BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A Belgian court convicted five Islamist militants on Thursday of belonging to a group that recruited suicide bombers in Belgium to go abroad, including a female convert who blew herself up in Iraq.
Belgian Bilal Soughir, the only accused currently in detention, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for being the ringleader of a terrorist organization.
“Bilal deliberately assisted terrorist circles in Iraq,” presiding judge Pierre Hendrickx told the court. He said the network aimed to help impose a radical vision of Islam rather than simply freeing Iraq from U.S. occupation.
“This whole case is steeped in a climate of religious intolerance,” he said.
Muriel Degauque, a 38-year-old Muslim convert dubbed the “Belgian kamikaze” by the media, blew herself up near a U.S. patrol in November 2005 in what was believed to be the first suicide attack by a European woman in Iraq.
Soughir denied being aware of her plans despite tapped phones conversations in which he welcomed news of her death.
Degauque came from a working-class family in the economically depressed region around Charleroi. Her partner, Issam Goris, was killed by U.S. forces in Iraq a day after her suicide attack.
Of the four men tried in absentia, Pascal Cruypenninck, another Belgian convert to Islam, was sentenced to five years. He was accused of trying to enlist his girlfriend, a 17-year-old Rwandan, to carry out a suicide attack in Iraq with him.
Souhaieb Soughir, a Tunisian national and brother of Bilal, was sentenced to 28 months in jail.
Narbil Karmun received five years in prison, two of them suspended.
Younes Loukili, a militant who admitted fighting in Iraq against the U.S. occupation and, like Karmun, a Belgian of North African origin, received a five-year suspended sentence.
Three weeks ago, Belgium stepped up security against a potential attack, prompting by the thwarting of what authorities said was a plot to spring an al Qaeda sympathizer from jail.
Security at the court on Thursday was tight and extensive searches of the public caused the verdict to be delayed.
Analysts say that Islamic militants are using Belgium, which hosts NATO, the European Union institutions and the offices of a raft of multinational companies, as a logistics and support base for attacks in other countries.