Massacre without mastermind – A critical look at the investigation into the November 2015 Paris attacks

Oussama Atar, the main defendant at the upcoming trial of the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks

It was a devastating act of violence. The worst in France since World War II. 130 victims died when terrorists attacked several locations in Paris on the evening of November 13, 2015, a massacre soon claimed by the so-called Islamic State. On September 8,  a trial will start against twenty defendants. Most of them have been charged as accomplices. Only one is prosecuted as a perpetrator and one as a leader of the plot. This article is meant to be a critical review of the investigation, specifically looking into the question why several individuals once named as masterminds have been omitted, and how convincing the case against that lonely leader really is. To do so, we confronted the 562 pages of the réquisitoire définitif in which the French Parquet national antiterroriste made its case, with thousands of pages of underlying documents, official documents from separate investigations in several countries, and carefully selected open source information. The worrying conclusion is that in order to be fair, the trial should conclude without a mastermind.

 “A body torn to pieces was discovered lying on the ground in the rue de la Cokerie. The right and left leg could be found on the corner of the rue de la Cokerie and the impasse de la Cokerie, the head on the road of the impasse de la Cokerie, the right arm without its hand on the sidewalk of the impasse de la Cokerie, and the left arm on the avenue du Stade de France.” This is how the remains of one of the terrorists are described in the réquisitoire définitif.(1) The specified locations cover a distance of fifty meters near the sports venue Stade de France. “The death, which occurred instantaneously, is the consequence of multiple trauma with fragmentation of the body in connection with the use of an explosive device”, the autopsy report is cited. It is only one of several graphic descriptions pointing out the carnage that the terrorists both inflicted on their victims and on themselves. But they also demonstrate how easy it was to answer the principal question in every criminal investigation: who did it? With the corpses of the terrorists available, fingerprints and DNA enabled a certain and in most cases rapid identification.

If it weren’t for his death during the November 18, 2015 police operation in Saint-Denis, the notorious Abdel Hamid Abaaoud likely would be prosecuted as an organizer of the Paris attacks

Because prosecution ends once a suspect’s death is proven, most of the perpetrators won’t be tried. The only defendant who is charged as a co-perpetrator is Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving suspect who went to the scene. In cases of terrorism, however, it is often more important to identify the organizers than the perpetrators. That is crucial not only in a judicial sense, to know who was responsible, but also for the sake of counter-terrorism — to avoid as much as possible that these same organizers will be able to strike again. If it weren’t for his death during the November 18, 2015 police operation in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, the notorious Belgian citizen of Moroccan descent Abdel Hamid Abaaoud likely would be prosecuted as an organizer of the Paris attacks — or in judicial terms: a leader of the terrorist organization behind the attacks. He was already known to be a ‘field commander’ of Islamic State’s foreign operations department, also known as Amniyat, since the attack that could be foiled by the Belgian police on January 15, 2015 in the town of Verviers.(2) Another name that could have made it to the list of plot leaders, is that of the Algerian born, but longtime Sweden based Mohamed Aziz Belkaïd. He seems to have coordinated the attacks in real time from Brussels, but was killed during a shoot-out with the Belgian police in the Brussels municipality of Forest on March 15, 2016.(3)

Abdel Hamid Abaaoud (left) and Mohamed Aziz Belkaïd, two organizers of the attacks who are proven to be dead

A name that is included in the list of twenty defendants, is that of Fabien Clain. A converted Christian with roots on the island of La Réunion, he is a veteran of the jihadist movement in France. In February 2010, Clain was sentenced to five years in jail for his participation in a network that recruited foreign fighters for Islamic State’s predecessor Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, better known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It looks like he was radicalized while living in Brussels somewhere between 2003 and 2004. There, he met several people who later would become pivotal in Belgium’s extremist scene. One of the least known, but likely not the least important, was Rudy Emponza Bompolonga.(4) Interrogated about the departure of his son for Syria in 2013, the father of Najim Laachraoui named Bompolonga as the one who lured his son into radical Islam.(5) Laachraoui died as one of the perpetrators of the March 22, 2016 Brussels attacks, while he was known already as the manufacturer of explosive belts that were used for the Paris attacks. Clain himself is undisputedly linked to the Paris attacks, as he lent his voice to the audio recording in which the bloodshed was officially claimed by the Islamic State.

Fabien Clain, a Frenchman so important that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi mentioned him by name in his April 29, 2019 video message

Clain was known by then already as a prominent member of the Islamic State’s media department, and it could be assumed that he merely served as messenger. But one detail in his text — the reference to an additional attack in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, where sole survivor Salah Abdeslam went but failed to detonate the explosives he was carrying — indicates that Clain had prior knowledge of the plot, according to the réquisitoire définitif. That same conclusion can be drawn from the video published by Islamic State on January 24, 2016. Titled ‘Kill them wherever you find them’, it showed nine of the Paris perpetrators while they still were in the Syrian-Iraqi war zone, and seven of them executing prisoners in similar attire and choreography. The fact that the media department — in which Clain was so important that the self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi mentioned him by name in his April 29, 2019 video message — knew beforehand that these actors were selected to strike France, is cited as another proof of Clain’s complicity.

A former French Islamic State member who was close to Fabien Clain in Syria, told interrogators: “I think that he was involved in the choice of individuals who were sent to France to carry out attacks”

Clain is only prosecuted for complicity, not for a leading role in the plot. But the latter is exactly what a former French Islamic State member who was close to Clain in Syria thinks that he has had. “Clain held a much higher position than that of propaganda chief”, the French magazine L’Express quoted from the interrogations of Jonathan Geffroy, a convert from Toulouse who returned from Syria. “I think that he was involved in the choice of individuals who were sent to France to carry out attacks.”(6) The newspaper Le Monde quoted Geffroy as saying that Clain was so highly placed within the Islamic State, that he could also propose targets for foreign operations.(7) The fact that Clain has tried to instigate another terrorist attack in France as recently as November 2018, confirms that he was up to more than propaganda alone. According to L’Express, intercepted communications between Clain and an acquaintance in his hometown of Toulouse whom he wanted to recruit as perpetrator, demonstrated his desire to set things in motion himself.(8) It is evidently justified, however, not to charge him for a leading role without solid evidence. That same can be said about several others once considered to be masterminds of the Paris attacks. Names that often circulated include Abdelilah Himich, Charaffe el-Mouadan, Salim Benghalem, Boubakeur El Hakim and Abdelnasser Benyoucef. None of them are on the list of defendants.

Abdelilah Himich was commander of the Katibat Tariq ibn Ziyad, a battalion to which three of the Paris perpetrators belonged

Abdelilah Himich is a former légionnaire, decorated in France for his military service in Afghanistan.(9) In  Syria, he became a commander of the Katibat Tariq ibn Ziyad, an Islamic State battalion to which three of the Paris perpetrators (Fouad Mohamed-Aggad, Samy Amimour and Ismaël Mostefai, all part of the Bataclan team) are said to have belonged. Known by then as Abu Souleyman al-Firansi, Himich has been suspected of being the ‘Souleyman’ about whom the terrorists discussed if they should call him during the Bataclan siege, according to the witness statement of a survivor. This seems to be corroborated by the fact that a Skype account created during the siege by Fouad-Aggad, was linked to an account with Himich’s name — without any real contact between the two detected, however. United States intelligence suspected a significant role of Himich in the plot,(10) and in November 2016 the State Department listed him as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), explicitly referring to the Paris attacks.(11) But in France his implication was finally doubted, explaining why Himich is not included on the list of twenty people deemed to be responsible. According to the French Islamic State expert Jean-Charles Brisard, Himich fell into disfavor of Islamic State shortly after the attacks,(12) which is corroborated by interrogation reports that we could consult ourselves. In these documents, a Belgian Islamic State fighter who knew Himich as ‘Nescafé’ due to his heavy coffee consumption, said that he deserted in June 2016 and had a strictly local military role at that time.(13)

According to Matthieu Suc, a journalist with an extensive knowledge of the French jihadist scene, Abdelnasser Benyoucef is the architect of the foreign operations department within the Islamic State — the Amniyat. “It was him who whispered the idea to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”

Before Himich was thought to be the ‘Souleyman’ mentioned during the Bataclan siege, a childhood friend of perpetrator Samy Amimour had been named in that role. In October 2012, Charaffe el-Mouadan and Amimour were arrested together while trying to leave for Yemen or Afghanistan.(14) The next summer, they both managed separately to reach Syria. El-Mouadan soon became a poster boy of the French speaking jihad thanks to his visibility on Facebook, where he used the alias Aba Souleyman.(15) This nom de guerre and his link with Amimour made him an evident suspect, and four days after the Paris attacks, his family’s home in the suburb Drancy was raided already. The next month, on December 24, el-Mouadan was killed by a coalition airstrike in Syria. A targeted attack, apparently, since a coalition spokesman publicly identified him as the victim, and described el-Mouadan as “an Islamic State leader actively preparing new attacks against the West”.(16) But with the hypothesis of el-Mouadan being ‘Souleyman’ abandoned now, there seems to be very little evidence of any link to the Paris attacks. While he has since been convicted in absentia for joining the Islamic State (he was sentenced to six years on June 21, 2016), on the list of twenty people held responsible for the Paris massacre his name cannot be found.

Charaffe el-Mouadan, a childhood friend of Paris attacks perpetrator Samy Amimour

With what we know today, it seems logical that el-Mouadan and Himich are not considered as plotters behind the attacks anymore. But the fact that Abdelnasser Benyoucef and Boubakeur El Hakim are almost literally only mentioned in the footnotes of the réquisitoire définitif, comes as a surprise. According to Matthieu Suc, a journalist with an extensive knowledge of the French jihadist scene, Abdelnasser Benyoucef is the architect of the entire foreign operations department within the Islamic State — the Amniyat. “It was him who whispered the idea for its structure to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”, Suc reported.(17) Benyoucef was an Algerian raised in France, who reportedly took part in both the Afghan and the Chechen jihad. In Syria, he became one of the highest ranking French, and likely even European members of Islamic State. In September 2020, the French newspaper Libération revealed that Benyoucef’s wife, returning from Syria, had identified him as the mastermind behind the January 2015 Hyper Cacher attack.(18) Still according to Suc, Benyoucef is also suspected to be the commissioner of the botched Verviers plot, while the réquisitoire définitif confirms a similar role in the failed attempt of Sid Ahmed Ghlam to stage an attack in the Paris suburb of Villejuif in April 2015. It is extremely unlikely that a man with his profile didn’t take part in the planning of Islamic State’s opus magnum against France, and one can only wonder whether his absence on the list of twenty is more a result of Islamic State’s cleverness to hide its traces, then a failure of the investigation. 

Abdelnasser Benyoucef, thought to be the architect of the entire foreign operations department within the Islamic State

That same question applies in the absence of Boubakeur El Hakim, a Tunisian born in France. As a veteran of the jihad against American forces after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he is considered as the mentor of the brothers Kouachi, who committed the massacre against Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. While that attack was carried out in the name of rival al-Qaida, El Hakim had risen by then in Islamic State ranks. Within the Amniyat, he was reportedly responsible for operations in the Maghreb (he is seen, for instance, as the mastermind behind the March 2015 attack in Tunisia’s Bardo Museum) but also in Europe.(19) David Thomson, a French reporter with unrivalled access to French foreign fighters themselves during the first years of the Syrian war, including El Hakim, described him as the “most important Frenchman in the ranks of the Islamic State”,(20) while the French academic Jean-Pierre Filiu spoke about “one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists” in an elaborate portrait published shortly before the Paris attacks.(21) There’s little chance that El Hakim wasn’t somehow implicated in the plotting of the Paris attacks. But evidence again seems hard to get.

Boubakeur El Hakim, a veteran of jihad described as the “most important Frenchman in the ranks of the Islamic State”

According to the French prosecutor, “it is an established fact that Oussama Atar has had a central role in the planning of Islamic State attacks”. But as recent as March 2016, he was removed from the official list of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters by lack of evidence that he had even joined the terrorist group

The fact that El Hakim was killed by a targeted drone strike in the Syrian town of ar-Raqqah on November 26, 2016, and that Abdelnasser Benyoucef underwent a similar fate in March or April of that same year, cannot explain why the Parquet national antiterroriste omitted them. Of the twenty individuals that are listed, five are evenly supposed to be killed. But without irrefutable proof of their death — meaning a corpse available for identification — it is common practice by now to prosecute them in absentia anyway. One of these five is Oussama Atar, a Brussels born Islamic State member of Moroccan descent, reportedly killed by an airstrike in Syria in November or December 2017. Atar is the only one prosecuted for “leadership of a terrorist organization” — and thus considered to be the most senior of all twenty people to be tried. “It is an established fact”, the réquisitoire définitif states, “that Atar has had a central role in the planning of attacks in Europe.”

Picture of Oussama Atar that was used in the attempts to identify him as the mastermind Abu Ahmad

Oussama Atar gained his first notoriety in May 2010, when his family went public with the fact that he was imprisoned in Iraq for more than five years already. “He is seriously ill and doctors say that he will die if he isn’t hospitalized”, his sister Asma told in the very first report that ever appeared about him in the Belgian press. She added that her brother had entered Iraq to provide humanitarian aid.(22) But in March 2007, a spokesman for the U.S. led Multi-National Forces in Iraq had told a different story when asked about a then unnamed Belgian citizen tried in Baghdad — later identified as Atar. “The defendant admitted that he had entered Iraq illegally to wage war against Americans and had attended anti-Multi-National Forces sermons”, he wrote.(23)

E-mail from a spokesman for the U.S. led Multi-National Forces in Iraq about Oussama Atar

After the Belgian government discreetly decided to put its weight behind Atar’s case, and his Iraqi sentence had been reduced, he was deported to Belgium on September 16, 2012. But apparently, he didn’t want to stay for long. On November 23, 2013, Atar was stopped in Tunisia and sent back, and on December 11 of that same year, he is said to have left for Syria.(24) In the réquisitoire définitif, some interesting allegations are added about Atar’s past. When he was captured in Iraq, he used the false identity of Ali Salah Mohamed. The French intelligence service DGSI is said to be convinced that during his detainment in Iraq, Atar has been in touch with Abu Mohamed al-Adnani — the later chief of operations and official spokesman of Islamic State. The Belgian intelligence service Sureté de l’Etat is quoted as saying that he even met the later caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi back then. That is a detail often published already, but almost certainly untrue. Atar was imprisoned by the Multi-National Forces in Iraq from February 2005 until July 2009, subsequently in Abu Ghraib, Camp Cropper and Camp Bucca. After that, he was held in the Iraqi facilities of al-Rusafa and Nasiriya.(25) We know that al-Baghdadi was in Abu Ghraib and in Camp Cropper too. But according to the latest information, that was respectively from February  to October 2004 and from October to December 9, 2004(26) — so well before Atar was caught. The fact that Atar’s fate has often been mired in confusion, is also made clear by the fact that as recent as March 2016, he was removed from the official list of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters — indicating that no solid proof existed at that time about even an attempt to reach the Syrian-Iraqi battle zone.(27)

On March 18, 2016, Oussama Atar was removed from the list of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters, according to a confidential note

In the réquisitoire définitif, the case against Atar is built upon the premise that he is the Abu Ahmad named by several people involved as a leading organizer behind the Paris attacks. This has happened both in interrogations of other suspects, as in intercepted communications between individuals who took part in the plot. Key evidence about the role of this Abu Ahmad includes an audio message of bomb maker Najim Laachraoui, found on an abandoned laptop, in which he addressed Abu Ahmad and said: “You are the Emir. It’s you who decides.” An evenly convincing indication of Abu Ahmad’s crucial role is in the declarations of Adel Haddadi and Muhammad Usman, two Islamic State operatives arrested in Austria on December 10, 2015. Both confessed that they had joined the terrorist organization in Syria, and were tasked by Abu Ahmad in person to take part in an operation in France. They were grouped together with Ahmad al-Mohammad and Mohammad al-Mahmod, two of the perpetrators who died at the Stade de France. But Haddadi and Usman failed to arrive in France in time because they had been held for 23 days by the immigration authorities in Greece.

Adel Haddadi and Muhammad Usman, the only two people who met Abu Ahmad in person and could be interrogated about him, answered with a doubtful “yes” and a categorical “no” on the question whether he was Oussama Atar

Adel Haddadi (left) and Muhammad Usman are the only witnesses who have met Abu Ahmad in person

While Abu Ahmad’s leading role seems to be established beyond any doubt, it remains uncertain who he really was. The French investigators pretend to be sure that he was Oussama Atar, and even don’t bother using both names interchangeably in their réquisitoire définitif. There, Adel Haddadi is quoted for instance as saying that Oussama Atar came often to his Syrian apartment in the fall of 2015, while the original transcription of Haddadi’s interrogation on January 30, 2017 does not mention Atar at all — only Abu Ahmad.(28) It is unfortunate, and hopefully not done on purpose, that a reader who isn’t completely familiar with the tens of thousands of pages in the file, cannot distinguish at which point which name exactly was used. Such a reader is encouraged to believe that Haddadi has identified Abu Ahmad as Atar unequivocally, which is not the case. On the 20th of October 2016, pictures of ten different men were presented to Haddadi, asking explicitly whether one of them was Abu Ahmad. Haddadi pointed to a picture of Atar indeed, but he wasn’t sure and also raised a second possibility. “Number one resembles Abu Ahmad”, he said — referring to the picture of Atar. “But there are some differences. Abu Ahmad has a leaner face, he is older, his head seems smaller and his beard is not that thick. But the picture looks like him. There is also a similarity between picture number ten and Abu Ahmad, but it is the man in picture number one that most closely resembles him.”(29)

Screenshot from the interrogation report in which Haddadi somewhat hesitantly identified Abu Ahmad

The differences that he raised, may be explained by the picture being slightly outdated. And Haddadi’s earlier description of  Abu Ahmad as a man of Syrian descent between 38 and 42 years old(30) (Atar was 31 at that time) may be a consequence of Atar’s past. Having spent so many years in Syria and Iraq, his Arabic may have sounded like that of someone from the region, while the harsh imprisonment may have made him look older than he really was. It seems rather biased, however, to contend that Haddadi has offered a solid identification. When the same ten pictures were presented to Muhammad Usman the next day, he declared that he did not recognize any of them. “I am sure”, he said. The interrogators insisted, saying that Haddadi was “almost sure” about picture number one. “That is not Abu Ahmad”, Usman replied. “I am sure of myself.” Asked for a physical description, he also estimated the age of Abu Ahmad around forty years.(31) Which means that the only two people who did meet Abu Ahmad in person and could be questioned about him, answered with a doubtful “yes” and a categorical “no” on the question whether he was Oussama Atar.

Screenshot from the interrogation report in which Usman categorically denied that Abu Ahmad is Oussama Atar

In the réquisitoire définitif, significant attention goes to what Osama Krayem told interrogators about Abu Ahmad. “While he indicates that he has never met Oussama Atar, he pretends to be well aware about his role in sending terrorists to Europe and approving the targets for attacks”, it summarizes. Krayem is an Islamic State operative born in Sweden from Palestinian-Syrian parents. He was exfiltrated from Syria to Europe as part of the terrorist cell behind the Paris attacks, but only put into action for the March 2016 Brussels attacks, where he ultimately fled away from his target. So what exactly did Krayem know about Atar and/or Abu Ahmad? Very little, according to his interrogations in Belgium, where he was arrested on April 8, 2016. The first time when he was asked about Abu Ahmad, was during his fifth interrogation, which took place on the 13th of June 2016. Investigators told Krayem that suspects arrested with Syrian passports similar to the one that he had carried, named Abu Ahmad as the individual who had organized their departure and the manufacturing of the false documents. “I don’t know the identity of this handler”, Krayem responded. “There are many of us who bought these false passports. Many people did so at the same time as me.”(32)

Osama Krayem (right) during his stay with the Islamic State in Syria

When Krayem was asked again about Abu Ahmad a few months later by a Belgian investigating magistrate, he made abundantly clear that everything he knew came from what he had heard from his interrogators. “The police has told me about these recordings”, he said for instance when an intercepted audio message of Ibrahim El Bakraoui (the apparent head of logistics behind the attacks, with whom Krayem had been in touch himself) to Abu Ahmad was raised. “But prior to that, I never had heard about this person.”(33) When he was pushed a few days later nonetheless to tell more about Abu Ahmad, Krayem responded: “From what the police told me, I understand that this Abu Ahmad would be the person who organized the Paris attacks. But I don’t know who he is.”(34) Pressed again during his next interrogation, he declared: “The police told me about arrested people who were  shown a picture. (…) That confirms his role, and I think it is really his role. I think that Abu Ahmad is the emir of the Paris attacks.”(35) The way in which he turns hearsay into a strong conviction step by step, speaks about his eagerness to please the interrogators — while Krayem’s trustworthiness was explicitly doubted already in a June 2016 resume of his interrogations by the Belgian police. “On numerous occasions (…) we observe that Krayem adopts a narrative showing obvious contradictions with the results of the investigation. Faced with the inconsistency between his narrative and our research, he then systematically modifies his declarations”, it was told.(36)

June 2016 resume of the interrogations by the Belgian police in which Osama Krayem’s trustworthiness was doubted

Krayem’s apparent tendency to say what he thinks the other side would like to hear, became really problematic when investigators tried to elicit circumstantial evidence from him that Abu Ahmad is Oussama Atar. When he was interrogated by the Belgian investigating magistrate on the 4th of November 2016, Krayem told that Abu Ahmad most likely is a relative of  the El Bakraoui brothers (Ibrahim and Khalid, both suspected of a major logistical role in the Paris plot, and both perpetrators of the March 2016 Brussels attacks).(37) That was music to the ears of the investigators, since the El Bakraoui brothers are nephews of Atar. But Atar’s suspected role and his kinship with the brothers had been reported at that point by several media already. Media to which Krayem had access, since he told the judge that he recognized the picture of Atar from media reports without knowing him in any other way.(38) It is good to have a look at what Krayem literally answered to subsequent questions about the supposed relationship between the El Bakraoui brothers and Abu Ahmad. Questioned by the investigating judge on the 4th of November 2016, he raised that relationship spontaneously. “In my view, there must be a very close link between Abu Ahmad and Khalid El Bakraoui”, he told, “because he could only trust him if he were a person he knows very well, and we know that Khalid has organized things and was receiving instructions from Syria. He once told me that he had a person close to him, a member of his family, in Syria. I think of a family member. I think that Abu Ahmad is a member of the El Bakraoui family who has left for Syria.”

Ibrahim El Bakraoui liked to brag about high-ranking people he knew. “He disclosed to me that Abaaoud has met al-Baghdadi”, Krayem told. But if El Bakraoui was so fond of flaunting VIPs, why would he never have done that with his relative Oussama Atar?

When the judge asked him whether Abu Ahmad could be a cousin or an uncle of the El Bakraoui brothers, Krayem said: “He is very close to their family, but I can’t tell you how exactly they are linked.” And when the judge insisted to confirm that there is some form of kinship, Krayem responded: “He just told me that had someone close in Syria, and by putting the puzzle together, I understand now that this person only can be a relative, and that he is the one who gave him instructions. It is in hindsight that one understands the whole by connecting the dots: that Abu Ahmad would be the relative of the El Bakraoui brothers present in Syria and close to the leaders of the Islamic State.”(39) It is remarkable how Krayem departed from a vague assumption based on what he could have learned from media reports, and became more precise and more affirmative the more interest he felt. It is very well possible that he told the truth, and maybe he knows more than he admitted. But still, there seems to be a flaw in his story. At some point, he indicated that Ibrahim El Bakraoui liked to brag about the high-ranking people he knew. “Ibrahim disclosed to me that Abaaoud has met al-Baghdadi”, Krayem told. “They sat around a table together, so he has really met him in Iraq.”(40) But if El Bakraoui was so fond of flaunting VIPs, why would he never have done that with his relative Oussama Atar?

Mehdi Aïda, the key witness who heard in Syria that Oussama Atar had been involved in the Paris attacks

Another inside witness quoted about Oussama Atar in the réquisitoire définitif is Mehdi Aïda, a Belgian Islamic State member who returned from Syria in August 2017 after a stint of almost three years.  He seems to be the key witness, actually, since he told his interrogators not only that Oussama Atar indeed used the kunya Abu Ahmad, but also that Atar had been involved in the Paris attacks. The réquisitoire states in fairness that Aïda did not have that information firsthand. He heard it from a friend. That friend was Youssef Bazarouj, another Belgian Islamic State member, about whom the réquisitoire emphasizes that he has been close to some protagonists of the Paris attacks — implying that his allegations are trustworthy. What the réquisitoire doesn’t tell, however,  is what Aïda made of it himself. He called Bazarouj “a braggart”, the transcription of his interrogation reveals. “I can tell you that in Syria, the Paris attacks made noise”, he recalled. “In the sense that everyone was talking about it, and that everyone knew someone who knew someone who had been serving in the same brigade.” When asked what he himself believed about Bazarouj’s claims, he replied: “I think that if he really knew something, he wouldn’t have told.”(41)

Screenshot of the French réquisitoire in which the information given by Mehdi Aïda is presented as completely credible
Screenshot of the interrogation in which Aïda mocked the fact that everyone in Syria claimed they knew someone involved in the terror
Screenshot of the interrogation in which Aida called his source “a braggart” and said that if he knew something, he wouldn’t have told

In addition to all of this, it should be noted that there are several other instances in which an Abu Ahmad was named as coordinator of an Islamic State plot and/or a leading Amniyat member, without fitting the profile of Oussama Atar. The most reliable reference to an Abu Ahmad al-Iraqi being the “emir of the security department” is in a letter of Islamic State’s own ‘Council of Knowledge’ to the highest leadership, dating from April or May 2018. There, Abu Ahmad is said to have attended a meeting at an unspecified date, while the “may God accept him” after his name indicates that he had died already at the moment of writing.(42) The Abu Ahmad behind the Paris attacks is supposed to have been killed in November 2017, so it can very well be the same person — and it can even be Atar. But details from an interrogation of an Islamic State operative, published by the Supreme Judicial Council of Iraq, mention an Abu Ahmad al-Iraqi being the head of Islamic State’s “foreign relations bureau” and having Algerian citizenship. The man who was interrogated is a Moroccan himself — making it implausible that he made a mistake about Abu Ahmad’s descent.(43)

Oussama Atar may well have played a significant role in the Islamic State’s terror machine, and he may have been the Paris mastermind. But with all the evidence available now, it is impossible to prove his guilt beyond any reasonable doubt

An Italian investigation into a plot for an attack in the city of Milan in August 2016, found that suspect Tarek Sakher received his instructions from an Abu Ahmad al-Jazairi (the Algerian). The latter told Sakher that he had ordered “the brothers of Katibat al-Qaqa” to assist with the plot.(44) That is an apparent reference to an Islamic State unit described by a captured Belgian Islamic State member as being solely tasked with “attacks outside Iraq and Syria”. One of its members, according to the interrogations of Bilal Al Marchohi by the United States military intelligence, was the Belgian Sammy Djedou, also known as Abu Musab al-Belgiki.(45) When Djedou was killed by “a coalition precision airstrike” in December 2016, the Pentagon declared that he had been “involved in facilitating the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris”(46) — raising the possibility that it was the  Algerian Abu Ahmad involved. Alternatively, investigations into the network around Abdesselam Tazi and Hicham El Hanafi, supposedly meant to organize a third major attack on European soil in the fall of 2016,(47) pointed to a Moroccan Abu Ahmad again. Here,  the one who was pulling the strings from within the caliphate was known as Abu Ahmad al-Andaloussi (the Spanish) however(48) — as if the use of kunyas was explicitly meant to lead investigators on a wild goose chase.

Screenshot from an Italian judgment about a terrorist plot coordinated by an Abu Ahmad al-Jazairi — the Algerian

If Oussama Atar really was the mastermind behind the Paris attacks, he likely played that very same role in the March 22, 2016 Brussels attacks. In the réquisitoire that the Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s Office has written for that trial, scheduled in 2022, four individuals are named as leaders of the terrorist cell: Najim Laachraoui, Khalid El Bakraoui, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, and Atar indeed. While three of them are proven to be dead, Atar is once again the only one to be prosecuted as a mastermind — without additional evidence so far.(49) Atar may well have played a significant role in the Islamic State’s terror machine, and he may have been that mastermind. But with all the information now available, it is impossible to prove his guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. There are sources indicating that the French intelligence service DGSI does have solid proof against Atar. But that information is said to be classified, which would mean it can’t be used in court. So, for now, the chance is real that both trials will be concluded without any mastermind convicted.


(1) République Française – Ministère de la Justice – Cour d’appel de Paris – Parquet national antiterroriste, Réquisitoire définitif aux fins de: non-lieu partiel, requalification, mise en accusation devant la Cour d’assises specialement composée, N° Parquet: P.15318000001, N° Instruction: 2113/15/20, 21 November 2019. Unless indicated otherwise, all factual information in this article is derived from this document.

(2) Brisard Jean-Charles & Kevin Jackson, The Islamic State’s External Operation and the French-Belgian Nexus, CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, November/December 2016. Available online at

(3) Cruickshank Paul, The inside story of the Paris and Brussels attacks, CNN, 30 October 2017. Available online at

(4) Police Judiciaire Fédérale de Bruxelles – D.R.3, Procès-verbal N° 007451/2007, 15 February 2007

(5) Tribunal de première instance francophone de Bruxelles, Jugement contre Bouit Bilal et al., 3 May 2016

(6) Claire Hache, Terrorisme: le “revenant” français qui balance, L’Express, 27 June 2018. Available online at

(7) Elise Vincent, Trois ans après le 13-Novembre, l’enquête touche à sa fin, Le Monde, 10 November 2018. Available online at

(8) Thiolay Boris, Fabien Clain avait commandité un attentat en France en novembre 2018, L’Express, 5 July 2019. Available online at

(9) Liabot Thomas, Abou Souleymane, un légionnaire devenu commandant de Daech?, Le Journal du Dimanche, 20 October 2016. Available online at

(10) Rotella Sebastian, U.S. Identifies Key Player in ISIS Attacks on Europe, ProPublica, 19 October 2016. Available online at

(11) U.S. Department of State – Office of the Spokesperson, State Department Terrorist Designations of Abdullah Ahmed al-Meshedani, Basil Hassan, and Abdelilah Himich, 22 November 2016. Available online at

(12) Anonymous, Ex-Legionnaire named by US as key figure in Paris attacks, Centre d’Analyse du terrorisme, 24 November 2016. Available online at

(13) U.S. Military Intelligence, Tactical Interrogation Report – Detainee Tarik Jadaoun, 20 July 2017

(14) Sellami Stéphane & Thibault Raisse, Attentats du 13 novembre: l’ombre d’un jihadiste français derrière le Bataclan, Le Parisien, 21 December 2015. Available online at

(15) The author has archived several posts from el-Mouadan’s Facebook page at that time

(16) Vilars Timothée, Charaffe el-Mouadan, un Français de Daech lié aux attentats de Paris, tué en Syrie, Le Nouvel Observateur, 29 December 2015. Available online at

(17) Suc Matthieu, Les commanditaires du 13-Novembre ont tous été éliminés, Mediapart, 6 November 2018. Available at

(18) Willy Le Devin, Une revenante de Syrie désigne son ex-mari comme commanditaire de l’attaque à l’Hyper Cacher, Libération, 3 September 2020. Available online at

(19) Suc Matthieu, Les commanditaires du 13-Novembre ont tous été éliminés, Mediapart, 6 November 2018. Available at

(20) Alonso Pierre, Etat islamique: “Même déçus, ils conservent des convictions jihadistes”, Libération, 2 December 2016. Available online at

(21) Filiu Jean-Pierre, Boubaker Al-Hakim, le jihadiste qui veut mettre la France à feu et à sang, Huffington Post, 7 April 2015. Available online at

(22) Van Vlierden Guy, Belg (26) kritiek in Iraakse gevangenis, Het Laatste Nieuws, 5 May 2010

(23) E-mail correspondence between the author and the press desk of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq, 12 March 2007

(24) Dallemagne Georges & Lamfalussy Christophe, Le clandestin de Daech. L’histoire d’Oussama Atar, cerveau des attentats de Paris et de Bruxelles, Kennes, 2021

(25) McLaughlin Erin & Haddad Margot, Arrested, freed, flagged: How top ISIS operative slipped through the net, CNN, 16 March 2017. Available online at

(26) Eaton Joshua, U.S. Military Now Says ISIS Leader Was Held in Notorious Abu Ghraib Prison, The Intercept, 25 August 2016. Available online at

(27) Organe de Coordination pour l’Analyse de la Menace, OCAD/262026, Liste consolidée des combattants de Syrie – mise à jour le 18/03/2016

(28) Cour d’Appel de Paris – Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris – Section anti-terroriste, Procès verbal d’interrogatoire avec Adel Haddadi, 30 January 2017

(29) Cour d’Appel de Paris – Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris – Section anti-terroriste, Procès verbal d’interrogatoire avec Adel Haddadi, 20 October 2016

(30) Landespolizeidirektion Salzburg, Beschuldigtenvernehmung Haddadi Adel, 25 January 2016

(31) Cour d’Appel de Paris – Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris – Section anti-terroriste, Procès verbal d’interrogatoire avec Muhammad Usman, 21 October 2016

(32) Police judiciaire fédérale – Arrondissement Bruxelles, Proces-verbal subséquent 025346/2016 – Cinquième audition (Salduz 4 bis) de Krayem Osama, 13 June 2016

(33) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 20 October 2016

(34) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 4 November 2016

(35) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 7 November 2016

(36) Police judiciaire fédérale – Arrondissement Bruxelles, Proces-verbal subséquent 027914/2016 – Synthèse et exploitation des auditions de Krayem Osama, 27 June 2016

(37) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 4 November 2016

(38) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 4 November 2016

(39) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 4 November 2016

(40) Arrondissement de Bruxelles – Tribunal de première instance francophone – Cabinet du juge d’instruction Isabelle Panou, Interrogatoire d’inculpe avec Osama Krayem, 4 November 2016

(41) Police judiciaire fédérale – Arrondissement Bruxelles-Capitale – Division de recherches 3, Proces-verbal subséquent 009366/2018 – Audition en tant que témoin (salduz 1) de AIDA, Mehdi (°15/09/1992), 8 March 2018

(42) Al-Tamimi Aymenn Jawad, Complaints Against the Islamic State’s Media Department Head,, 25 December 2018. Available online at

(43) Anonymous, Former ISIS And Jabhat Al-Nusra Operative: We Tried To Get Chemical Weapons From North Korea, MEMRI’s Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor, 29 August 2018. The original publication in Arabic can be found at

(44) Tribunale Civile e Penale di Genova – Ufficio del Giudice per le indagini preliminari, Sentenza N.859/17, 13 September 2017

(45) U.S. Military Intelligence, Tactical Interrogation Report – Detainee Bilal Al Marchohi, 28 October 2017

(46) U.S. Department of Defense, Statement by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook on Coalition Strike Against ISIL External Attack Operatives, 13 December 2016. Available online at

(47) Tiago Pinto Nuno, The Portugal Connection in the Strasbourg-Marseille Islamic State Terrorist Network, CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, November 2018. Available online at

(48) Royaume du Maroc – Ministère de l’Intérieur – Direction Générale de la Surveillance du Territoire National – Bureau Central d’Investigations Judiciaires – Brigade de la Lutte contre le Terrorisme, Enquête préliminaire sur Yahya Nouri et Mehdi Regragui, 9 December 2016

(49) Ministère public – Parquet fédéral, Réquisitoire relatif aux dossiers FD 35.98.65/16 (faits commis à la station de Métro Maelbeek) et FD 35.98.64/16 (faits commis à Zaventem), 4 December 2019

Chatting with the enemy: two years of conversations with Islamic State women imprisoned in Syria

This article is translated from the original published in Dutch by the Belgian news site HLN.BE, which can be found here

I have teamed up with the enemy. Chatted with terrorists. For two years, I corresponded with Islamic State women imprisoned in Syria. Now that they’re on their way back, it’s time to share what I have heard and learned. That there isn’t so much danger from the women I spoke to. But also that they still have little sense of guilt. That their regrets mainly refer to what they have destroyed for themselves. That they don’t have many dreams for the future anymore, but sometimes still have humor. And that I should give my son black cumin if he has a fever again.

April 14, 2020. “Ping”, the WhatsApp on my telephone says. “Hi, Guy. How are you? Don’t know if you still remember me. But I read the news about the virus there and wanted to wish you the best of luck. Hopefully it will be over soon and everything will be back to normal.” The number starts with +963. The country code of Syria. Yes, I remember who it is. A Dutch woman whose name appeared in the ‘Staatscourant’ five years earlier to ban her as an IS terrorist. She first contacted me in June 2019 from a Kurdish prison camp.

All the women I’ve chatted with in those camps — some sporadically, others weekly — have contacted me themselves. They had heard that I am fairly well versed in the world of foreign terrorist fighters, and that I also have some connections in the war zone. Over the years, many who left from the Low Countries have gone missing. And those women saw me as the last straw in their search for a relative or a friend. «A desperate quest», one Belgian woman wrote. «My husband was captured at the same time as me and I don’t know if he’s still alive. He had been shot in both knees and was in a serious condition. I think there is a very good chance that they had to amputate his legs.”

Not out of charity

I have to admit: it wasn’t out of charity that I joined their quest. It was a journalistic reflex that said: “You’re sitting on a gold mine of information here.” To give the search a chance of success, the women had to tell me everything about the Islamic State people they were looking for. What aliases they used, where and when they went missing and with whom they had hung out. Often the search yielded nothing. There are many anonymous graves in Syria. Many Islamic State members have gone into hiding and even those who are imprisoned are not always known. But sometimes it worked. The desperate Belgian’s husband reappeared. With both of his legs. But more on that later.

I don’t know why it was only women who contacted me. Most likely because there is more freedom of movement in the camps where they are detained than in the prisons for men. In principle, the women are also not allowed to have a telephone, but the control on this is leaking like a sieve. It often happens, however, that a woman hastily taps: «I’ll write to you later. There is a search again. If the Kurds catch us with a telephone, we will go to jail for a while. And then our children are left alone in the camp.” Not everyone has a device, by the way. Those are shared. “I’m going to leave you now because I have to return the phone.”

Bullets next to her tent

September 30, 2019. «Hello. Three women have died here. Shot and killed by the Kurds. We don’t know what’s going on. But the camp is surrounded by soldiers.” There is regular violence in the camps. Between detainees themselves, during arrests, and when yet another revolt has to be suppressed. “They start firing again. I’m going to try to let you hear it.” On the audio recording that I receive a little later, only screams and noise can be heard. But the photos of the bullets she picked up next to her tent don’t lie. Other sources report that a MSF team has been taken hostage by prisoners who have not yet renounced IS. “But all of them are okay,” I’m told a few hours later. “They left the camp without their equipment, ambulance and medication.”

One week later I do write: «Just saw a video reportedly made today, in which you can hear that there was a shooting again. Do you know more?» The answer sounds resigned: «There was a shooting indeed, but not close to me. The camp is so big that we don’t know exactly where it is happening.” A month later, however, there is astonishment again. «Today a ten-year-old child was shot by a Kurdish guard. The children played among themselves with sand and stones. A stone flew a bit too far and that soldier just fired his Kalashnikov. The boy was hit in the back and died twenty minutes later. The violence here is just indescribable.”

We have turned our backs on Daesh

None of the women I chat with say they still support Islamic State. “We have turned our backs on Daesh,” assures one, using the Arabic acronym with the undertone of a curse. “Other women therefore regard us as infidels. Anyone who admits that she wants to go home is scorned here. A lot of women still believe that Daesh will come to liberate us and we are really not that many. I really hope we can get out of here soon. People like me are really stuck between two hells.”

When asked which Belgians still support Islamic State, the answer is almost always evasive. Possibly out of fear of being known as a traitor. Whenever I ask to quote someone when it comes to the camps in my paper, I get a timid: “No, I’d rather not. There are not many of us and even when they are not named, people can be recognized. Then there is gossip: ‘She talks to journalists’, or ‘she passes on information’, such things. Life in the camps is difficult. You really almost have to hide from the people you are living with.”

Died in front of her eyes

Some women are more talkative than others. To one of them, I can send pictures of Belgian foreign fighters, after which she tells me if she knows how they fared. «That’s Abu Dujana from Vilvoorde. He died in Baghouz. Abu Abdallah from Antwerp too. He died in front of my eyes.” She even knows of a fighter long presumed dead that he actually is imprisoned by the Kurds in Qamishli. “His wife received a letter from the Red Cross that said ‘POD2’. That is a code the Kurds are using to hide the place of detention. But someone from the Red Cross told me it’s Qamishli.”

When I tell about a father who is in Belgium waiting for a sign of life from his daughter, the woman promises to make inquiries. “I’ve looked everywhere for her,” she writes weeks later. “But I don’t think she wants to be in touch with her family anymore. Her name is often on Red Cross lists, but she never picks up the letters that come for her.” How does she know all that? “I befriended someone from the Red Cross who is showing me the lists.” I notice that she would be a good detective. “Haha, I’m too curious,” she laughs. “I’ve always wanted to be a journalist. But hey, I took the wrong road.”

Moving to Belgium

Most women are still young. But they no longer cherish dreams. Except one: being allowed to return to their native country. They are at peace with the fact that they then go to jail. They mainly hope not to be too much in the spotlight. “What should I do to prevent my name from appearing in the media when I return?” one asks. «I wouldn’t want to be talked about in five years’ time,» says another. A Dutch woman wonders if she could move to Belgium. “In the Netherlands, everyone knows me as an Islamic State woman. I’s a pity to keep that mark forever. But yeah, it’s my own fault.”

They follow the news about repatriations closely and constantly ask how things are going. “Now we may be allowed to return, don’t you think?” I have a lot to explain about politics and diplomacy. That a ruling by the Council of Europe has no legal force, for example, and that a children’s rights commissioner can advise, but not decide. Eventually they will understand the cynical games. «What should they do with those papers? Eat them?», it sounds bitter when a number of children receive travel documents, but cannot leave for Belgium because their mothers are not welcome there. I don’t have to explain by then that the Belgian government only provided the papers to comply with a court decision, but was not truly concerned with the fate of the children. “Of course not. It’s not their children.”

A dangerous escape

Some of the women I chat with, will probably be back home soon. Others do not, because they come from a country other than Belgium or do not have children, which remains a condition for Belgian women to be taken back. The fact that women who escaped from the camps and ended up in Turkey have returned to Belgium already, is a cause for anger. “That’s not fair. This is how we are encouraged to risk a dangerous escape.” I hear that smugglers charge many thousands of euros for such an escape. And that the same rate applies to children as soon as they are about seven years old.

«People leave here every day», a woman testified in October 2019. Would she risk it herself if she had the money? “I don’t know. I’m too scared for that. I’m not busy with it yet. I still hope for something positive.” Six months later, she no longer reads her WhatsApp messages. “She’s probably moved to a new location, where it’s almost impossible to hide a phone,” a friend of hers from another camp says. She has also lost contact. “But I’m not worried.” Only very recently, I heard rumors that the woman has escaped and is hiding in Syria’s last rebel area. Whether this is true, is impossible to verify.

Please, send me his picture

How did the search for the desperate Belgian woman’s husband go? «Look closely at this screenshot», I wrote to her two months after our first contact. «It comes from an American television crew allowed to film in a Kurdish prison for men. Doesn’t this one look like your husband?” The woman answers in the negative. “No, that’s not him. They do have some similar traits, but I’m sure because the injuries don’t add up.”

Then she suddenly thinks of something. “How do you know he looks like my husband? Do you have a picture of him?” When I admit that I obtained it from a judicial file, she immediately begs: «Can you send it to me? I don’t have a single picture of him.” I can only hope it won’t be considered a form of criminal aid to terrorists — but yes, I did send the photograph. Which resulted in three smileys shedding a tear. If this woman ever returns to Belgium, it can only help her deradicalisation that she has gained a little understanding — that’s how I’ll plead in court if I were to be prosecuted.

A plan that doesn’t go well

Through various detours, I come to know that the man is still alive and in reasonably good condition. I even find out where he is locked up. When I hear from a TV reporter that he is going to visit both the man’s prison and the woman’s camp, I ask him to serve as messenger. The woman is ecstatic. “Can you ask how his health is? His legs? Is he skinny? In the cell he’s in, are they crammed in there? Sorry, I really need details. I have so many questions to ask. I’ve been looking for him for so long.”

But the plan doesn’t go well. The reporter finds the man, but he won’t talk. And with the woman, things go also wrong. She doesn’t want to speak on-screen, whereupon the TV colleague decides not to tell her anything. “I am very disappointed,” she writes. “They only come here for the scoop of the week. But we are not animals in a zoo.” I explain that TV journalists have to run from one topic to another and are under enormous pressure to squeeze out what can be squeezed out. “Now I understand why it’s called the press,” she replies dryly. Followed by a smiley and then: “Hey, just kidding.”

Be patient in life

Thanks to the Red Cross, she could write to her husband and she also received letters from him. “He says that he’s doing better and that he can walk again, little by little. That I should be patient in life and hope that one day we will see each other again.” Certainly a happier story than the woman I had to inform that her husband had been sentenced to death that same morning in Iraq. I also contacted the Belgian father of a woman I was asked about. “She is a friend of mine and has fled from IS. After that, I never heard from her again.” The father tells me that his daughter has made it back to Belgium safe and sound and is awaiting her trial on parole.

He doesn’t want me to give the girlfriend details, for fear that the court will interpret this as a forbidden contact with Islamic State. I do tell her that it ended well, without further elaboration. «Thank you very much», is the reply. “I’m really happy she survived it all.” With the family of a fallen foreign fighter from Brussels, who turns out to be married in Syria to a female jihadist widely known in France, it is hard to get in touch on her request. «We do not discuss such sensitive matters with a journalist,» says a brother when I ask whether the man’s parents do not want to know more about their grandchildren in a Syrian prison camp. So I sent the brother’s number to Syria.

Don’t become too familiar

I’ve always been careful to keep my distance, for becoming too familiar could affect my judgement. When a conversation ends late at night, I allow myself to say good night. And if the woman has a difficult moment, I sometimes wish her courage. But they have learned very little about me. And although my wife sometimes mocks that I am chatting again with my «girlfriends in Syria», they never became friends. It was a rare exception, the time I mentioned that I had to go for a Covid test with a feverish son. I immediately got good advice. «Give him vitamin C and take it yourself. Or even better: black cumin seeds.”

I never insisted on hearing what motivated the women to leave for Syria, or what exactly they and their husbands have been doing there. If you do that, everyone will claim to have been a cook or driver. Similar claims also arise spontaneously. “My husband was more of a civilian than a fighter,” one says. «And I left myself out of love. A blind crush.” Another one declared: «My husband was in prison a lot because he didn’t want to fight.»

Silent on the other side

I don’t know if that’s the truth. It could be. In principle, the fact that the women want to talk to me — a complete stranger and a man — indicates a moderate stance. But of course, there is also taqiyya, the principle that a radical Muslim may break religious rules to fool an enemy. So I don’t know. Most likely, the truth will lie somewhere in between. Would I put my hand in the fire for these women? No. I don’t think they’re dangerous anymore. If they weren’t already rid of their radicalism, which I actually think they are, then they are surely sick and tired of the struggle.

But after a while, I noticed how little sense of guilt they have. Never has one expressed remorse for the actions of the group to which they belonged. Not even if I explicitly said that the people in Belgium do have reasons to be against their return. Regret was always limited to what their choice has destroyed for themselves and their families. “It was a stupid decision to leave for Syria. The dumbest thing in my life, which has cost me two kids.” But if I said that they will have to go to great lengths to persuade the Belgian people to reconcile, it always remained silent on the other side.


This article is based on more than two hundred WhatsApp conversations with five women from Belgium, the Netherlands and France. We know their identities, but guaranteed absolute anonymity so as not to compromise their safety and that of their children. All conversations took place between April 2019 and June 2021. At the moment there are still at least 16 Belgian women in Roj and Al-Hol, the Kurdish camps in Syria, 13 of whom have children. In March, the government decided that mothers and children can in principle be repatriated. At least 200 women from other Western European countries are still imprisoned by the Kurds.

De staatsgevaarlijke stem in het debat over de kinderen van Syriëstrijders

Excuse me my Dutch. Exceptionally, this post is written in my mother tongue. It is a kind of op-ed about an actual debate in Belgium — the question whether Belgian foreign terrorist fighters caught in Syria and Iraq, and especially their children, should be be brought back.

In het debat over het terughalen van Syriëstrijders is er een staatsgevaarlijke stem aan het werk. Een stem die getuigt van tomeloze naïviteit, die onze veiligheid bedreigt en onze beschaving ondergraaft. De stem die zich tegen die terugkeer verzet, zelfs als het over kinderen gaat.

Als iemand die geen enkele band met België heeft, hier een misdaad komt plegen — terwijl hij eigenlijk niet eens in ons land mocht verblijven —dan zetten we die liefst van al buiten. Terug naar het land hij vandaan kwam, naar de samenleving die hem voortgebracht heeft. Dat is niet onredelijk. Want elke samenleving moet voor zijn eigen problemen opdraaien.

Merkwaardig genoeg hanteren we echter een andere logica als het aankomt op Syriëstrijders. Ónze Syriëstrijders, die voor het overgrote deel bij ons geboren en getogen zijn. Ze radicaliseerden in de schoot van onze samenleving, vonden hier de motivatie en de middelen om te vertrekken en deden dat vaak ongestoord.

Zij zijn óns probleem, niet dat van Syrië of Irak. De landen waar zij terreur gingen zaaien, hebben daar nooit om gevraagd. In Syrië is er een bewonderenswaardige opstand tegen een wreed dictatorsregime ten onder gegaan aan de import van radicalisme dat hier werd gekweekt. Dat land is van zijn toekomst beroofd door wat wij hebben laten ontstaan.

We hoeven geen tranen te laten over onze Syriëstrijders die al zijn gesneuveld — en we hoeven ook geen medelijden te hebben met hen die ginder opgepakt zijn. We hebben er hier voldoende ontmaskerd om niet verdacht te kunnen worden van misplaatst begrip. Ze moeten allemaal worden behandeld als misdaadverdachten van het allerergste soort.

Tenminste, als het over volwassenen gaat. Mannen of vrouwen, dat maakt niet eens uit. Maar kinderen, dat is een andere zaak. Wie die wil straffen voor de daden van hun ouders — of hen op welke wijze dan ook minder rechten toekent dan andere Belgische kinderen — is het niet waard om zichzelf een deel te noemen van de beschaving die hij beweert te verdedigen.

Je ziet het wel vaker in de strijd tegen terreur, dat we onze eigen waarden dreigen op te geven omdat anderen onze beschaving bekampen. Maar wie zo reageert, heeft al bij voorbaat verloren. Die schaart zich eigenlijk in het kamp van de vijand. Hij wordt een collaborateur, die zijn hoogste goed weggeeft nog voor er een wapen op hem werd gericht.

Kinderen moéten kunnen terugkeren — en onze autoriteiten moeten alles doen wat in hun mogelijkheden ligt om dat te bewerkstelligen. Een land dat ooit para’s uitstuurde om vaak veel minder onschuldige burgers terug te halen uit Congo, daalt af tot de grootste diepten van lafheid met de bewering dat het nu niets voor deze kinderen kan doen.

Er zijn nu al jihadspecialisten die zich psychiaters wanen en beweren dat de kinderen tikkende tijdbommen zijn. Dat is niet gestoeld op feiten — het is pamflettisme en het gemak waarmee die bewering over de inschatting van échte deskundigen walst, zou wantrouwen moeten wekken over de waarachtigheid van zo’n specialist. Ook in zijn eigen domein.

En stel dan nog dat de haat er bij die kinderen ingestampt is. Dan valt daar nog altijd wel iets aan te doen. Een kind dat hier bij ons een gruwelijke misdaad pleegt, gooien we dat in een kerker of brengen we het naar de galg? Nee. Dat wel willen doen met de kinderen van Syriëstrijders — zelfs vóór die iets hebben misdaan — is dus pure discriminatie en het pleiten daarvoor een strafbare daad.

Ter wille van die kinderen zou het wel verantwoord zijn om hun lot heel even los te koppelen van dat van hun ouders. Ze scheiden is niet ideaal, dat klopt, maar het zou beter zijn om niet te wachten met het redden van de kinderen totdat het debat over hun ouders is beslecht. Want dan is het voor sommige kinderen wellicht reeds te laat.

Maar de slotsom zal dezelfde zijn: wij zijn in de eerste plaats verantwoordelijk — voor onze kinderen en voor onze strijders. Het is onze samenleving die hen voortgebracht heeft. Natuurlijk is het niet evident om hen allemaal hier te berechten en hier op te sluiten. Maar wat is een rechtsstaat nog waard als ze zichzelf bij voorbaat onbekwaam verklaart?

Ja, het zal veel meer van ons gerecht gaan vergen. Dat torent nu nog veel te graag boven de gerechtvaardigde angst van het klootjesvolk uit. Een misdaad is pas een misdaad wanneer ze gepleegd is, niet wanneer ze alleen nog maar in een hoofd zit. Die redenering gaat misschien op voor een handtasdiefstal, maar in zaken van terrorisme komt ze neer op schuldig verzuim.

In Frankrijk wordt er nu al een zwaardere straf gevorderd voor wie trachtte te vertrekken, dan bij ons voor wie reeds met een wapen zwaait. Omdat de wil om onze maatschappij te ontwrichten zelden blijkt te luwen tussen gevangenismuren, hebben we in zaken van terrorisme een soort van terbeschikkingstelling nodig die pas eindigt als bewezen wordt dat het gevaar geweken is.

Maar ondertussen gaat het niet op om onze problemen op de Syrische Koerden of het Iraakse gerecht af te schuiven. Die hebben al genoeg gedaan en nog genoeg te doen. Dat is méér dan een morele stellingname. Het is ook een wanhoopskreet om in te zien waar de grootste dreiging schuilt — bij Syriëstrijders die we gecontroleerd terughalen of bij hen die blijven zitten waar ze nu zijn.

Het is hopeloos naïef om te geloven dat onze Syriëstrijders ginder veiliger zitten dan hier. Ze kómen terug en als wij ze niet gaan halen, dan gebeurt het achter onze rug. De Koerden hebben er al meermaals  mee gedreigd om hun gevangenen los te laten — en zelfs als ze dat niet doelbewust zouden doen, dan gaan de IS’ers uiteindelijk wel lopen van zodra Turkije de Koerden verdrijft.

Turkije heeft zich nooit iets aangetrokken van het jihadistisch gevaar. Het werkt er zelfs mee samen. Syrië heeft zijn gevangenispoorten al eerder opengezet. Iran is altijd al een schuilplaats voor terroristen geweest en Saoedi-Arabië een financier. Er is geen enkele mogendheid in de regio die ons tegen terroristen beschermt — niet tegen de hunne, niet tegen de onze. Dream on.

Ja, Irak geeft gevangengenomen IS’ers de doodstraf en voert die ook uit. Good riddance, denken wij dan. Maar het regime in Bagdad gaat daarbij zo nietsontziend tekeer, dat het nu alweer de kiemen zaait voor een volgende opleving van de jihad. Pro memorie: heel de ellende met IS ontstond precies daar, in Irak, op precies dezelfde manier.

Lees er het recentste stuk van Ben Taub maar op na — een Amerikaanse sterreporter die zijn carrière drie jaar geleden met een portret van onze Jejoen Bontinck begon. Hij zag met eigen ogen hoe zo’n proces in Irak op vier en een halve minuut wordt beslecht — enkel steunend op een bekentenis die de beschuldigde met een blinddoek voor de ogen ondertekend had.

We snijden in ons eigen vlees door ons probleem op anderen af te schuiven — en door onze veiligheid toe te vertrouwen aan anderen. Het toekomstig bloedvergieten zal zo méér te wijten zijn aan degenen die ten alle prijze angst willen zaaien, dan aan hen die niet wegvluchten voor de problemen en naar echte oplossingen zoeken.

“Your mother is an enemy of Islam”, father of Belgian toddler Yasmine told in his will

“You don’t have a mother anymore, since your mother was an enemy of Islam.” These are the words that Mehdi Atid spoke to his daughter Yasmine (4) when he recorded his will. One and a half year ago, he left for Syria with the girl to join a militia linked to al-Qaeda. After his death, a local Islamic court ruled that the toddler should be reunited with her mother in Belgium. But, pointing to his will, Atid’s militia refused to comply  – until early this week.

Mehdi Atid and his daughter Yasmine pictured in Syria

When Yasmine disappeared in May of last year, few people dared to hope that she ever would come back. It was her separated father Mehdi Atid who took her to Harim, a village in Syria’s Idlib province. There he joined Firqatul Ghuraba, an independent militia close to al-Qaida, led by the notorious French recruiter Omar ‘Omsen’ Diaby.

In April of this year, news came out that Atid had died. It reportedly had happened in December 2017 in the Hama province. When we asked Diaby through his Telegram account whether Yasmine shouldn’t return to her mother, he told us that her fate was in the hands of an Islamic court. Shortly after, that court decided in favour of Yasmine’s mother – but Firqatul Ghuraba refused to comply.

The court was dominated by Hayat Tahrir as-Sham (HTS), the leading jihadist force in Idlib. Diaby’s militia was often in trouble with that former branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, which imprisoned him twice for challenging HTS rule in cases like that of Yasmine. Early this month, it appeared that Firqatul Ghuraba had joined Hurras ad-Din, the new al-Qaeda outfit in Syria – and that a committee with members of both groups would decide about Yasmine.

At that time, Firqatul Ghuraba announced that a will exists in which Atid resisted against the return of his daughter. It depicted the girl as an orphan, saying that her Belgian mother does not qualify to get parental rights because she is a dubious Muslim – without further elaboration. Nevertheless, the mixed committee again decided in the mother’s favour, and last Monday Yasmine was brought to Turkey to be reunited with her mother and leave for Belgium.

Mehdi Atid in a Syrian shop

Shortly after, we obtained the will of Atid – a video file of nearly eight minutes of which the largest part is an audio message. That was recorded on the 15th of November 2017, Atid declares in it, to be assembled with some footage afterwards. There’s a short clip showing Atid in Syrian shop. Carrying a kalashnikov-style rifle, he’s examining the merchandise. “It looks the same as at home, but it is better”, he says enthousiastically. “The food is blessed by Allah the Almighty here.”

Next, a still of Atid and Yasmine is shown. Most likely it is taken in Syria too, and just like in all other images that recently appeared from her, she isn’t smiling even a bit. Finally, at the end of the video, there is a very short clip showing Atid’s funeral. He lies under a blanket in a shabby brick grave. There are no injuries to see before someone is covering his head with a cloth.

The funeral of Mehdi Atid in December 2017

The will itself, in which Atid presented himself as ‘Abu Jundullah’, starts with material matters. “I don’t own a lot”, he said, “and you can give it all to the ummah, to brothers and sisters in need. That means my motorcycle and all my personal belongings. Everything.” Quickly, the subject changed to Yasmine. “For my daughter, I would want a sister taking care of her as if she were her very own daughter. I don’t want her to return to the kufar. I don’t want my former wife to come and get her back.”

A bit later, while he explicitly addressed Yasmine, he explained why. “You are a bit young and you don’t understand”, he says to his daughter, who can be heard sometimes babbling and trying to touch the recorder. “You don’t have a mother anymore because your mother was an enemy of Islam. She opposed Islam and she did everything possible to mislead you into shirk.”

Atid was worrying so much about the return of his daughter, that he asked his brothers in arms to keep it quiet when he would be dead. “I don’t want that my picture circulates on social media then”, he is telling in his will, “because it can attrack attention of the enemies of Islam, those who want to take my daughter back.” Even his parents shouldn’t know. “Lie to them, for the sake of Allah. When my family will ask for me, tell them that I’ve moved to another location or another group. Tell them that I’m fine, but cannot be reached.”

To Yasmine, he insisted: “I love you, my dear. I love you for the sake of Allah.” But he didn’t wish her good luck, nor prosperity. His very first concern was that his daughter will become a good Muslim. “Be a believer”, he asked her, “try to learn the Quran by heart and educate yourself.” His second concern was that she will be a good woman – in his very own interpretation of what that means.

“Be a pious wife”, he asked the four year old girl. “A wife that will be fruitful, God willing. Make many children, honour you husband and comply to the rights of your man.” His interpretation of a decent marriage became clear already when he left for Syria, dragging along not only Yasmine, but also a girl of fourteen years old. He ravished the teenager as his new wife and soon made her pregnant. She was arrested in Turkey, where she went to give birth, and sent back to Belgium with her newborn child.

The swimming pool clue: how Islamic State’s worst bloodshed in Europe could have been avoided

A car theft in the Netherlands, a seemingly insignificant note that was found in Molenbeek, and a shop for swimming pool equipment in the North of France. These are the three ingredients of the best clue there ever has been to thwart the Paris and Brussels attacks — a new investigation by the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws reveals.

Bayroshock, a product against algae used in swimming pools

A lot has been written already about the clues that security services missed in the run-up to the Paris and Brussels attacks — clues that could have prevented the bloodshed by Islamic State. Could have. In hindsight, it is easy to list the mistakes. Yes, it was known to the police that Salah Abdeslam had started to radicalize. But at that time, it was the case with tens, if not hundreds of Belgian Muslims like him. And yes, only 22 days before the Paris attacks, a search took place in the house of Khalid El Bakraoui because he tried to obtain kalashnikov chargers. But he was known as a gangster and in the end no weapons were found.

Bayroshock without chlorine

About one clue, however, nothing has been published yet — and that clue is likely the very best chance authorities missed to detect the terrorist cell. It started with the theft of a car in a small village between the Dutch rivers Maas and Waal. It was a silver colored Audi S4 built in 2003 that disappeared in the night from August 10 to 11, 2015 at a parking lot in Rijswijk — part of the municipality of Woudrichem and not to be confused with the much bigger town of Rijswijk near The Hague. “Klerelijers”, a friend of the owner reacted at a notice on Facebook, using an equivalent for “assholes” that is endemic for the Netherlands — while another one hurled: “Your country will be proud of you”, easily assuming that the thief was of foreign origin.

The rightful owner got his car back after it was found in the Brussels municipality of Molenbeek, and during a subsequent house search a handwritten note was found. It seemed of little importance: “Bayroshock without chlorine”, it mentioned, followed by the addresses of two shops for swimming pool equipment in the North of France. Bayroshock is a product against algae that consists of hydrogen peroxide at a concentration of 34%. Apart from being recommended for the treatment of pools, that same substance is also a main ingredient of TATP. Triacetone triperoxide is the explosive often called ‘the Mother of Satan’ and known as a terrorist’s favorite since the failed attempt by ‘shoe bomber‘ Richard Reid to blow up a plane between Paris and Miami in December 2001.

Ahmed Dahmani, a naturalized Belgian citizen born in Al Hoceima, Morocco

Ahmed Dahmani, a naturalized Belgian citizen born in Al Hoceima, Morocco

The man in whose house the note was found, is Ahmed Dahmani — a naturalized Belgian citizen of Moroccan descent. He was born in 1989 in Al Hoceima, a town between the Rif mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. In 2015, he was living in a fourteen-storied building in the Molenbeek ‘Zone du Canal’ — not the kind of address where a swimming pool owner can be expected. He was mainly known to the judiciary as a multi-recidivist criminal, who was caught for theft already at the age of twelve. The latest of the 51 cases in which his name appeared, was about a massive traffic in hard drugs between Belgium, France and Luxembourg. But there were signs of radicalization too, much stronger signs in fact than those present at that time with his childhood friend Salah Abdeslam.

Blessing the expansion of Shariah4Belgium

With Abdeslam, he underwent an identity check on board of a ferry between Patras in Greece and Bari in Italy only a week before the car theft in the Netherlands. Now, we know that they conducted one of many travels along the refugee route that was used by the Islamic State to smuggle terrorists to the West, but then it understandingly did not raise a particular suspicion yet. Ten days after the search that uncovered the note, however, Dahmani was named in a report about radicalism. Written by a motorized patrol of the Brussels police that had apprehended a suspected candidate for the Syrian jihad. Friends of the suspect had tried rather brutally to prevent that arrest, and Dahmani was one of them.

At Facebook, Dahmani did not hide his beliefs. There, he complained in 2014 already that the word extremism was “invented by enemies of the Islam”, while posting a quote that the Islamic State often uses to recruit criminals like him for the jihad — the one in which the second caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab declared: “Sometimes the people with the worst past create the best future”. Dahmani also posted Islamic State videos, and three days before a terrorist attack was foiled in Verviers — in January 2015 — he threatened: “One day everything will be paid.” He did all of that under the cover of a pseudonym, but his contacts with a suspect in the Verviers case could have lead to his identification back then already.

Mohamed Dahmani, Ahmed’s older brother, known as a patron of Shariah4Belgium since 2012

In Dahmani’s family tree, radicalism became obvious almost a decade ago. His older brother Mohamed — who basically raised him instead of their always absent father and their chronically ill mother — was named in a terrorist case as early as 2009. He was investigated for his contacts with the suspects of a bomb attack in Cairo that killed a French teenager — the same suspects behind the earliest plot against the Bataclan in Paris. Mohamed Dahmani was never charged, but by the time his brother Ahmed entered the scene, at least three of Mohamed’s friends had left for Syria. One of them departed from Brussels in the company of the later terrorist commander Abdelhamid Abaaoud. And in 2012 already, Mohamed himself was known as a patron of Shariah4Belgium, asked explicitly for his blessings when leader Fouad Belkacem wanted to expand his recruitment from Antwerp to Brussels.

“Talking like youngsters, but not impolite”

Altogether, there were plenty reasons to raise the alarm when Ahmed Dahmani showed his interest in an ingredient for bombs. But that did not happen, and at the 8th of October 2015 — a month after the note of Dahmani was found — a BMW left Molenbeek towards the North of France. At 4h04 that afternoon, the car was caught by a speed camera at the A2 highway in Neuville-sur-Escaut. The license plate would later learn that the vehice was rented by Salah Abdeslam, and the GPS revealed two stops: at 5h02 in the rue Maurice Thorez in Saint-Sauveur, and at 5h44 in the rue Ferdinand de Lesseps in Beauvais — the two shops mentioned on Dahmani’s note.

Speed camera image of the car rented by Salah Abdeslam on its way to Beauvais

Both are branches of Irri Jardin, a chain “for your swimming pool, irrigation and spa”. The shop in Saint-Sauveur had ran out of Bayroshock, it seems. But the Beauvais manager recounted to the police how he sold his entire stock that day. “I had three jerrycans of five liters each, and they asked for more. When I told that half a jerrycan is sufficient for one pool, they claimed that they did the maintenance of several pools in the Paris area. Then they asked for a similar product, which I couldn’t offer. ‘Let’s buy these three then, we have to leave’, one of them said. They paid with cash and didn’t look tense, only a bit in a hurry.”

Receipt for 15 liters Bayroshock purchased in Beauvais on October 8, 2015

The manager described the two men as North-Africans between 25 and 30 years old. Both were of average build, had short hair and a short shaved beard. One of them was wearing a jacket over his sweater, the other one a bodywarmer. They spoke French — also when they talked to each other — without a particular accent. “They expressed themselves like youngsters do, but they weren’t impolite”, the manager said. Confronted with the pictures of known suspects, he thought to recognize Salah Abdeslam. But he wasn’t sure. Altogether, the two men spent no more than seven minutes in his shop, after which they made a fuel stop at the Total station of Hardivillers and returned to Molenbeek.

Forbidden in Belgium now, but not in France

French investigators are fairly confident that their purchase has served to fabricate the bombs that were used for the attacks in Paris on the night of 13 November 2015. There were eight explosive belts, of which two have failed to detonate. Each of them contained between one and two kilograms of TATP, and according to explosives experts of the French police, the terrorists could make ten kilograms with fifteen liters Bayroshock. In Belgium, the EU directive banning the sale of hydrogen peroxide in concentrations above 12% to private customers was passed into law in July 2016. But in France, a softened version entered into force last year, just requiring registration for private purchases.

The Belgian passport of Ahmed Dahmani that was seized during his arrest in Turkey

Ahmed Dahmani is in Turkish custody now. He took a flight in Amsterdam on the morning after the Paris attacks, with a ticket that was bought a few hours prior to the bloodbath — indicating that he knew what was going to happen. When he was arrested near Antalya on the 16th of November 2015, he was still in the possession of his Belgian documents, including membership cards of the Christian trade union CSC and the Grand Casino in Brussels. In the meantime, however, he had also bought a false Syrian passport with the name Mazen Mohamad Ali, and the WhatsApp conversations on his phone revealed that he had planned to reach the territory of Islamic State. In December 2016, a Turkish court convicted him to ten years and nine months in jail for membership of a terrorist organization. After he has served that sentence, Belgian and French extradition requests are awaiting him.

No omertà for jihad – Terror suspects often denounced by family members

Families of terror suspects often suffer from all kind of prejudice. It is thought that they are covering for their relatives, that they have contributed to the radicalization themselves, or that they quietly are proud. Sometimes that is true — but it seems rather rare, according to research published in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’. We examined how people landed on the Belgian list of foreign fighters and recruiters — and found that on a total number of 450 cases where authorities acted on external tip-offs, family members who raised the alarm were the most important factor.

Screenshot from the official list of Belgian foreign fighters and recruiters we’ve obtained. Details are made illegible for privacy and security reasons



At least 117 names were put on the official Belgian list of suspected foreign fighters and recruiters after relatives spoke out. Sometimes they confirmed suspicions that authorities already had, but often they alerted the police spontaneously out of fear for the departure of their relative to the Syrian-Iraqi conflict zone. We found 60 cases indeed of which security services wouldn’t have known (or would have known much later, at least) without cooperation from within the suspect’s family.

Marion van San, a criminologist who has talked with many families for her research into the motives of foreign fighters and the attitude of relatives, is not surprised at these figures. “Until now, I have never visited a family that was happy with the departure of a relative”, she says. “We should remain cautious when drawing conclusions, since relatives who are radicalized themselves are not willing to talk — and if a quarter of those families alerted the authorities, there are still three quarters who did not. But I also have to say that families often only realize what was going on after a relative has departed. It is almost unbelievable how they didn’t see the signs.

It has to be feared, according to van San, that the willingness to report a relative for radicalization has diminished over the years. “Because it didn’t help the families who did”, she says. “The police rarely acted adequate. They either told that whoever wanted to leave, could not be stopped — or they talked immediately about making an arrest.” In van San’s experience, radicalization often happens within families with rather too little than too much religion — raising their children as Muslims without really making an issue of it. “I wish that I had taught my son much more about Islam”, a father told van San. “So that he would have known enough to fend off these people with their wrong ideas.”

They do exist of course, families where children are raised as extremists — and where a departure for the jihad is a reason for joy. But in our research, we could only find a dozen examples of that. The list contains a Belgian citizen of Chechen descent, A.T. (21), about whom is stated that he radicalized “under the influence of his father”, while his mother’s family “seemed willing to facilitate his travel to Syria”. The parents of T.T. (21) were divided, since “he was encouraged by his father to get a military training as a preparation for jihad”, while his mother “took away his passport” to be sure he couldn’t leave. There is also an occasion in which a father was put on the list as a suspected recruiter while his son — an important member of Shariah4Belgium — had died in Syria.


For 112 suspects, the crucial information came from abroad. Most often from authorities in Turkey, where many would-be foreign fighters were stopped and sent back to Belgium. Morocco is another country sometimes more aware about the radicalization of Belgian residents than Belgian authorities themselves. While the latter were still struggling with vague indications about the Brussels-based Italian citizen Silvio Terranova (25), Rabat suspected him already of a terrorist plot against its royal family. It was on Moroccan soil that Terranova finally could be arrested and convicted to three years in jail. About the Belgian citizen of Serbian descent V.S. (30) it were Iraqi security services who raised the alarm. He was arrested in Iraq in 2014, while even his family seemed unaware of his conversion to Islam, and turned out to be a youth friend of a Belgian foreign fighter who had died in the Syrian conflict already.


60 individuals are on the list after exposing themselves on social media. M.N. (20) from Brussels for instance, who tweeted three years ago that he would leave for Syria once he was eightteen years old. He named his account ‘Killer2chiites’, a clear indication of his will to commit atrocities there. T.D. (28), a convert to Islam from the Campine region, exposed his plans to travel to Syria on his Facebook account. There, he publicly asked to get in touch with someone speaking Turkish in order to communicate with a facilitator in Turkey. A.K. (54) from Brussels wasn’t known to Belgian security services until he posted a picture showing himself in military fatigues and carrying a kalashnikov rifle on his Facebook account — a picture that clearly was taken in Syria.


21 names were put on the list after being exposed by public sources, such as mainstream media. “Residing in Syria according to Het Laatste Nieuws”, it is mentioned about Johan Castillo Boens (38), the son of a professor at Leuven University. Apparently, security services didn’t know about his departure when we revealed his whereabouts in October 2014. Boens had been captured by Turkish authorities while trying to sneak into Syria, but subsequently became a part of the infamous prisoner swap in which tens of Islamic State adepts were traded for Turkish diplomats taken hostage by the terrorist organization. Sometimes, public sources are the work of jihadists themselves. In the case of Arben Imishti (38) from Schoten near Antwerp, it was his appearance as an executioner in an Islamic State beheading video that confirmed his presence in Syria.


18 people have to blame themselves for being on the list because they talked too much. Often, it happened in a fury unrelated to their extremist beliefs. Samir Chafik (45) from Charleroi shouted that he would leave for Syria and return to kill the “Belgian disbelievers” during a brawl in his Thai boxing club. He was arrested the following month, appeared to be linked with a man from Charleroi who had committed a suicide attack in Iraq, and he was sentenced to five years in jail. M.C. (65) from Huy went asking the police whether her criminal record would prevent her from obtaining a visa for Syria — and M.G. (31), an imprisoned Tunisian citizen, revealed his plan to wage jihad in “a rancorous letter” to the Belgian king Philippe.


Seven times at least it was from within a school that the alarm was raised. In the case of I.H. (20) from Brussels, that happened 3,5 years ago after he had glorified Islamic State in a student class paper. Z.A. (23) from the eastern province of Limburg was caught during lessons while searching the internet for weapons — and S.A. (27) was denounced by fellow university students suspecting that he had left for Syria because of his absence and previous signs of radicalization on his Facebook page.


Three people on the list were detected at their workplace. In the case of R.B. (30) from Brussels, it was virtually impossible to overlook his radicalism. He distributed Islamic State propaganda material among his co-workers, openly told that he wanted to leave or commit an attack at home, and reportedly uttered death threats against superiors who tried to stop his proselytism. Two of the individuals were working for companies at Brussels Airport — and luggage handler A.H. (41) even asked his colleagues for money in order to support the “struggle of Islamic State”.


We based our research on a list of 811 suspected foreign terrorist fighters, people willing to leave for jihad, and recruiters — compiled by the Belgian federal government’s Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA, also known as OCAD in Dutch and OCAM in French). Since the allegations often haven’t been proven in court, we don’t mention full identities unless an individual was publicly named and/or convicted already for a terrorist offense. It is crucial to add that a single allegation like the ones we mention, never was enough to be put on the list. That happened only after further investigations resulted in additional evidence. Finally, it has to be stressed that the percentages do not refer to the total number of suspects, but only to the 450 cases for which the list explicitly mentions an external tip-off as first indication or decisive confirmation of the suspected radicalism.

Following the Facebook trail of Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s scouts

They look like students taking a gap year. Traveling through Europe to get a sense of its culture, to party, and to catch a holiday romance. But they are in prison now as suspected scouts of the Islamic State. The Belgian daily newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws delved deep into their Facebook accounts, and unearthed an alarming strategy.

Mourad Taleb posing in Rybnik, Poland, in August 2015

Mourad Taleb* left his home in Casablanca on September 14, 2014. He had eagerly looked forward to his journey. Eight days earlier, he had posted a picture on his Facebook page which showed him looking through a half-open door. “Soon”, he wrote below it. On that photograph, he still wore the neatly ironed shirt of his job in the classy business hotel Le Palace d’Anfa. Once arrived in Istanbul, he had changed it for a groovy jeans and a hipster shoulder bag. Yes, he is a Muslim from Morocco. But no, he wasn’t on his way to Syria.

During the following months, Taleb did travel through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland. His journey can be reconstructed step by step thanks to the check-ins on his Facebook account, where he is alternately posing with historical monuments and in fancy discotheques. He shows how he went swimming, bowling, pooling, and attended a match of the soccer team Rapid Wien. In Poland, he picked up a girlfriend with whom he even posed while having a bath — and with whom he even has married, it seems.

Mourad Taleb posing with his Polish girlfriend in August 2015

She wasn’t an Islamic girl, and there are very few signs of religion on his Facebook page too. Very rarely, he posted something in Arabic like the “we all belong to Allah and to Him we shall return” that is recited when a relative has passed away. But anyway, on the 5th of September 2016, he was arrested in the Polish town of Rybnik for belonging to the terrorist group Islamic State. During his time in Turkey, he reportedly had met Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the notorious coordinator of Islamic State attacks from Molenbeek in Belgium.

According to the complaint, that was cited by the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, they met in Edirne near the border with Greece. On his Facebook page, Taleb was pictured in Edirne on the 2nd of October 2014 waving a flag of ‘Raja Club Athletic’, his favorite Moroccan soccer team. Apart from Abaaoud, he is said to have met two other Belgians there: Khalid Ben Larbi and Soufiane Amghar. Both were killed a few months later in the Belgian town of Verviers, during a police operation that foiled a bloody attack.

Mourad Taleb posing in Edirne, Turkey, in October 2014

The journey of Taleb reportedly was nothing less than a reconnaissance operation. Commissioned by Abaaoud, who was already planning several Islamic State attacks in Europe by then. For that, he used several scouts. Most of them were traveling through Europe under the disguise of Syrian refugees, reporting back to Abaaoud about their means of transportation, places to stay, and most important: how they passed  borders and other controls.

Abaaoud had a special Facebook account to keep in touch with them. According to Le Monde, Bilal Chatra — a scout arrested in the German town of Aachen in April 2016 — had 429 messenger conversations with that account in one month time. While Abaaoud was killed shortly after the Paris Attacks of November 2015, his account is still online. It is called Protocole Walodiwalo (with ‘walodiwalo’ meaning ‘nothing for nothing’ in Moroccan Arabic) and doesn’t show anything of a religious nature. The profile picture is that of a black African man laughingly exposing his ruined teeth, with a protracted “hahaha” written in Arabic over it. Still on the friends list of the account is Mourad Taleb, while we found out that Taleb has also been in touch with Chatra using social media.

Talking about friends: apparently Taleb was acquainted with Redouane Sebbar in 2011 already. A rather unsuspicious time, but Sebbar — who also hailed from Casablanca — became a scout of Abaaoud too. He was arrested in a refugee center near the German city of Hamburg in December 2016 and in October of last year turned over to France. French investigators think Sebbar was implicated in the botched attack on a Thalys high speed train in August 2015. He traveled back and forth with that same Thalys between Brussels and Paris five days earlier, supposedly on the orders of Abaaoud.

Redouane Sebbar posing in Thessaloniki, Greece, in February 2015

The Facebook account of Redouane Sebbar is revealing that he left for Istanbul on December 16, 2014. He crossed the border with Greece on January 4, 2015 — three days after Taleb — and traveled through Serbia, Hungary and Austria to end up in Germany in May 2015. He wasn’t posing that much, but he also looked as a tourist. He too made friends everywhere along his way — not only Muslims — and his check-ins include fitness centers, shopping malls, ice cream parlors and a well-known gay bar in the Greek city Thessaloniki.

Redouane Sebbar posing in Belgrade, Serbia, in March 2015

The cover that the scouts were using, is so convincing that it’s obvious to think: they can’t have been aware of what they were contributing to. Maybe they were fortune hunters, paid by Abaaoud without knowing what he was planning. They must have sensed that it wasn’t completely right, but the worst they could imagine may be that Abaaoud was trafficking drugs or something like that. If they knew the full extent of his intentions, how on earth they were able to keep up appearances while lying in their Western lover’s arms?

But if Polish investigators are right, at least Taleb knew very well that he was working for the bloodlust of the Caliphate. On his mobile phone, instructions for making explosive devices and pictures of potential targets were found —as the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita reported. On top of that, Taleb called Muslims who were grieving for the victims of the Paris attacks “bastards” and “dogs” in intercepted text messages.

It is highly disturbing that the scouts of Abaaoud have been able to conceal their true intentions so well, since Facebook is loaded with similar looking profiles. Browsing through the friends list of Sebbar for instance, we found P.L. — a young man from Casablanca who was in Greece in March 2015. One month later, he traveled through Hungary, in May 2016 he stayed in a German refugee center, and just one month ago he settled in Paris. He’s not only on the friends list of Sebbar, but also on that of a Moroccan living in München and linked to Abaaoud’s account.

There’s no evidence whatsoever that he too is implicated in terrorist activities. Most likely he’s a genuine fortune hunter, who may have left Morocco as a friend of Sebbar, but without being radicalized himself halfway. But because the scouts of Abaaoud were that efficient in building a cover, all similar migrants  are becoming a bit suspicious again. Shortly before he died, Abaaoud declared that 90 terrorists had entered Europe already. Was he only bragging? Possibly. But there’s still a lot of investigations to do, that’s for sure.

*Update: Mourad Taleb was convicted to 4 years in jail by a Polish court in March 2019 (see for instance In June 2020, however, it was brought to our attention that he had been acquitted on appeal in April 2020. See

Drones, draft dodgers, and much more about Islamic State

Again, we have obtained some interrogation reports from a Belgian foreign terrorist fighter apprehended in the Syrian-Iraqi conflict zone. His name is Bilal El Marchohi and he was caught by Kurdish forces near ar-Raqqah (Syria) on the 29th of August 2017. Two articles based on what he told the US military were published already in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’.[1] What follows is a factual account of the most relevant details.

Belgian IS operative Bilal El Marchohi after his capture in Syria in August 2017

Background information

Bilal El Marchohi (22) is a Belgian citizen of Moroccan descent, raised in the Antwerp neighborhood of Borgerhout. The earliest trace of militant activity we found, was his participation in a protest against the Israeli army in November 2012 — as can be seen in a picture report that the Belgian daily Het Nieuwsblad published at the time.[2]

He left for Syria with his wife — Ilham Borjani from Gouda in the Netherlands — in October 2013, apparently recruited by Shariah4Belgium. First they joined the then al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat an-Nusra, but very soon they switched sides to the Islamic State. El Marchohi’s IS entry file[3] mentions that he entered in November 2013, recommended by Abu Hamza al-Belgiki. That is likely Nabil Kasmi, one of the very first European fighters in Syria, who was also part of Shariah4Belgium.[4]

El Marchohi used the kunya ‘Abu Fudayl al-Belgiki’ and was an avid social media user. In September 2014, he posted a picture on his Facebook account, showing his foot on the logo of a Free Syrian Army faction with the words: “You are overrun, trampled like a cockroach.” In November 2014, he threatened Belgium and the Netherlands with a sort of poem on his Twitter account. “Oh Belgium, sweet and tender’, it went. “The moment of pleasure. The blade nicely blunt. Oops, head off. Fear in your heart. Keep your hands off from our brothers. Oh Netherlands, know that your people will end up in our hands. Blood will flow to compensate. Necks will be cut.”

El Marchohi was one of the Belgians for whom the Paris ‘Gare du Nord’ was completely cleared in May 2017. His picture had been circulating jointly with that of Belgian IS operative Tarik Jadaoun and an Afghan IS suspect, after which a counter clerck thought having recognized them on a Paris bound train.[5] After Jadaoun was caught in Mosul (Iraq) in July 2017, he stated that he doesn’t know El Marchohi, according to US interrogation reports we earlier obtained.[6]


Kaoutar Bioui, one of three European women trained to return for an attack

European women trained for an attack in the West

El Marchohi told his interrogators that IS intended to deploy three European women for terrorist attacks in the West. They received a training in the handling of explosives, and were prepared for a journey back to Europe over Turkish soil. Without indicating when exactly all of this happened, he identified the women as Umm Hanifa al-Belgiki, Umm Ibrahim al-Hollandi (aka Hafida) and Umm Nusaybah al-Belgiki (aka Rahmah). To his latest knowledge, the first two resided in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, while the latter lived in ar-Raqqah — the Syrian capital of IS.

Umm Hanifa al-Belgiki almost certainly is Kaoutar Bioui (30), the spouse of Belgian IS operative Hicham Chaïb. Bioui uses that same kunya and she perfectly fits the description in which El Marchohi told that the three women “are not popular because they openly carry weapons and speak of Jihad”. After she had left for Syria in April 2013, Bioui was highly active at Facebook and in June 2014 she posted a picture of a disassembled assault rifle, stating in a mix of French and Dutch: “My baby has had a good cleaning.”

Umm Nusaybah al-Belgiki may be the widow of Abdelmalek Boutalliss, a Belgian foreign terrorist fighter killed in November 2015 committing a suicide attack in Iraq. He was known as Abu Nusaybah, but wasn’t married when he left in June 2014. At the time of Umm Nusaybah’s terrorist training, she was married with a certain Abu Harun, according to El Marchohi, while he later also named the Belgian IS operative Moustafa Ahjit (aka Abu Younes al-Belgiki) as husband of the same Umm Nusaybah.


Hicham Chaïb, the Hisbah officer from Antwerp who was too cruel for IS

A Belgian Hisbah officer too cruel for IS

El Marchohi did confirm a long-heard rumor about Hicham Chaïb: that he was a Hisbah officer in ar-Raqqah — although not the highest one. “But he was fired because he was too extreme and abusive”, the interrogation states — after which Chaïb started working as a logistician for the Purchasing Department. Al Marchohi admitted that he himself has also worked for the Islamic police. He served as the Hisbah emir for Mansurah, a town between ar-Raqqah and at-Tabqah, and he was subordinated to Abu Jafar al-Jazrawi, the Hisbah emir for at-Tabqah.


A Chechen IS emir sold weapons in Belgium

Highly interesting are El Marchohi’s revelations about a certain Abu Khalid as-Shishani. “He smuggled weapons into Belgium from Chechnya in order to sell them and send the money to extremists located in Eastern Europe”, he stated during the interrogations. He also mentioned that this Abu Khalid, who apparently was missing his right leg when El Marchohi knew him, later became the ‘Emir of Borders’ within IS.

Although not sure, Abu Khalid may be Aslan Sigauri, an ethnic Chechen from the Pankisi region in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, who is also known as Salman Variev. He was designated as one of the 54 most dangerous Caucasian terrorists by Russia in 2011 already, but still managed to settle in France the following year.[7] Belgian authorities, who refer to him as Aslan Sigaouri, have indications that he operated in their country indeed — while the judgment of a trial against Chechen jihadist recruiters in Belgium mentions that Sigauri used the safehouse that the Ostend based ringleader Chalil Man had established in Turkey.[8] Pleading against this identification is Al Marchohi’s statement that Abu Khalid was still alive last year, while Russian authorities declared Sigauri dead in May 2016.[9] But that was the second time he was said to be killed — leaving room for reasonable doubt.


A Belgian bought weapons for IS from the Free Syrian Army

Regarding the purchase of arms, El Marchohi also told about a fellow Belgian who “bought weapons with personal money from the FSA and sold those weapons to IS”. It isn’t clear however which faction within the Free Syrian Army was involved, nor whether they knew the destination of what they sold. But while it looks like Abu Hafs — the Belgian subsequently identifed by El Marchohi as Mohamed Mezroui from Antwerp — started dealing weapons on his own initiative, he later did it on demand. “IS gave him money in order to continue buying weapons”, the interrogations state. And while no further information is given about the suppliers, it is mentioned that Abu Hafs started to focus on “large weapons, to include tanks”.


A Dutchman trying to develop a heat-seeking missile

“IS has been attempting to build rockets that are capable of shooting down aircraft”, Al Marchohi revealed. Those rockets had to use “a heat sensor mechanism” and members of the project claimed a certain point that they were close to accomplishing their task. Al Marchohi knew two people in the team who have worked on it for approximately one year: a certain Abu Layth al-Jazrawi and a man that he alternatively named as Abu Bashir al-Belgiki and Muhammad Talby. The latter doesn’t match any of the Belgian fighters however, and it is more than likely that he meant the Dutchman Mohamed Talbi, who left for Syria in 2013 from Zoetermeer — a location from where other Dutch foreign fighters have landed in the very same Islamic State circles as El Marchohi. The detainee did not provide any detail about the location where the rocket research was done, but in another context he mentioned “the Research and Development Department in Mayadin” (Syria) as the place where rockets and mortars were made.


Ali El Morabit from Antwerp, emir of the drone department in Deir ez-Zor

Profound paranoia within the drone squad of IS

El Marchohi seems to have a fairly detailed knowledge of the drone activity by IS, thanks to at least four fellow Belgians involved in that. They all were part of the ar-Raqqah based ‘Observation Unit’, an entity that counted around fifteen members and was led by Abu Ramadan ad-Dagestani. “Most members of the Observation Unit are foreign fighters from Europe”, Al Marchohi told. “The unit has approximately thirty drones that are currently in operation. In addition to the quad-copters used for reconnaissance and attacks, IS has at least one large fixed-wing drone used to parachute supplies into ar-Raqqah from Mayadin.”

That this information must be fairly up to date, can be deduced from the trajectories of Observation Unit members El Marchohi knows. One of them is Azeddine Kbir Bounekoub, a Shariah4Belgium recruit who was best friends with the well-known Jejoen Bontinck before both left for Syria. Bounekoub was stationed as a fighter in Mosul (Iraq), but sent back to Deir ez-Zor (Syria) shortly before the siege of Mosul began. He went on to ar-Raqqah and became “the leader of a small UAS unit approximately three and a half months prior to detainee’s date of capture”, it is stated in one of the interrogation reports.

Another Belgian who made it into a leading position in the IS drone department is Ali El Morabit. Also a Shariah4Belgium recruit from the city of Antwerp, El Marchohi named him as the “emir of the drone department in Deir ez-Zor”. Lower level drone operators he knew, are Taieb Oubahid and Ismaïl Iddoub, both from the Belgian town of Vilvoorde. El Marchohi also described the security measures drone operators had to observe. “They will launch a drone and then walk to another location before performing operations”, he told. “And they will land the drone and wait for some time before going to retrieve it. They are paranoid about airstrikes while doing their job.”


A French draft dodger in the ‘Second Chance Battalion’

Asked about other very specific entities within IS, El Marchohi explained that the ‘Saad Ibn Abi Waqqas’ unit consisted of highly skilled snipers. “The training is approximately six months long and very difficult”. Entering is far from easy and he doesn’t know a lot of members. “Abu Yahya al-Hollandi is one, while Abu Ibrahim al-Hollandi attempted to become a member, but failed the training course.” He has heard, but isn’t sure, that the commander is an Australian. Originally, it was located in at-Tabqah. “But in January 2017 approximately it was moved to ar-Raqqah, and two months later it was broken up to divide the members between the various fighting units there.”

El Marchohi also told about the ‘Second Chance Battalion’. Officially, it is called the ‘Khaybar Battalion’, and it is meant for IS members who have run away from the front. “Abu Muhammad al-Adnani created it in order to maintain retention among IS members in prison. Many times, they will be given the option to join the ‘Khaybar Battalion’ to get out of prison early.” El Marchohi said he knows only one former member: Abu Maryam al-Faransi — possibly meaning Kévin Chassin, a convert from Toulouse who has died in May 2015 committing a suicide attack in Iraq. “Abu Maryam became a member after being discovered sitting at home and collecting a paycheck without belonging to any unit.”


Nabil Kasmi from Antwerp, supposed member of external operations unit ‘Amin al-Askari’

New names involved in plotting terrorism abroad

Last but not least, two Islamic State entities supposedly involved in terrorist operations abroad were mentioned during the interrogations — with names not previously disclosed, as far as we know. The first one is identified as ‘Fawj al-Qaqa’, of which El Marchohi knew two members. The first of them was a Belgian foreign fighter called Abu Musab. That matches the kunya of Sammy Djedou, a guy from Brussels of partly Ivorian descent who was killed by an American drone in December 2016. At that time, the Pentagon stated that he had been involved in plotting the November 2015 Paris attacks.[10]

The second ‘Fawj al-Qaqa’ member El Marchohi named — and supposed to be still alive — is a certain Abu Mahmud al-Kurdi. According to his knowledge, ‘Fawj al-Qaqa’ is “a completely independent unit, which has no ties to other elements of IS”. He stressed that its sole mission is “to conduct attacks outside Iraq and Syria”, and mentioned that each “front and major city” has a ‘Fawj al-Qaqa’ representative, who acts as a recruiter.

A second entity possibly involved in terrorism abroad, is the ‘Amin al-Askari’ unit. El Marchohi indicated that he knew one member, a certain Abu Basir al-Gazawi, but could not say for sure whether the unit indeed was responsible for “external operations”. He did elaborate that this Abu Basir al-Gazawi had been the leader of his own acquaintance Nabil Kasmi — mentioned above — while they were based in Aleppo in 2014. But when asked explicitly whether Kasmi also belongs to the ‘Amin al-Askari’ unit, El Marchohi answered that he doesn’t know.

The suspicion that Belgium’s very first terrorist fighter in the current Syrian-Iraqi conflict may have entered the IS external operations department, is likely reinforced by El Marchohi’s knowledge about Kasmi’s latest job. He started making bombs for IS after he had joined the terrorist group in early 2013, but asked for something else “because Nabil thought the chemicals were keeping him from impregnating his wife”. So Kasmi became an intelligence officer in ar-Raqqah in 2015 already, a position fairly close to the plotters of foreign attacks in the Islamic State organigram.


[1] See and

[2] El Marchohi can be recognized on the left at this picture:









Confessions of Belgian IS terrorist Tarik Jadaoun in Iraq

The Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ has gained exclusive access to the interrogation reports of Tarik Jadaoun. Better known as ‘Abu Hamza al-Belgiki’, he is a Belgian member of Islamic State detained in Iraq. Here’s a resume of  what we have in published in Dutch — with some additional notes about people Jadaoun confessed that he has met.

Tarik Jadaoun in Iraqi custody

Belgium has very good reasons to hope that Tarik Jadaoun (29) never will reappear in the country. According to his own confessions in Iraq, the Islamic State operative was extensively involved in terrorist plotting against the West. He even volunteered to return for an attack himself.

“Journalist’s talk.” That was Jadaoun’s reaction to reports about his involvement in terrorist plots when he was interviewed last month by Belgian state television. “It’s not my fault that there were attacks in Belgium and France”, he said. “I didn’t give the orders for that.” He tried to picture himself as a follower, whose only mistake was his choice for IS — full of regret and very much willing to cooperate with Belgian security services, if they help him to escape an almost certain death sentence in Iraq.

Interrogated by Americans however, Jadaoun told a different story. He admitted his involvement in several terrorist plots — two of which have lead to deaths on European soil — and he even confessed that he had volunteered for an attack in Belgium or France himself. According to the interrogation reports, Jadaoun was apprehended on the 12th of July 2017 at 6 AM in al-Farooq, a neighborhood in the west of Mosul liberated from IS a fortnight earlier. He was arrested without weapons, equipment or documents – suggesting  that he had gone into hiding. But he hadn’t suffered hardship yet, since his weight of 135 pounds is healthy for a man of 68 inches tall.

Jadaoun declared that he had worked as a medic in a makeshift hospital in the Hayy al-Maydan neighborhood from early June until two days before his arrest. On the 10th of July, that hospital was hit by a coalition air strike, causing the death of his pregnant wife and their one year old daughter. He had two spouses at that time – the one who died was a Belgian citizen of Algerian descent. The other is an Iraqi who had fled Mosul with her parents early last year, but was still in touch with Jadaoun via social media about ten days before his arrest.

If he is telling the truth, Jadaoun has worked as a medic for most of his time with IS. That was also the case in Kobanê, he said, the Kurdish town in Syria captured by IS in September 2014. At that time however, Jadaoun posted a picture on Facebook showing the mutilated corpse of a YPG fighter, commenting that it was his very first victim. “I could approach him while he kept the watch and shot the dog from within ten meters”, he boasted — not exactly what a medic typically does. What he told his interrogators about the hospital in Mosul, is confirmed by other sources however. He mentioned that it was lead by an Indian doctor known as Abu Hamza al-Hindi — while shortly afterwards an audio message by another Indian IS member eulogized an Abu Hamza al-Hindi who reportedly had died while the hospital the managed was bombed.

Jadaoun is clever. When he told his father, back in May 2014, about his plans to leave for Syria, the father threatened to inform the police. To make sure it had not happened, Jadaoun went a few days to Morocco first. Only after he experienced no scrutiny, he booked a flight to Bucharest, Romania, and from there to Istanbul. Another security measure, he explained during interrogations. “If I had booked a direct flight, I would have been arrested at the airport already.”

The Belgian has met at least one of the people suspected of directing the Brussels and Paris attacks: Abdelilah Himich, a former French soldier thought to be the ‘Abu Suleyman’ calling with the terrorists during the Bataclan siege. Jadaoun knew Himich by his nickname ‘Nescafé’ — “because he was hyperactive and consumed large quantities of caffeine” — but he did not confirm Himich’s involvement in the attacks. “Nescafé came to Mosul as the military emir of the Tariq ibn Zayid battalion mid-to-late 2016”, he only recalled. “He participated in the defense of Fallujah and after IS was defeated there, he was exhausted from fighting. He did not return to Mosul, but went to Syria instead without approval of IS” – which would mean that one of the most wanted European IS operatives became a deserter.

Jadaoun badly wanted to become a terrorist himself. In 2015, he heard that Abdelhamid Abaaoud – the Belgian field commander of the Paris attacks – was searching perpetrators for attacks on European soil. While Jadaoun insists that he has never met Abaaoud, he did submit his candidacy to Abu Abd al-Hamid al-Shishani, whom he identified as the emir of the Abu Mutaz al-Qurashi division, the entity in control of all IS foreign fighters. But his offer was refused. Apparently, Jadaoun was meant to become a coordinator instead. “He is groomed to be the next Abaaoud”, a former IS member told us in 2016. Jadaoun did not confirm that during his interrogations, but he told extensively about his use of social media to recruit attackers in the West.

He ran at least fifty different Facebook accounts and was active too on Telegram, where he was cautious enough to set the self-destruction tool for what he wrote at 30 seconds. At a certain point, he sent a detailed manual for the production of explosives to an IS supporter in Europe who told him that he had recruited a suicide bomber already. “I don’t know how that plot ended”, Jadaoun said. He also admitted that he was in touch with the two perpetrators of the July 2016 Normandy church attack, the murderer of a French police man (likely the June 2016 Magnanville attack) and with two of the women behind the September 2016 Notre Dame Cathedral bombing attempt. All these plots were previously attributed to the French ‘remote-controller’ Rachid Kassim, who also operated from Mosul — but Jadaoun didn’t mention Kassim and failed to confirm that these remote-controlled attacks have been a full-fledged part of the ‘external operations division’ within IS for which he closely worked together with Kassim.

In his interview with Belgian state television, Jadaoun proposed to cooperate with security services in order to avoid new attacks, because IS “still has people hidden in Europe”. The Belgian prime minister Charles Michel refused the offer immediately. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists”, he said. The interrogation reports suggest that Jadaoun has little to offer. Explicitly asked in November of last year, he denied any knowledge about future attacks or people still busy with that. But it is possible of course that Jadaoun wanted to keep his most valuable knowledge as a leverage.

It is suspicious at least how he remembered tiny details about individuals who are dead or defected already,  while he couldn’t recall elementary facts about other, often more important people. His description of the Egyptian emir who gave him a job in the Education department for instance, makes it fairly easy to identify the man as a well-known veteran of the jihad – the German citizen Reda Seyam. But Jadaoun pretended to know almost nothing about him. He flatly denied that he ever has heard about Ahmed Dahmani or Ahmad Alkhald, two suspects for the Paris attacks who are still alive — and the same goes for Abu Fudayl al-Maghribi, likely his compatriot Bilal El Marchohi, with whom he appeared on the same wanted notice that lead to the evacation of a Paris train station in May 2017.

From Grozny to Raqqah with stopover Brussels – The ‘Eastern Contingent’ of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters

The latest update of our database on Belgian foreign terrorist fighters added a significant number of Russian sounding names. People rooted in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are still a small minority — but worth a closer look.

By Pieter Van Ostaeyen & Guy Van Vlierden

Belgian authorities have started to disclose identities of foreign terrorist fighters who weren’t prosecuted yet, forced to do so in order to freeze their assets. Using a law from 2006, they can only impose “specific measures against certain people and entities in the fight against the financing of terrorism” when the names are published in the official journal ‘Belgisch Staatsblad/Moniteur belge’.

That has happened now for 251 individuals[1], and a well-informed security source confirmed to us that all of them are “related to the current foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon”. These disclosures have enabled us to fill a lot of blanks — or more precise: anonymous records in our own database. That consists of 621 individuals now, with a somewhat broadened definition as the one we earlier used — see below.

About 30 people seem to have roots in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. 22 are certainly of Russian descent – including 12 from Chechnya, 4 from Kalmykia (including two children), 2 from Ingushetia, 1 from Dagestan and 1 from Kabardino-Balkaria. Furthermore, 2 have roots in Kosovo, 1 in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and 1 in Albania.

It may be small, this ‘Eastern contingent’, but it is likely underestimated too. It is extremely difficult to investigate, as was proven at the trial of some people belonging to what seems the most important ‘Eastern’ network in Belgium. In December 2016, the main defendant Chalil Man, pictured here in court, was sentenced to ten years in jail for being its leader. But at the trial in appeal in June 2017 even his identity wasn’t certain anymore.

“The defendant was known under the aliases Darra, Mohmad, Abdul Azis and Umar”, the written verdict states. “And his real identity is very doubtful, since an authentic Russian passport was found with the picture of the defendant and the name of Magomed Saidov, born on the 29th of April 1964. But possibly this name is also false.”[2] That uncertainty however didn’t prevent the court to raise Chalil Man’s sentence to twelve years.

At the trial, Man was described as an example of the people “who are the liveblood of the harrowing conflicts taking place now in Syria and Iraq”.[3] He was identified as a veteran of the jihad, often bragging about his experiences in Pakistan. He went to Syria himself in the early days of the war, but soon came back to act as a recruiter and an organizer. In order to facilitate the travel of fighers, he even bought an apartment in the Turkish town of Körfez.[4]

Man recruited for the Sunni Islamist militia Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa’l-Ansar (JMA), it was told, and he followed its leader Tarkhan Batirashvili – a citizen from Georgia with an ethnic Chechen background, better known as Abu Omar as-Shishani – when the latter joined Islamic State. “He acted as a leader of JMA abroad”, court documents state about Man, and his apartment has provided shelter to notorious people such as Aslan Sigauri, once named by Russia as one of the 52 most dangerous rebels in the Northern Caucasus.[5]

Chalil Man was also linked to Tourchaev Khassanbek, a man arrested in Greece on the 27th of January 2014 while he tried to cross the Turkish border with some military equipment. Khassanbek is listed as a foreign terrorist fighter in France[6] and apparently lived in Lingolsheim near the city of Strasbourg. During his many travels back and forth between Belgium and Turkey, Chalil Man even visited Malaysia once for a stay of only five days.

Undated image of Tourchaev Khassanbek

The network led by Chalil Man has all the characteristics that seem typical for the recruitment efforts in the Russian and Eastern European Muslim communities in Belgium. All of it is happening independently from other local organizations, where people with a Chechen background for instance are extremely rare. We know only one in the two major networks: Magomed Saralapov, a Shariah4Belgium recruit who was present at the foundation of Islamic State.[7] The so-called Zerkani network apparently has none.

Magomed Saralapov in Syria in 2014

Most of the Eastern contingent’s networks seem to operate in a very covert manner. They do not expose themselves with propaganda, as Shariah4Belgium did — and even its individual members rarely show themselves off on social media, as many Zerkani followers did. And if they do so, they are still protected by a language barrier. An example of that is the ‘Islamsko Romani Dawetsko Organizacija Belgija’ (IRDO-Belgija), an Islamist group within the Romani gypsy community.

That organization was put in the spotlights in 2013 already, when we exposed it as a platform for jihadist preachers from the Balkans.[8] A lot of its activity was openly announced and shown in YouTube videos. But because all communication happened in languages such as Albanian and Bosnian, it was difficult to assess – and only in December 2016 a series of arrests made clear that at least one member – the ethnic Kosovar Mahid Dibrani – had been fighting in Syria.[9]

Screenshot from an IRDO-Belgija video from 2012

Another characteristic of the Eastern networks is that they are very much spread throughout Europe. More than the major jihadist networks in Belgium, it seems — where the top of course has international connections, but people at the lower levels significantly less. The transnational orientation of the Eastern network is likely caused by the limited size of its respective communities, resulting in a more intense cross-border interaction not only in jihadist circles.

Jihadists of Chechen origin in Belgium quite often are  connected with like-minded Chechens in Austria, for instance. A recent example is Adam Abdulkhadzhiev, a Chechen native who had lived in Belgium since he was eleven years old. He married a woman of Chechen descent twelve years his senior in the Austrian town of Baden and planned to leave with her for Syria, it appeared when both were arrested by the Austrian police in the fall of 2016.[10]

An older case in which Chechens from Belgium and Austria were involved, was that of an Antwerp based group arrested in 2010. As an exception, it was made up of Moroccans and Chechens, recruiting for jihad and also plotting an attack “bigger than that in Madrid” – a reference to the March 2004 bombing in which 191 people died – intercepted phone calls learned.[11] One of the defendants was Aslambek Idrisov, a Chechen living in the Austrian town of Neunkirchen.

At the first trial in 2012, Idrisov was acquitted. But in 2014 he was sentenced on appeal to seven years in jail.[12] In 2008, Idrisov had been arrested in Sweden already while traveling in a car that was loaded with weapons. He was in the company of fellow Chechen Akhmad Chatayev.[13] That same Akhmad Chatayev was identified in 2015 as the commander of the Yarmouk Battalion, a Chechen faction of Islamic State,[14] and in 2016 he was named as mastermind of the Istanbul airport attack in which 44 people died.[15]

From a lot of ‘Easterners’ whose names are now on the official list of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters, very little is publicly known. That is the case with 70 year old Danga Youssoupger, a Chechen interviewed by a Belgian newspaper in 2007 about his work as a horticulturalist in a social project in Antwerp[16] — and with Bisera Gerasimovska, an 18 year old girl from Macedonia who told on social media a few years ago that her life in Belgium was “super cool”. Up till now, we have no clue about what has brought these people into jihad.

Bisera Gerasimovska on social media in 2011

An intriguing case is that of Ramzan Makhauri and Islam Borchashvili, who were reported missing back in 2010 while traveling together on a train from Belarus to Moscow[17], and now have their assets frozen in Belgium. The same goes for Aslan Chamutaev, who came back in Belgium in May 2013 after being arrested in Greece and threatened with extradition to Russia[18] – a move he could reportedly avoid thanks to interference by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.[19]

There are also ‘Easterners’ in our database of Belgian foreign fighters who haven’t appeared yet on official lists. An example is Denis Pershin, a native of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic within the Russian Federation, arrested there in December 2015. He reportedly converted to Islam while living in Belgium, studied at a religious school in Egypt and went to Syria for the jihad.[20] In August 2016, the man with dual Belgian and Russian nationality was convicted to four years in jail.[21] But again, we haven’t found any detail about how he would have been radicalized while living in Belgium.

Denis Pershin on social media in 2010




Belgian Foreign Terrorist Fighters Database – definition and new highlights

We do list now every person:

  • of Belgian origin, foreign origin but living in Belgium for a significant time, or clearly recruited by an entity operating from Belgium and departed to the conflict via Belgian soil;
  • having tried to reach the war zone of the Syrian-Iraqi conflict that started in March 2011 or having planned to do so according to official documents and/or court proceedings;
  • with a clear intention to join a local fighting party there, be it as a fighter themselves or in any other role – including family members who may have been forced into the conflict zone.

While it has to be stressed that this definition isn’t limited to Sunni Islamists, they are the main focus of our research and actually 612 (or 98.5% of all our 621 records) can be considered as such. 289 at least have joined Islamic State, while the last known affiliation of 50 individuals is Jabhat an-Nusra — the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate — or one of it’s subsequent forms.

While the share of women was 15% in our previous update, that has risen now to 18%. We do know about 38 children – not counting those who may have been born after their parents have left, and sometimes came back with them. In terms of recruitment, Shariah4Belgium remains the most important actor with 101 individuals in whose departure it was implicated. The so-called Zerkani network can be held responsible for 85 departures.

Since many of our recent additions weren’t detailed enough to assess their status of departure, we have introduced a category ‘unknown’ for that – and after a review of all our records, our estimate of people who have reached the battle zone was lowered to 478. Of those who certainly didn’t succeed, 45 were stopped abroad and 22 in Belgium.

Of those who reached the conflict zone, at least 102 have returned and 129 were reportedly killed. 119 of those deaths have happened in the conflict zone, while 10 individuals were killed after their return to Europe as part of a terrorist plot. A complete list of the deceased is added below – but it has to be stressed more than ever that most deaths cannot be verified, and examples are known of fighters who faked their death to lure security services.




List of Belgian foreign fighters reportedly killed in the current Syrian-Iraqi conflict


  1. Julian André Harinton, aka Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki, convert from Antwerp who most likely joined the Free Syrian Army and was killed in April 2012
  2. Hamdi Mahmoud Saad, a Syrian living in Brussels who joined the Free Syrian Army and was killed in Latakia governorate in August 2012
  3. Rustam Gelayev, son of Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev who lived a while in Belgium, killed in Aleppo governorate in August 2012
  4. Soufiane Chioua, Brussels recruit of Denis & Zerkani networks who left in October 2012, joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed at an unkown date
  5. Bilal Zinati, recruit of the Denis network who left in December 2012, joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed at an unknown date
  6. Younes Laabadi, fighter from Houthalen-Helchteren who was related by marriage to IS terrorist Mohamed Abrini. Left in 2012 and considered dead by Belgian authorities
  7. Sean Pidgeon, a convert from Brussels recruited by the Denis & Zerkani networks, killed in Aleppo governorate in March 2013
  8. Anonymous fighterfrom Mechelen, killed before April 2013 according to an imam who assisted his family
  9. Anonymous fighterfrom Vilvoorde whose death was announced in April 2013. He was barely eightteen years old and got killed by a sniper two weeks after his arrival in Syria
  10. Ahmed Stevenberg, the alias of an unidentified fighter of Jabhat an-Nusra, killed by the Syrian army in the Latakia governorate in April 2013
  11. Raphaël Gendron, aka Abdurauf Abu Marwa, a Frenchman raised in Brussels, killed in the ranks of Suqur as-Sham in April 2013
  12. Tarik Taketloune, aka Abu Khattab, figher from Vilvoorde who was recruited by Shariah4Belgium and joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, killed in May 2013
  13. Saïd Amrani, Denis recruit from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg who was killed in May 2013
  14. Ismail Amgroud, a fighter from Maaseik who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in June 2013
  15. Noureddine Abouallal, aka Abu Mujahid, a leader of Shariah4Belgium who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in July 2013
  16. Younis Asad Rahman, the alias of a fighter also known as Asad ar-Rahman al-Belgiki, killed in August 2013 in Latakia governorate
  17. Abu Salma al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter killed in August 2013 in Deir ez-Zor governorate
  18. Youness Kharbache, Denis recruit from Brussels and brother of Hamza Kharbache. Joined Islamic State and was killed in August 2013 in Damascus governorate
  19. Ahmed Daoudi, aka Abu Mochsin, Shariah4Belgium recruit who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, but reportedly soon switched to a hospital job. Was active as a medical worker during the Al Ghouta chemical attack in August 2013, went missing shortly afterwards and was reported dead
  20. Abdel Rahman Ayachi, aka Abu Hajjar, son of the Brussels-Syrian cheikh Bassam Ayachi, killed in the ranks of Suqur as-Sham in September 2013
  21. Abdelgabar Hamdaoui, a Shariah4Belgium recruit fighting for Jabhat an-Nusra, killed in September 2013
  22. Ahmed Dihaj, aka Abu Ateeq, a leading figure within Shariah4Belgium, who left early in 2013 to join Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in September 2013
  23. Houssien Elouassaki, aka Abu Fallujah, Shariah4Belgium recruit who became the emir of the foreign chapter within Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen. Switched side to Jabhat an-Nusra and was killed in September 2013
  24. Mohamed Bali, aka Abu Hudayfa, Shariah4Belgium recruit coming from Antwerp, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in September 2013
  25. Abdelmonhim R’ha, Sunni Islamist fighter from Antwerp, reportedly a relative of former Belgian Guantánamo detainee Moussa Zemmouri. Killed in September 2013
  26. Ibrahim El Harchi, aka Abu Ali, a recruit of Jean-Louis Denis fighting for Islamic State, killed in mid December 2013 during clashes with Ahrar as-Sham in Idlib governorate
  27. Sabri Refla, aka Abu Tourab, Denis recruit from Vilvoorde, who subsequently joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and the Islamic State. Died in Iraq in December 2013. Indications but no proof that he committed suicide attack
  28. Abu al-Baraa al-Belgiki, an anonymous fighter of Algerian descent, who served as emir for Islamic State in the Syrian town of Saraqib and was killed there in January 2014
  29. Ouafae Sarrar, aka Umm Djarrah, wife of Shariah4Belgium recruit and Islamic State fighter Ilyass Boughalab. Reportedly killed around January 2014
  30. Abdelmonaïm Lachiri, aka Abu Sara, recruit of the Zerkani network and a son of its ‘pasionaria’ Fatima Aberkan, killed in the ranks of Jabhat an-Nusra in February 2014
  31. Feisal Yamoun, aka Abu Faris, a leader of Shariah4Belgium who left with wife and three young kids, killed in February 2014
  32. Hamza Kharbache, Denis recruit from Brussels and brother of Younes Kharbache, who joined the Islamic State and was killed in February 2014 in Aleppo governorate
  33. Brahim Labrak, Denis recruit from Brussels with French roots, who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, switched to Islamic State and was killed in February 2014
  34. Nabil Ajraoui, Denis recruit who left as a minor in November 2013 and was killed in February 2014
  35. Ilyass Boughalab, aka Abu Djarrah, Shariah4Belgium recruit killed in March 2014 and mentioned afterwards as a member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar
  36. Yoni Mayne, aka Abu Dujana al-Mali, Zerkani recruit from Brussels with Belgian father and Malinese mother, killed near ar-Raqqah in March 2014 and mentioned afterwards as member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar
  37. Saïd El Morabit, aka Abu Muthanna, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Antwerp, killed between ar-Raqqah and Hasakah in March 2014 and mentioned afterwards as member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar
  38. Abdelilah Jab-Allah, aka Abu Omar, Brussels recruit of Denis & Zerkani networks. Joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in March 2014
  39. Karim Mahrach, aka Abu Azzam, recruit of Jean-Louis Denis from Brussels, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in April 2014
  40. Mohamed Said Haddad, Zerkani recruit from Brussels and brother of the Verviers terrorist plot member Abdelmounaim Haddad. Killed in April 2014
  41. Khalid Bali, aka Abu Hamza, brother of Mohamed Bali, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in May 2014 at the age of seventeen
  42. Khalid Hachti Bernan, aka Abu Mehdi/Abu Qa’qa, member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar, originally from Virton, who was killed in May 2014
  43. Nabil Azahaf, aka Abu Sayyaf, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Vilvoorde who became a member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar and was killed in May 2014
  44. Abu Handalah, anonymous Jabhat an-Nusra fighter who appeared in the video ‘Turning Point’ and was killed in May 2014 near Aleppo
  45. Yassine El Karouni, aka Abu Osama, Shariah4Belgium recruit coming from the Netherlands, but living in Antwerp. Joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in May 2014
  46. Kiéran Luce, aka Abu al-Qada al-Faransi, recruit of Denis network coming from the French-Caribbean island of Martinique. Joined Islamic State and committed suicide attack in northern Iraq in May 2014
  47. Iliass Azaouaj, an imam from Brussels who left to get Belgian fighters back home, then joined Islamic State himself, but was executed on suspicion of being a spy around July 2014
  48. AnonymousBelgian fighter killed in July 2014 in al-Keshkeyyi, Deir ez-Zor governorate
  49. Adem Ben Amor, aka Abu Obayda at-Tunisi, Tunisian who lived as refugee in Antwerp, joined the Islamic State in July 2014 and committed a suicide attack in Kobanê at an unknown date
  50. Souleymane Abrini, Zerkani recruit and brother of Paris & Brussels attacks accomplice Mohamed Abrini. Joined the Islamic State and was killed in August 2014
  51. Abu Jihad al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in battle for airport in Deir ez-Zor governorate on August 31, 2014
  52. Zakaria El Bouzaidi, best friend of Sean Pidgeon, who was recruited together with him by the Denis & Zerkani networks. Killed in September 2014
  53. Abu Mohsen at-Tunisi, anonymous Belgian fighter of Tunisian descent, fighting for Islamic State and killed in September 2014 during a battle near the airport of Deir ez-Zor
  54. Abu Adnan al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter of Algerian descent who switched from Jabhat an-Nusra to Islamic State at the end of 2013 and was killed in September 2014
  55. Abu Mohamed al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter killed in October 2014 in Deir ez-Zor governorate
  56. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter of Saudi descent, killed in the ranks of Jabhat an-Nusra in October 2014 in Latakia governorate
  57. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter mentioned on a list of deaths of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar, published in October 20147. It was later confirmed that this kunya doesn’t refer to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who faked his own death around the same time
  58. Abu Sulayman al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter of Maghribian descent, killed in Kobanê in November 2014
  59. Bilal Barrani, aka Abu Said, Zerkani recruit of French origin who was living in Brussels, joined Islamic State and was killed in December 2014
  60. Fouâd Bouhali Zriouil, aka Abu Ilyass. Brother of al-Qaeda veteran Hicham Bouhali Zriouil from Brussels. Likely left in 2014 and killed at unknown date
  61. Khongr Pavlovitch Matsakov, Sunni Islamist fighter from Ostend with roots in the Russian republic of Kalmykia, killed in January 2015
  62. Abu Taymiyya al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter killed in Kobanê in January 2015
  63. Khalid Ben Larbi, aka Abu Zoubeyr, Islamic State fighter from Brussels who was killed during a police operation in Verviers (Belgium) on January 15, 2015
  64. Soufiane Amghar, aka Abu Khalid, Islamic State fighter from Brussels who was killed during a police operation in Verviers (Belgium) on January 15, 2015
  65. Anis Bouzzaouit, aka Abu Ibrahim, a Zerkani recruit who entered the Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar and was killed in February 2015 in Deir ez-Zor governorate
  66. Fahd Asamghi, aka Abu Sabir, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Antwerp who subsequently fought for Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa’l Ansar and Jabhat Ansar al-Din. Killed in March 2015
  67. Younes Bakkouy, aka Abu Aziz, Islamic State fighter from Genk who left with two brothers, one of whom (and most likely him) was reportedly killed in March 2015 near Tikrit in Iraq
  68. Abu Bakr al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter from Brussels who committed suicide attack in Ramadi (Iraq) on March 11, 2015
  69. Mesut Cankurtaran, aka Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki. Islamic State fighter from Vilvoorde, recruited by Shariah4Belgium and the Denis network. Killed in March 2015 in battle for airport in Deir ez-Zor governorate
  70. Karim Kadir, aka Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki. Islamic State fighter from Charleroi, who committed suicide attack at the Iraqi-Jordan border on April 24, 2015
  71. Abu Tourab al-Belgiki, anonymous Sunni Islamist fighter from Brussels killed in May 2015 in Damascus governorate
  72. Abu Handala al-Belgiki, anonymous Sunni Islamist fighter killed in May 2015
  73. Abu Muhammad Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter with roots in France and Cameroon. Military instructor within elite brigade of IS in Damascus & Homs governorates and reportedly killed in battle of Sokhna in May 2015
  74. Abu Muslim al-Belgiki. Anonymous Islamic State fighter from Antwerp. His death was announced in June 2015, but reportedly happened around a year earlier
  75. Sami Ladri, aka Abu Waliya, Zerkani recruit from Brussels who joined the Islamic State and committed suicide attack near an-Nukhayba (Iraq) on June 22, 2015
  76. Fayssal Oussaih, aka Abu Shaheed, Islamic State fighter from Maaseik, killed in July 2015
  77. Abu Iliace al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter whose death was announced by an Islamic State source in ar-Raqqah in July 2015
  78. Mossi Junior Juma, teenager from Brussels with roots in Burundi, said to be taken to Syria by his mother and killed in July 2015 at the age of sixteen
  79. Lucas Van Hessche, aka Abu Ibrahim, convert from Menen with roots in Haiti, joined Islamic State and was killed in August 2015 in Hasakah governorate
  80. Sahil Ahmed, aka Abu Mariyya al-Belgiki, fighter from Ghent, apparently of Indian descent. Joined Islamic State and was reportedly killed during his very first battle in August 2015
  81. Abu Ayman al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed by British drone strike in ar-Raqqah in August 2015
  82. Brian De Mulder, aka Abu Qasim al-Brazili, convert from Antwerp with Belgian father and Brazilian mother, recruited by Shariah4Belgium. Died in October 2015 of wounds sustained by an air strike three weeks earlier
  83. Mohammed Hajji, Islamic State fighter from Antwerp, killed by an air strike in ar-Raqqah in October 2015
  84. Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State figher, killed in October 2015 by a French air strike on a training camp near ar-Raqqah
  85. Abdelmalek Boutalliss, aka Abu Nusaybah, Islamic State fighter from Kortrijk who committed suicide attack near Haditha (Iraq) on November 11, 2015
  86. Andy Bizala Lubanza, Zerkani recruit from Brussels with Congolese & Rwandese roots, joined Islamic State and was killed in November 2015
  87. Anonymous, Belgian wife of Islamic State emir ‘Abu Khabab’ from Saudi Arabia, killed with her husband in November 2015 in Deir ez-Zor
  88. Bilal Hadfi, aka Abu Mujahid al-Faransi, Islamic State fighter of French origin living in Brussels, who committed suicide attack in Paris (France) on November 13, 2015
  89. Ibrahim Abdeslam, aka Abu Qa’qa al-Belgiki, Islamic State fighter of French origin living Brussels, who committed a suicide attack in Paris (France) on November 13, 2015
  90. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, aka Abu Omar al-Belgiki, Zerkani recruit from Brussels, who joined Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar and was killed on November 18, 2015 during a police operation in Saint-Denis (France) linked to the Paris attacks
  91. Chakib Akrouh, aka Dhul-Qarnayn al-Belgiki, Zerkani recruit from Brussels, who joined the Islamic State and was killed on November 18, 2015 during police operation in Saint-Denis (France) linked to the Paris attacks
  92. Nour-Eddine El Mejdoubi, aka Abu Issa. Spanish-Moroccan IS fighter who resided in Belgium prior to his departure. Appeared in video from Syria in July 2014 and killed at unknown date according to Spanish press report in November 2015
  93. Mohammed Jattari, Sunni Islamist fighter from Tienen, killed at unknown date in 2015
  94. Dniel Mahi, aka Abou Idrissi. Zerkani recruit from Brussels who likely was the ‘Padre’ codenamed leader of the Verviers terrorist plot. Presumed dead by Belgian authorities according to documents dating from 2015
  95. Younes Ahllal, aka Abu Taymiyah al-Belgiki. Zerkani recruit from Brussels, killed in the ranks of IS according to court documents dating from 2016
  96. AnonymousBelgian fighter killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor governorate on January 20, 2016
  97. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in al-Hawiqa near Deir ez-Zor on January 30, 2016
  98. Umm Shérazade al-Belgiki, anonymous woman from Brussels who joined the Islamic State and was reportedly executed for witchcraft in February 2016
  99. AnonymousBelgian fighter in the ranks of the Islamic State, reportedly executed for treason in Deir ez-Zor in February 2016
  100. Salahuddin al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, who was killed as an important battle commander in Deir ez-Zor governorate in March 2016
  101. Mohamed Aziz Belkaïd, aka Abu Abdulaziz al-Jazairi, Islamic State fighter of Swedish/Algerian descent who was killed on March 15, 2016 during a police operation in Forest (Belgium) linked to the Paris attacks
  102. Najim Laachraoui, aka Abu Idriss, Brussels recruit of the Denis & Zerkani networks, who joined the Islamic State and committed a suicide attack at Brussels Airport (Belgium) on March 22, 2016
  103. Ibrahim El Bakraoui, aka Abou Souleymane. Islamic State fighter from Brussels who was stopped on his way to Syria, but committed suicide attack at Brussels Airport (Belgium) on March 22, 2016
  104. Khalid El Bakraoui, aka Abu Walid. IS fighter from Brussels who returned from Syria and committed suicide attack at the Maelbeek metro station in Brussels (Belgium) on March 22, 2016
  105. David Robinsonova, aka Abou Souleyman Belgiki. Fighter from Molenbeek who was stateless prior to his naturalization as a Belgian citizen in 1985. Zerkani recruit who switched side from IS to Jabhat an-Nusra and was killed near Idlib in April 2016, reportedly by an American drone
  106. Abu Anas al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed near Mosul (Iraq) on April 8 or 9, 2016
  107. Abu Dawoud al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter with Jabhat an-Nusra, identified as deputy emir of its foreign fighters in August 2013. Killed by an air strike in May 2016, targeting a meeting of Jabhat an-Nusra leadership at Abu Adh Dhuhur air base in Idlib governorate
  108. Abu Abdilah al-Belgiki, anonymous Jabhat an-Nusra fighter of Maghribian origin, killed in June 2016 by a tank attack of the Syrian army near Aleppo
  109. AnonymousBelgian fighter, killed as Islamic State commander in a battle near Deir ez-Zor in July 2016
  110. Redwane Hajaoui, aka Abu Khalid Al Maghrib, fighter from Verviers who appeared in Islamic State video threatening Belgium and France and 2015, reported death in August 2016
  111. Nasser Azzouzi, fighter from the city of Verviers who left in August 2014, killed at unknown date according to information gathered in August 2016
  112. Zakaria Asbai, aka Abu Zubair, Islamic State fighter from Vilvoorde whose death at undisclosed time and location was reported in August 2016
  113. Abu Miqdad al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in battle near Deir ez-Zor in August 2016
  114. Lotfi Aoumeur, aka Abu Noor al-Jazairi/Abdullah al-Belgiki/Abu Anwar al-Belgiki. Fighter from Verviers who appeared in IS video threatening Belgium and France in 2015. Committed suicide attack in Qarrayah (Iraq) on August 9, 2016
  115. AnonymousBelgian fighter, said to be a leading figure in the media department of IS and killed on August 24, 2016 by an air strike in Qaim according to local media
  116. Abu Abdallah al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter reportedly killed in the ranks of Jabhat Fath as-Sham, the former Jabhat an-Nusra, near Hama on September 29, 2016
  117. Abu Omar al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter reportedly killed in the ranks of Jabhat Fath as-Sham , the former Jabhat an-Nusra, in November 2016
  118. Hicham Naji, aka Abu Mehdi, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Antwerp who was reportedly killed in Islamic State ranks in November 2016
  119. Sammy Djedou, aka Abu Musab al-Baljiki, an early Zerkani recruit who was reportedly involved in the planning of the 2015 Paris attacks. Killed by coalition drone strike in ar-Raqqah at December 4, 2016
  120. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter reportedly killed on January 15, 2017 in al-Andalus neighborhood of Mosul
  121. Kamal Eddine Aharchi, aka Abu Jinaan al-Belgiki. Zerkani recruit from Brussels who left in April 2013. Reportedly killed in the ranks of IS in Aleppo governorate on January 31, 2017
  122. Zacharia Iddoub, aka Abu Yahya Beljiki, Islamic State fighter from Vilvoorde reportedly killed by air strike on January 17, 2017 at undisclosed location
  123. Mohamed Abdel Rahman, aka Abu Hashim. Belgian of Algerian descent killed by coalition air strike in al-Tanak near Mosul on March 28, 2017 according to the Iraqi Ministery of Defense. Reportedly a senior leader overseeing the recruitment of fighters for IS
  124. Anonymous Belgian fighter reportedly killed in the ranks of IS during clashes with the Syrian army near Deir ez-Zor around May 10, 2017
  125. Anonymous Belgian fighter, said to be in Syria since 2014, reportedly killed by Russian air strikes on Hawijah neighborhood of Deir ez-Zor on May 11, 2017
  126. Anonymous Belgian fighter, said to be in Syria since 2014, reportedly killed by Russian air strikes on Hawijah neighborhood of Deir ez-Zor on May 11, 2017
  127. Yacine Azzaoui, aka Abu Abdelhadi al-Belgiki. Molenbeek recruiter of the Denis & Zerkani networks who left himself in August 2014. Reportedly killed near Deir ez-Zor on May 26 or 27, 2017
  128. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous Belgian IS fighter, killed near Deir ez-Zor during clashes with the Syrian army on June 6, 2017. Said to be a “top field commander” and implicated in planning of terrorist attacks abroad
  129. Tarik Jadaoun, aka Abu Hamza al-Belgiki. IS fighter from Verviers who arrived in Syria in June 2014 and became involved in plotting terrorist attacks abroad. Reportedly killed at the end of the battle for Mosul (Iraq) in July 2017


[1] The names were published in seven separate Royal Decrees, which can be found here:

[2] Hof van Beroep Gent – Achtste Kamer Correctionele Zaken, Arrest C/928/2017, 28 June 2017. Not publicly available, but in the possession of the authors

[3] Rechtbank van eerste aanleg West-Vlaanderen – afdeling Brugge – sectie correctionele rechtbank, Vonnis 2889/2016, 23 December 2016. Not publicly available, but in possession of the authors

[4] All statements about Chalil Man are taken from the court documents mentioned in the preceding two footnotes

[5] Mairbek Vatchagaev, Hundreds of North Caucasians Have Joined the Ranks of Syria’s Rebels, Eurasia Daily Monitor volume 10 issue 166, Jamestown Foundation, 19 September 2013. Available online at

[6] According to a French investigation document in the possession of the authors

[7] Pieter Van Ostaeyen & Guy Van Vlierden, The Role of Belgian Fighters in the Jihadification of the Syrian War – From Plotting Early in 2011 to the Paris and Brussels Attacks, European Foundation for Democracy – Counter Extremism Project, 28 February 2017. Available online at

[8] Guy Van Vlierden, Romani Gypsies recruiting for Jihad, Emmejihad, 11 December 2013. Available online at

[9] Kristof Pieters & Guy Van Vlierden, Uit Syrië teruggekeerde Romazigeuner gevat, Het Laatste Nieuws, 7 December 2016

[10] Alexander Bischofberger-Mahr, Sali S.: “Dann gibt es mich nicht mehr”, Kronen Zeitung, 29 October 2016. Available online at

[11] Mark Eeckhout, De terroristen van het Sint-Jansplein, De Standaard, 30 March 2012. Available online at

[12] Kristof Aerts & José Masschelin, Van vrijspraak naar 8 jaar cel, Het Laatste Nieuws, 9 January 2014

[13] Per Gudmundson, Efterlyses: enarmade tjetjener,, 2 March 2009. Available online at

[14] US Department of the Treasury, Treasury Sanctions Individuals Affiliated With Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and Caucasus Emirate, 5 October 2015. Available online at

[15] Faith Karimi & Steve Almasy, Istanbul airport attack: Planner, 2 bombers identified, report says, CNN, 2 July 2016. Avalaible online at

[16] Thea Swierstra, OCMW Antwerpen stelt leefloners tewerk in tuinbouw, De Morgen, 20 April 2007

[17] Anonymous, Ingusthetian and Chechen disappear on their way to Moscow, Causasian Knot, 23 August 2010. Available online at

[18] Inge Ghijs, Erkend politiek vluchteling door Griekenland uitgeleverd, De Standaard, 27 March 2013

[19] Inge Ghijs, Belgische politieke vluchteling weer thuis, De Standaard, 18 May 2013

[20] Anonymous, Nalchik resident converted to Islam in Belgium, trained as militant in Syria detained in Kabardino-Balkaria, Interfax, 11 December 2015. Available online at

[21] Lyudmila Maratova, Житель Кабардино-Балкарии осужден за причастность к сирийским боевикам, Кавказский Узел, 18 August 2016. Available online at