A man with a bushy beard and round belly is thought to have radicalized a network of young people in a Belgian neighborhood that’s notorious for being a center of jihadist activity.
He’s become known as the “Santa Claus of jihad,” and Belgium’s federal prosecutor says he has “perverted an entire generation of youngsters,” The New York Times reports.
The 42-year-old Moroccan man, Khalid Zerkani, reportedly has connections to the terrorists who carried out recent attacks in Paris and Brussels. AFP called him a “central figure in the jihadist super-cell behind the attacks.” He was sentenced to 12 years in prison in July for participating in the activities of a terrorist organization, according to The Times.
Zerkani seemed to target vulnerable young people for radicalization, introducing them to a violent interpretation of Islam. The Washington Post characterized these young terror recruits as “a new breed of jihadists” that blur “the line between organized crime and Islamist extremism.”
These recruits often have criminal backgrounds and lawbreaking experience that proves useful in funding and carrying out attacks. Zerkani’s gang relied on petty crimes like theft to help finance his radicalization ring, which provided money to recruits who wanted to go fight in Syria for groups like ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh).
Zerkani’s recruits are known to rob tourists and steal luggage to fund the “Islamist cause,” according to The Post.
“Many of them live lives as hoodlums, had an epiphany, and turned religious, but these connections to criminality are not meant to disappear,” Peter Neumann, a radicalization expert at King’s College London, told The Post.
Zerkani’s brand of extremism is known as “gangster Islam,” a way of life that marries criminal activity to a radical ideology. Unlike many Al Qaeda recruits, who were known to be pious, fundamentalist Islamists, Zerkani’s recruits aren’t typically well-versed in Islam.
Hind Fraihi, who wrote a book on Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood where Zerkani was based, told The Times that ISIS attracts “bandits and gangsters because it needs them for their knowledge of guns, safe houses and the underground scene.”
Whereas other fundamentalist extremists might have had a hard time attracting young people to a way of life that required them to turn away from alcohol and partying, Zerkani convinced his recruits that “past criminal convictions were not an obstacle to the Islamic cause, but a vital foundation,” according to the Times.
And since Molenbeek has been struggling with crime for years, there was no shortage of young people for Zerkani to target.
Zerkani “did not lecture these recruits on arcane theological justifications for violence … but instead used a few crude religious ideas to give legitimacy to the criminal path they had already chosen,” The Times wrote.
He often targeted immigrants who shared his Moroccan heritage and drew them closer to him by cutting them off from their families and other social ties in Belgium, according to Belgian prosecutors. Officials have tied him to 30 to 40 people who have left Belgium to fight in the Middle East, The Post said.
Young people with immigrant backgrounds as well as a criminal history make particularly easy targets for Zerkani, because they’re more likely to feel isolated from the rest of Belgian society.
One such young man in his 20s – Farid, the son of Moroccan immigrants – said many young Muslims in Molenbeek feel hopeless and struggle to find opportunities for work in an area with high unemployment rates.
“We are revolting against this state and this society that never accepted us as Belgian,” he told The Post. “We are revolting against our parents and also their countries of origin. “I don’t feel Belgian. I don’t feel Moroccan. I think of myself as a Muslim.”