The mastermind behind the Paris attacks was radicalised by an extremist network inspired by a radical British cleric, it has emerged. The network, Sharia4Belgium, has links to at least six British extremists in total, including an ISIS bomb maker from Luton.
The group was founded in 2010 by Fouad Belkacem, a convicted burglar, after he headed to London to seek inspiration from a British cleric who cannot be named for legal reasons. The cleric has described Belkacem as “a dear friend”, confirming that he was approached to help “start something in Belgium,” the Sunday Times has reported.
The resultant network, Sharia4Belgium, quickly recruited a number of youths from cities including Antwerp and Brussels, home city to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the ringleader of last week’s massacre, and three of the terrorists who carried out the attack.
“The most significant cause of Belgium’s current jihadist problem, and the largest number of fighters with Isis, was the establishment of the radical group Sharia4Belgium in 2010,” said Guy Van Vlierden, a terrorism expert at the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws.
Of the 500 or so Belgians who have traveled from Belgium to Syria to fight jihad, at least 50 are believed to have been sent by Sharia4Belguim. Per head of population, Belgium has sent more recruits to Syria than any other western nation.
Group members also approached Omar Bakri Muhammad, better known as the “Tottenham Ayatollah” thanks to his time in London, while he was in exile in Lebanon seeking his assistance in making contact with jihadists in Syria.
A further three British extremists are known to have travelled to Belgium to help Belkacem promote Sharia on the country’s streets: Abu Rahin Aziz, Asfor Ali and Saiful Islam.
Islam is a radical preacher from Luton who praised Osama bin Laden and warned of terror attacks in Britain.
Ali is a former London Underground worker who was jailed last year after being found in possession of instructions for making bombs and al Qaeda propaganda.
Aziz, who is also known as Abu Dugam al-Britani, is also from Luton and is an associate of Bakri. After skipping bail for assault last year he travelled to the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, where he learned bomb-making skills and is believed to have met Abaaoud. A frequent user of Twitter to broadcast threats against America and Britain, including a threat to capture Downing Street and hold executions in Trafalgar Square. He was killed in a drone strike in July.
A fourth who traveled to Belgium in 2012 to instruct members of Sharia4Belgium in “military tactics” cannot be named for legal reasons.
In February of this year Belkacem was sentenced to 12 years in prison for his extremist activities, during one of Belgium’s biggest terrorism trials. A further 44 members of Sharia4Belgium were sentenced at the same time by the Antwerp court, but the vast majority were sentenced in their absence as they were fighting, or had been killed in Syria.