BRUSSELS — A federal prosecutor in Belgium has asked a judge to convict Jean-Louis Denis — accused of recruiting at least six young people to fight for armed groups in Syria — and to sentence him 15 years in prison. Denis is charged with heading a “terrorist” group, inciting followers to commit “terrorist infractions” and recruiting youth with the purpose of participating in a “terrorist” group, according to court documents.
Denis' trial began in November, and a verdict is expected in January.
Prosecutor Paule Somers says Denis radicalized and recruited youths through his Brussels charity Le Resto du Tawhid, which means "Restaurant of the Oneness of God." Along with his wife and two other people, Denis began distributing food to the poor in 2011 with the help of young people from Molenbeek and other Brussels districts with large Muslim populations. Denis then helped some of these volunteers to join armed groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, according to the federal prosecutor.
But as a judge weighs Denis’ fate, several parents whose sons have left for Syria say that Belgian police and the federal prosecutor failed to act on signs their children were becoming radicalized — thus helping facilitate their departure by not intervening in time. The mothers’ accusations are backed by police reports showing that agents knowingly let young men travel to Syria, despite their mothers' requests for help weeks before their sons’ departures.
Alexis Deswaef, an attorney representing five such parents, said Denis is “just the tip of the iceberg.”
“The parents very much have the impression that the trial of this recruitment network only shows a part of the truth,” Deswaef said.
An estimated 516 Belgians have left for Syria, according to Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a Belgian researcher who closely tracks their departures — the highest number per capita in Europe. About 120 of them have returned, and 60 to 70 have died, he found. Many of them flew from Brussels to Turkey before crossing the border into Syria.
One mother, Yasmeen, who requested anonymity to protect her family, told the judge weighing Denis' case that she received very little help from police to prevent the departures of her two sons, who were 16 and 22 when they left for Syria in 2013. Three weeks after she told police about finding a one-way ticket to Istanbul in her oldest son’s bedroom in late 2012, he departed for Syria, she said, despite having alerted police to her worry.
Three months later her younger son and a 15-year-old friend boarded a plane to Turkey to join his older brother, police reports show. But she said police largely ignored her pleas for help, both before and after her son's departure. Police had been tapping her son's cellphone — and Denis’ — for months and knew they had left for Syria, according to police reports obtained by Al Jazeera.
“How can it be that two minors can take a plane while this problem is commonly known?” she told police, according to the report.
“They did nothing to help us,” Yasmeen told Al Jazeera. “Belgium is complicit with the recruiters.”
A spokesman, Peter De Waele, for the Belgian federal police said the force does not comment on ongoing cases. Eric Van Der Sypt, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Yasmeen, along with several other parents, said she believed Denis “didn’t act alone.” She also blames Abdelkader El Farssaoui, also known as Abu Jaber, for the recruitment of her children. Jaber met in Brussels with Mohamed Merah three weeks before Merah killed seven people in Toulouse, France in 2012, according to Belgian media.
Prosecutor Somers is seeking five years’ imprisonment for Yasmeen's younger son, who was a minor when he left for Syria. He remains there with his older brother, who was convicted in absentia of belonging to a terrorist organization at the Sharia4Belgium trial, which saw 45 people convicted of participating in terrorist activities in April.
Deswaef, the parents’ attorney, said the parents feel left out in the cold by the state. “It’s completely paradoxical that after they press charges against recruitment, [the parents] find themselves in a situation in which their own son is implicated,” he said. “They’ve asked for help from the Belgian government, but [the government] haven’t done anything to stop them, nothing to put them back on a plane from Turkey.”
Denis, meanwhile, has denied all charges. His lawyer Sebastian Courtois said that the trial was “faked,” and that the government had set his client up by deploying an informant, Jaber, to build a case against Denis. “The real culprit,” Courtois said, is Jaber, “who put dozens of youth on a plane to Turkey.”
“If [Denis] really put them on a plane,” Courtois said, “wouldn’t they at least have found some evidence of this?”
Somers said the charity was a ploy to lure youth into Denis' group of followers. He also said Denis held discussions about extremist propaganda, recorded videos that encouraged violence, organized physical training sessions, gave youth money to travel to Syria and had connections with foreign fighters there.
“The food distributions were a chance to publicly humiliate the democracies whose shortcomings were highlighted and to which finally no other solution can be found: the installation of Sharia, and this everywhere in the world,” Somers wrote in court documents.
Denis has consistently argued the food distribution simply helped him serve those in need, in line with this faith. But his rhetoric is “not accepted in the West,” Courtois said. In one YouTube video, Denis asks: "Why aren't we shocked when an infidel dies for democracy, but when we, for Allah, to restore the rule and justice of Allah on earth, [they say], 'Oh no, poor guy, he was indoctrinated, he was recruited.' What is this double discourse?"
Somers told Al Jazeera that she considers Denis’ group to be the Brussels wing of Sharia4Belgium, a network designated as a terrorist organization in January by a federal court.
Denis declared himself Sharia4Belgium’s local “emir” to interlocutors, according to the court. That, along with a series of recordings in which he allegedly rationalized suicide attacks in the presence of two young men and his distribution of tracts titled “Traitors Are More Dangerous than Infidels,” led Somers to demand the maximum sentence for Denis, who was arrested in December 2013. Thirteen other people, including alleged foreign fighters, some of whom are still in Syria, were indicted in the trial.
Several mothers interviewed by Al Jazeera said recruiters’ targeted strategy of isolation and indoctrination alienates young men from their parents, schools and friends. Belgium’s high unemployment rate among youth — numbers that are higher among young immigrants — further encourages youth to adopt extremist beliefs, said Saliha Ben Ali, a mother whose son left for Syria in August 2013. Earlier this year, Ben Ali launched SAVE (Society Against Violent Extremism) Belgium, a Brussels-based group that works to prevent radicalization.
“It’s really a structured network that knows how to talk to youth and is more developed than that of the politicians,” Ben Ali said. “The politicians have a very negative message toward youth.”
In November, responding to the Paris attacks that killed 130 people, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel floated a proposal to imprison all those who join armed groups in Syria abroad and return to Belgium. It was part of a legislative package of 18 measures to increase national security.
But the proposals have widened the gap between the parents’ demands and policymakers’ focus on repression, said Deswaef, the mothers’ attorney.
“The parents feel abandoned and left alone with a problem that’s also a responsibility of society,” he said.