ANTWERP, Belgium -- A radical Muslim organization in Belgium was a well-structured terror group that brainwashed youngsters and sent them to fight in Syria, prosecutors said Monday as a trial started for dozens of suspects.
Only eight of the 46 suspects of the Sharia4Belgium group were present for the trial's opening. Many others are believed to be fighting in Syria or to have died in the country's civil war.
The group's alleged leader, Fouad Belkacem, who is in custody, was led into court by armed guards. He listened in silence to prosecutor Ann Fransen as she said that leading a terror organization has a maximum sentence of 15-20 years.
The case, one of the biggest-ever terror trials in Belgium, centers on Sharia4Belgium and its efforts to indoctrinate young Muslims through social media and readings and send them to Syria to fight.
Many members left Belgium in August 2012 to fight in Syria, she added.
The prosecutor cited parents of some of the young Belgian jihadists as saying their children would never have thought of fighting overseas if they had not been brainwashed by Sharia4Belgium.
Quoting from tapped phone conversations and statements by one of the suspects, who will be a key prosecution witness, Fransen said the Belgians were deeply entwined with the al Qaeda-inspired Sunni Muslim groups fighting in Syria, including the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, both of which are now being targeted by U.S.-led airstrikes.
Authorities fear those traveling to Syria to fight will return home battle-hardened and trained to carry out attacks.
Similar fears are held across Europe, and Fransen said Sharia4Belgium had links with like-minded groups in Britain, the Netherlands, France and Germany.
The group was disbanded nearly two years ago. Prosecutors now want to prove it was a terror organization.
Defense lawyers for the suspects who are in court will make their arguments Tuesday.