BRUSSELS: A Belgian appeals court on Thursday increased top militant recruiter Khalid Zerkani’s sentence to 15 years in prison for enlisting dozens of people, including key suspects in the Brussels and Paris attacks.
He is “the biggest recruiter of militants Belgium has ever known,” federal prosecutor Bernard Michel had said during a court hearing in February.
Moroccan-born Zerkani, 42, who has denied all charges, was originally sentenced in July 2015 to 12 years behind bars, but appealed.
The higher court however chose to increase his sentence to the maximum 15-year term.
His “attitude of obvious denial” showed that he had not changed his stance in the least, the appeal court said.
Zerkani, also known under the nom de guerre Abu Riad, wasn’t present to hear the appeal court decision.
Emerging as a central figure in the militant super-cell behind the attacks in both Brussels and Paris, the bearded, balding and pot-bellied militant recruiter’s influence was crucial to a vast terror network.
“Zerkani perverted a whole generation”, particularly in the troubled Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, prosecutor Michel told a courtroom in February, when Zerkani and 31 others were sentenced for their ties to terrorism inspired by the Islamic State group.
“He was active in recruiting, logistics, financial help and even in prison, he encouraged other inmates to take up the jihad banner,” Michel had said.
Zerkani’s original conviction happened before the IS bombings last month at Brussels airport and a metro station in the city, in which 32 people were killed, and the attacks in Paris last November when a total of 130 people died.
He was arrested by police in 2014 after he defied authorities for years with his off-the-radar recruitment of militants for Syria in the gritty Molenbeek district.
His recruits included Najim Laachraoui, who blew himself up at Brussels airport on March 22, and who had prepared the explosives for the attacks in both Brussels and Paris.
Another Zerkani recruit was Paris attacks ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the suspected gunmen in the attacks in the French capital, court documents showed.
Abaaoud was killed in a raid by French police days after the November carnage.
Zerkani was “the emir, the leader”, a suspect identified as Yacine E. told investigators in a deposition leaked to Belgian daily La Derniere Heure.
With his long beard, he was nicknamed the militant “Father Christmas” on the streets of Molenbeek by his young followers whom he provided with the money to travel to Syria.
Belgium is Europe’s per capita biggest supplier of foreign militants, with some 500 leaving for Syria and Iraq from a population of 11 million.