BRUSSELS – Emerging as a key central figure in the jihadi supercell behind the attacks in Brussels and Paris is a pot-bellied recruiter who in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek convinced young men to bring mayhem to Europe.
The bearded and balding Khalid Zerkani, 42, is behind bars in Belgium appealing a 12-year sentence, but his influence was crucial to a vast terrorist network that has killed more than 160 people in the biggest-ever terrorist attacks on either French or Belgian soil.
“Zerkani perverted a whole generation, particularly in the maritime neighborhood of Molenbeek,” prosecutor Bernard 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.”
Only 13 of the defendants were actually present in court in February, with the rest either presumed killed in Syria or, worryingly, were in locations unknown.
In an embarrassment for the Belgian authorities, several of these young men are now being hunted by police, having returned from Syria unnoticed to carry out attacks in Europe.
Zerkani was born in Zinata, Morocco, in 1973 and was arrested by police in 2014 after several years of defying authorities with his off-the-radar recruitment of jihadis for Syria in gritty Molenbeek.
Belgium is the biggest supplier of foreign jihadis to Syria per capita, and Zerkani was their biggest recruiter, authorities now believe.
Thirty other Zerkani-linked suspects are on trial in Brussels, many of whose whereabouts are unknown.
Until Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels, by far the biggest name on the trial list was Paris attacks ringleader Abdelhamid Abbaoud, who was killed by French police in November.
But now police are taking another look at the Zerkani suspects after suicide attacker and presumed Paris bomb-maker Najim Laachraoui, 24, blew himself up in Brussels Airport on Tuesday.
Also on the list is French national Reda Kriket, 34, who was arrested in a Paris suburb on Thursday, as is Gelel Attar of Molenbeek, who was arrested in Morocco in January and was a close friend of Abbaoud and Chakib Akrouh, another of the Paris attackers.
According to people who knew him, Zerkani had a powerful influence on his young recruits, with an undeniable aura that was not discernible to outsiders.
“He’s the emir, the leader. . . . He organized meetings in attics several times of week for candidates seeking to leave for Syria” who often included children still toting their schoolbags, a suspect identified as Yacine E. told investigators in a deposition leaked to the Belgian daily La Derniere Heure.
“For Zerkani, Islam requires jihad, and armed jihad is the highest form that exists,” he added.
But with his long beard and unkept demeanor, he was also nicknamed the jihadi “Father Christmas” on the streets of Molenbeek and was described by one legal source as “smelly” and unimpressive.
Zerkani, also known under the nom de guerre Abu Riad, is still having a pervasive effect on the terrorism battleground in Europe.
His recruit Kriket, who was arrested on Thursday near Paris, received a 10-year sentence in absentia in the Zerkani trial.
French police said they found explosives in the operation and that Kriket was planning an imminent attack.