‘Islamist wing’ opens in Belgian prison, notorious 'Santa Claus’ jihadist becomes 1st inmate

© The prison of Ittre, south of Brussels. © BELGA
A special ‘Islamist wing’ has opened in a jail in Ittre, Belgium, according to local newspaper Derniere Heure. Its first prisoner is Khalid Zerkani, nicknamed ‘Santa Claus of jihad’. He was charged with recruiting young Muslims and is now serving 12 years.

Zerkani was transferred to Ittre from another facility in the Brussels commune of Forest, where the Brussels attacker Mohamed Abrini has been incarcerated. Authorities worried the two would make contact in Forest.

So, the transfer was made, with due discretion and high security in place.

However, the Ittre prison administration is now fearful that Zerkani, who has a great deal of influence with jihadists, may attempt to escape.

The ‘Islamist wing’ project was developed by Minister of Justice Koen Geens. It finally came into force on Monday, and was specifically applied to Ittre.

The proposal hasn’t been unanimously welcomed, but after talks between the unions and the justice minister’s office, it was agreed to open the Ittre wing, on condition that it would only house four jihadist prisoners, not 20 as was initially planned.

The next prison that may see such a wing could be the Hasselt facility in the north of Belgium, but nothing has been firmly decided yet.

“We filed an advance strike notice last week. Progress in Hasselt will depend on the state of things at the Ittre wing,” Michel Jacobs, secretary of the CGSP Amio union, said as quoted by the Belgian LaLibre media outlet.

Khalid Zerkani has become a notorious and reviled figure in Belgium. He "perverted an entire generation of youngsters," according to a statement in February from the country’s federal prosecutor.

In July 2015, he was sentenced to 12 years, with prosecutors branding him the “archetype of a seditious mentor” who spread “extremist ideas among naïve, fragile and agitated youth.”

When the Belgian police seized Zerkani’s computer in 2014, they discovered extremist literature and two articles he had penned himself: “Thirty-Eight Ways to Participate in Jihad” and “Sixteen Indispensable Objects to Own Before Going to Syria.”