of Islamist group Sharia4Belgium, was jailed for 12 years after the court ruled his group was a terrorist organization that convinced young people to join jihadi fighters in the Middle East.
Jejoen Bontinck, a 20-year-old member of Sharia4Belgium who traveled to Syria, received a 40-month suspended sentence on Wednesday. Prosecutors had recommended he be jailed for four years but he received a much lighter sentence after providing evidence against his former fellow fighters.
Bontinck was raised as a Catholic, but at the age of 15 he fell for a Muslim girl and converted to Islam, preaching on the streets of Antwerp.
His father, Dimitri Bontinck, risked his own life by travelling to the war zone to find his son, and eventually managed to bring him home.
Speaking before the verdict, Jejoen Bontinck said there was no single reason why Belgium has become such a rich recruiting hub for extremist groups.
“Every person has his own reason (for going to Syria and Iraq)," he said in an interview last month. "For example, one might not feel at home anymore in his home country. The other one might have a criminal life and he’s being harassed 24/7. The other one might have family over there."
He added: “I don’t have any hate towards Belgium or America or Belgian citizens or American citizens, but I have hate towards the deeds of certain countries. For example, we see Guantanamo Bay ... and we cannot stand and act like it’s nothing.”
Belgian authorities say they are not only fighting a battle with extremism abroad, but at home. Last month, counter-terrorist officers said they had foiled a jihadi plot to stage a major attack in Belgium, which was alleged to be similar to the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. Two gunmen were killed in a shootout in the town of Verviers.
A higher proportion of people from Belgium have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight than from any other country — an estimated 350 individuals from a population of just 11 million. And the Antwerp trial is an example of a Europe-wide clampdown, with more prosecutions and tougher legislation being introduced in many countries to combat the rise of ISIS.
Of course, this is not just a Belgian problem, but an issue for all European countries. The war that has enticed youngsters from the streets of Antwerp to the battlefields of Aleppo has drawn combatants from almost every Western country. In September, the FBI's director said that U.S. believes there are about a dozen Americans fighting alongside extremist groups in Syria.
Governments like Belgium’s do not only fear the perceived threat posed by young men who have traveled to join radical groups, but home-grown jihadis who were radicalized online. Propaganda videos from groups such as ISIS frequently urge supporters to launch attacks at home — so-called "lone wolf" attacks.
Meanwhile, counter-intelligence officials in Britain refer to “crude but potentially deadly plots,” and believe they form a growing part of the mutating threat to national security.
Authorities in the U.K. judge a terrorist atrocity there to be “highly likely.” They estimate that 600 British citizens have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight, and claim to have thwarted four plots in the last year.
“There have been more than 20 terrorist plots either directed or provoked by extremist groups in Syria,” Andrew Parker, the director-general of British domestic spy agency MI5, said in a speech last month.
He added: “We face a very serious level of threat that is complex to combat and unlikely to abate significantly for some time.”
And Britain, like Belgium and France, is of course part of the U.S.-led coalition bombing ISIS. Authorities in all those countries believe their fight against extremism is being fought not only from the air, but on home soil, in the hearts and minds of young, impressionable men and women.
Reuters contributed to this report.