Belgium trial on Jewish museum terror attack opens

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Trial of alleged attacker begins

Two men, including a suspected "Islamic State" militant, are on trial for killing four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels. Prosecutors are calling for life sentences.

The trial of the deadly 2014 attack on the Belgian Jewish Museum in Brussels opened on Thursday under a heavy security presence. 

It began with an introduction of the defendants followed by the prosecution reading out its 184-page statement detailing the investigation, according to Belgian news agency Belga.

The attack is considered one of the first on European soil to be claimed by the "Islamic State" (IS) militant group. More than 100 witnesses are expected to testify, including four French journalists who say they were held captive in Syria by one of the perpetrators.

What happened:

  • Mehdi Nemmouche, a 33-year-old French citizen with Algerian heritage, is suspected of opening fire at the museum, first with a pistol and then with an assault rifle. Prosecutors say they have video footage to prove it.
  • Four people were killed in the attack, including an Israeli couple, a Belgian receptionist at the museum and a French volunteer.
  • Nemmouche was arrested a week later in the French port city of Marseille. Investigators said he was detained while carrying the weapons used in the attack.
  • A second suspect, 30-year-old French national Nacer Bendrer, is believed to have supplied the arms, according to prosecutors. Both men are believed to have met in prison, where they were radicalized.

Read more: Jews in Europe alarmed by rising anti-Semitism

'Terrorist murder'

Both men have been charged with "terrorist murder." Both deny any wrongdoing.

At least 120 witnesses are expected to testify during the trial. Prosecutors will begin cross-examining the suspects on Tuesday.

If convicted, both suspects face potential life sentences. The jury consists of four women and eight men.

Read more: Are Europeans getting used to terror attacks?

Terror attacks in Europe

The shooting is part of a series of terror attacks that swept across several Western European capitals, many of them claimed by IS.

Nemmouche is believed to have fought with an Islamist group in Syria from 2013 to 2014 — key witnesses in the case are expected to say they recognize him as their IS jailer. While in Syria, he met Najim Laachraoui, who formed part of the gang-turned-terror cell that committed the 2016 Brussels attacks that killed 32 people.

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The Belgium-based gang is allegedly responsible for partly coordinating the Paris attacks that killed 130 people in 2015. Both attacks were claimed by IS.

Terrorism expert Thomas Renard of the Egmont Institute told DW that, in retrospect, it is clear that the Brussels attack was the first in a long series carried out by terrorists who trained in Syria.

"The trial in Brussels is not only symbolically important, but it is also important in helping us learning about the targeting, planning and execution of attacks," he said. "It can illuminate the phenomenon of a brand of terrorism that has shaken not only Belgium but all of Europe."

Renard cited the attack on the Jewish Museum as a precursor to others, such as the attack on the offices of satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, a Jewish supermarket, a concert venue and restaurants in Paris, on pedestrians in Nice, and subway as well as an airport attack in Brussels.  

More than 260 people were killed in attacks in France, Belgium and Germany between 2014 and 2016.

Pascale Falek, director of the Jewish Museum, told DW that the trial will be a "difficult and painful" experience, "Our world was changed — that of the Jewish community, but also that of Belgium as a whole."

Read more: Opinion: The normality of terrorism

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What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where did it come from?

The "Islamic State" (IS) — also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh — is an al-Qaida splinter group with a militant Sunni Islamist ideology. It emerged in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Their goal is to create a worldwide "caliphate." It gained worldwide notoriety in 2014 after a blitzkrieg military campaign that resulted in the capture of Mosul.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where does it operate?

IS is believed to be operational in more than a dozen countries across the world. It controls territories in Iraq and Syria. However, the group has lost much of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria at the height of its expansion in 2014.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Who is fighting back?

The US leads an international coalition of more than 50 countries, including several Arab nations. Russia, Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah, which all support the Syrian government, also fight IS. Regional forces such as the Kurdish peshmerga (above) and US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, fight IS on the ground. The Iraqi army and militia have pushed IS from large parts of the country.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

How does it fund itself?

One of IS' main sources of income has been oil and gas. At one point, it controlled an estimated one-third of Syria's oil production. However, US-led airstrikes deliberately targeted oil resources and the Syrian government as well as US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters have retaken most oil wells. Other means of income include taxes, ransom, selling looted antiquities and extortion.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where does it carry out attacks?

IS has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks across the globe. The militant group has targeted capitals across the EU, including Berlin, Brussels and Paris. IS leaders have encouraged so-called "lone wolf" attacks, whereby individuals who support IS carry out terrorist acts without the direct involvement of the group.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

What other tactics does it use?

The group uses various tactics to expand its power. IS fighters have looted and destroyed historical artifacts in Syria and Iraq in an attempt at "cultural cleansing." The group has also enslaved thousands of women from religious minority groups, including Yazidis. IS also uses a sophisticated social network to distribute propaganda and recruit sympathizers.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

How has it impacted the region?

IS has further exacerbated the ongoing Syrian conflict. Millions of Syrians and Iraqis have fled their homes, many traveling to Europe in pursuit of refuge. Although it has lost all of its strongholds, the militant group has left extraordinary destruction in its wake. Areas affected by the militant group's rule will likely take years to rebuild.

js,ls/sms (dpa, AFP)