Belgian police have carried out dozens of raids and arrested six Islamists -- including the pugnacious ringleader of a Belgian Salafist group called Sharia4Belgium -- suspected of recruiting foreign fighters for the war in Syria.
The crackdown reflects growing concerns in Belgium and elsewhere about the threat posed by Islamic jihadists, or holy warriors, when they return to Europe after obtaining combat experience in Syria.
Some 1,000 Muslims from across Europe are currently active as Islamic jihadists in Syria, which has replaced Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia as the main destination for militant Islamists seeking to obtain immediate combat training with little or no official scrutiny.
More than 200 Belgian police officers conducted 48 early morning raids on April 16 in the northern port city of Antwerp and in Vilvoorde, which is situated about 20 kilometers north of Brussels, home to most of the 70 young Belgians who are known to have departed for Syria in recent months.
Police seized computers, mobile phones and €30,000 ($40,000), although no weapons or explosives were found. One of those arrested was an unnamed jihadist who was wounded in Syria and just recently returned to Belgium.
According to the public prosecutor's office, the objective of the police operation was two-fold: to deter other volunteer jihadists from departing for Syria, and also to determine whether a group known as Sharia4Belgium "is a terrorist group," an offense that carries a 10-year jail term.
In a seven-page statement, the public prosecutor's office said one of those arrested was Fouad Belkacem (alias Abu Imran), a well-known Antwerp-based Islamist who is the main spokesman for Sharia4Belgium, and who has long called for turning Belgium into an Islamic state.
Although Belkacem had previously been sentenced to two years in prison in February 2012 for incitement to hatred and violence towards non-Muslims, he was released from prison in February 2013 and allowed to serve the rest of his sentence at home, provided he wear an ankle strap and promise not to speak with his followers. His re-arrest implies he violated the terms of his release.
Belgian prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt told a news conference that "the investigation shows that Sharia4Belgium is part of a broad international jihadist movement" which is accused of providing ideological and martial arts training, organizing violent activities in Belgium and recruiting Islamist fighters for conflicts abroad. Van Der Sypt said Belgian authorities were aware of 33 people with links to Sharia4Belgium who were either fighting with, or on their way to fight with, al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists in Syria.
Sharia4Belgium had said in October 2012 that the organization was being dissolved, but that announcement appears to have been an example of taqiyya [dissimulation], a permitted form of deception to non-Muslims to advance the cause of Islam.
According to Stanny De Vlieger, the director of the federal judicial police in Antwerp, "The investigation shows that members of Sharia4Belgium have joined Salafi jihadists inspired by al-Qaeda and they appear to have participated in combat and even in the kidnapping and execution of those they call 'infidels.'"
Sharia4Belgium, which states that that it wants to implement Islamic Sharia law throughout Belgium, has been belligerent in its appeals to fellow Muslims to overthrow the democratic order in the country.
In one video, Belkacem declares that the black flag of Islamic jihad will "soon be flying on top of all the palaces in Europe."
The video, which has been translated into English by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), shows Belkacem dressed in military camouflage calling for the destruction of the Atomium, a monument in Brussels that is the national symbol of Belgium.
"This," Belkacem says, "is a short message to the King of Belgium and specifically to the Muslims in Belgium. This is the flag [black flag of jihad] that, Allah willing, will soon be flying on top of that building over there [the Belgian royal palace]. There you see the [Belgian] flag of the Taghut, the infidels, and soon the flag of 'there is no god but Allah' will be flying there, on top of that palace, and on top of all the other palaces in Europe, until Allah willing, we reach the White House…We will not rest, we will not stop, until this flag flies on top of that building [the royal palace]."
In September 2011, Sharia4Belgium established Belgium's first Islamic Sharia law court in Antwerp, the second-largest city in the country. Leaders of the group say the purpose of the court is to create a parallel Islamic legal system in Belgium to challenge the state's authority as the enforcer of the civil law protections guaranteed by the Belgian constitution.
The self-appointed Muslim judges running the Islamic Sharia court apply Islamic law, rather than the secular Belgian Family Law system, to resolve disputes involving questions of marriage and divorce, child custody and child support, as well as all inheritance-related matters.
Unlike Belgian civil law, Islamic Sharia law does not guarantee equal rights for men and women; critics of the Sharia court say it will undermine the rights of Muslim women in marriage and education.
Sharia4Belgium says the court in Antwerp will eventually expand its remit and handle criminal cases as well.
But Sharia4Belgium also says it expects non-Muslims to submit to Sharia law.
A partial archive of an earlier version of Sharia4Belgium's website includes a threat in the form of an invitation calling for all Belgians to convert to Islam and to submit to Sharia law or face the consequences.
The text says: "It is now 86 years since the fall of the Islamic Caliphate. The tyranny and corruption in this country [Belgium] has prevailed; we go from one scandal to another: Economic crises, paedophilia, crime, growing Islamophobia, etc.
"As in the past," it continues, " we [Muslims] have saved Europe from the dark ages, we now plan to do the same. Now we have the right solution for all crises and this is the observance of the divine law, namely Sharia. We call to implement Sharia in Belgium.
"Sharia is the perfect system for humanity...," it concludes. "As a result, we invite the royal family, parliament, all the aristocracy and every Belgian resident to submit to the light of Islam. Save yourself and your children of the painful punishment of the hereafter and grant yourself eternal life in paradise."
A cache of the background image for the Sharia4Belgium website has the black flag of jihad flying above the Belgian Parliament. Until recently, the Sharia4Belgium YouTube page (which has been shut down) was used to incite Muslims to Jihad, or Holy War. The group had posted videos with titles such as, "Jihad Is Obligatory," "Encouraging Jihad," "Duelling & Guerrilla Warfare," and "The Virtues of Martyrdom."
In a debate with Filip Dewinter, a Belgian politician who has raised public awareness of the dangers posed by radical Islam, Belkacem said: "There are a lot of Muslims in Belgian politics, which is something I cannot understand. You are either a Muslim or a democrat, you cannot be both. I have no business with infidels. My mission is to please Allah, not infidels."
Belkacem continued: "Let's turn Belgium into an Islamic state. We have enough judges, scholars and leaders who can become caliphs…Filip Dewinter is right. This is the beginning of the Islamization of Antwerp. And to all infidels: Adjust or get out!"
In an interview with the Belgian newspaper De Standaard, Anjem Choudary, a British Islamist who helped launch Sharia4Belgium in January 2010, said the implementation of Sharia law in Belgium will happen in one of the following four ways: "Either the majority of the population converts to Islam; or a foreign Islamic power conquers the country; or there will be a rebellion against the oppression of the Muslim people; or the Muslims will overthrow the ruling regime. Society will be united by Islam."