For months already, Oussama Atar (33) is named as mastermind behind the Brussels and Paris attacks. The Belgian jihadist of Moroccan descent is said to be identified as the mysterious ‘Abu Ahmad’, who organized the bloodshed from Syria. But in today’s edition of Het Laatste Nieuws, Belgium’s largest daily newspaper, we reveal how questionable that identification is. Documents that we’ve obtained, clearly show that the investigators desperately want to frame Atar as Abu Ahmad, but lack any evidence.
The Abu Ahmad alias entered the investigation in two different ways. One of them was the laptop found shortly after the Brussels attacks on the 22nd of March 2016 in a trash can near the terrorist’s safe house at rue Max Roos in Schaerbeek. That computer contained some audio messages of the perpetrators to their chief in Syria. A man they called Abu Ahmad — as we could verify in transcripts — and to whom they explicitly told: “ You’re the one who decides. You’re the amir.”
The second mention of Abu Ahmad came up during the interrogations of Adel Haddadi and Muhammad Usman. They are two Islamic State terrorists who were caught in Austria after being sent from Syria to commit attacks in the West. They both have stated that it was Abu Ahmad who gave them the orders. That has happened in person, so Haddadi and Usman are the only ones in custody certainly able to tell more about him.
It is the interrogation of Adel Haddadi that has supplied the most important evidence against Oussama Atar. Haddadi is said to have recognized him as Abu Ahmad. The transcript of that interrogation however, which we could read, tells a somewhat different story. On the 20th of October 2016, a French judge investigating the Paris attacks confronted Haddadi with pictures of ten different men, asking explicitly whether one of them was Abu Ahmad.
Haddadi pointed to the picture of Atar indeed — but he was not sure and also raised a second possibility. “Number one resembles Abu Ahmad”, he said. “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 similarity between picture number ten and Abu Ahmad, but it is the man in picture number one that most closely resembles him.”
The differences that he raised, may be explained by the picture being somewhat outdated. Similarly, that he described Abu Ahmad as a man who has surpassed the age of forthy already and speaking Arabic with a Syrian or Iraqi accent, may be a consequence of Oussama Atar’s past. He spent seven years in an Iraqi jail, which may have had an impact on his accent, while the harsh imprisonment can have made him looking older than he really is.
That said, it would be rather biased to declare that Haddadi offered a solid identification — but it was exactly that what investigators did. The next day already, when the same French judge showed the same ten pictures to Muhammad Usman. He declared that he did not recognize any of them. “I am sure”, he said. The French judge insisted, saying that Haddadi had been “almost sure” of picture number one. “That’s not Abu Ahmad”, Usman replied. “I am sure of myself.”
Normally, the sum of a doubtful “yes” and a “no” is not considered as a confirmation. But when a international arrest warrant for Atar was issued on the 17th of November 2016 by a Belgian judge, it stated explicitly that Haddadi had recognized him “with near certainty” as Abu Ahmad. Usman’s contradicting view wasn’t mentioned at all.
It is very well possible that Oussama Atar indeed is Abu Ahmad. He has lots of indications pleading against him. It seems rather sure by now that his brother Yassine Atar had a role in the terrorist plot, and according to the documents that we could see, at least one witness says that it has been under the influence of Oussama Atar that Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui were radicalized.
The Bakraoui brothers were protagonists of the Paris and Brussels attacks. First they arranged at lot of the logistics, and ultimately they blew up themselves. They are nephews of Atar, and it must have sounded like music to the investigator’s ears when Osama Krayem — the terrorist who had refrained from an attack at Maelbeek metro station in Brussels — declared that Abu Ahmed must have been related to them. “Otherwise, he never would have trusted them that much.”
Krayem didn’t say so because he knew, it can be learned from interrogation transcripts that we have seen. “I don’t know Abu Ahmad”, he assured. “But police has showed me a picture already recognized by others as Abu Ahmad. And I learned from media reports that it was Oussama Atar.” While Krayem thus explicitly stated that he had only second hand information about Abu Ahmad — and also that he knew perfectly well what the interrogators liked to hear — a great deal of weight was given to his assumption.
At least three times he was pushed again to confirm that Abu Ahmad was a relative of the Bakraoui brothers. And the more he was asked, the more affirmative he became. So at the end, his assumption about Abu Ahmed being a family member of the Bakraoui brothers appeared as a fact in the arrest warrant for Atar.
Many myths are told already about Oussama Atar. That he has been imprisoned with Islamic State’s caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for instance — while the latter was already free again when Atar was arrested near Ramadi on the 24th of February 2005. Recently, it was reported that Atar has visited his family in Brussels last summer, at a time he was sought world wide already. But that rumour was never confirmed.
On the other hand, we are able to refute that the young Atar went to Iraq for humanitarian reasons, as often is told. In an e-mail we received from the press desk of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq when inquiring about Atar in 2007 already, sergeant Matthew Roe wrote: “The defendant admitted that he had entered Iraq illegally to wage war against Americans and had attended anti-Multi-National Forces sermons. The defendant repeated these statements to Multi-National Forces while in MNF custody.”
The terrorist cell behind the Paris and Brussels attacks apparently has kept its weapons and explosives for a while in a Belgian school. That can be concluded from a map on a laptop used by Salah Abdeslam — as we reported today in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’.
It was after the shooting during which Salah Abdeslam was able to escape on the 15th of March 2016, that a laptop was found in his safe house at rue Dries in the Brussels municipality of Forest. That HP EliteBook 8440p contained videos of extremist preachers, pictures of possible targets, information about weapons and military gear, but also a map that was titled ‘Salah’ — indicating that it was used by Abdeslam. Many files were erased, but computer specialists of the Belgian federal police were able to retrieve them, and by doing so they also discovered a rather remarkable map.
The hand-drawn map mentioned two street names: Saviostraat en Elzenstraat. A combination that only exists in Meulenberg, a neighborhood of Houthalen-Helchteren in the east of Flanders, infamous for its security issues and cases of radicalism. The buildings on the map turned out to be the local kindergarten and elementary school. Curious about what Islamic State terrorists were looking for at such a location, about twenty police officers went to Meulenberg on Saturday the 11th of June 2016.
They were armed with search warrants and in the company of Gorro, an explosives dog. The instructions written in French on the map led them along a first building, the regional center for student coaching, to the kindergarten’s playground. There, they found a hole cut in the fence, exactly at the place where was mentioned at the map: “Here you have to jump over”. The hole provided access to an overgrown piece of garden in which they found a ramshackle shed and a garage.
One of the doors in the garage showed traces of a burglary. But besides old school furniture, there was nothing found inside. The investigators left without any answers, but they did inform the State Security — Belgium’s intelligence service. That resulted in a confidential note on the 28th of July 2016 — a document that we have obtained. State Security found out that a former concierge of the sports hall next to the school was killed in Syria fighting for Islamic State. Younes Laabadi, 43 years old at that time, was linked by marriage to the family of Mohamed Abrini — the ‘man with the hat’ who had escaped alive during the Brussels attacks on the 22nd of March 2016.
Putting all the pieces together, the investigators concluded that the school domain has likely served as a weapon storage place. It is known that the terrorist cell possessed an arsenal of which at least four kalashnikov-type rifles, a riot gun, two pistols, two hand grenades and an amount of explosives were left after the massacre in Paris on the 13th of November 2015. Those weapons weren’t used for the Brussels attacks, and a intercepted conversation made clear that they had planned to hide the stash for later attacks.
That was reason enough for the investigators to conduct a second search on Wednesday the 10th of July 2016. Done by ten officers, with the explosives dog Jessy, and also in the sports hall this time. But again it was in vain. The assumption that the weapons have been hidden at the school remains however. “Considering the burglary traces, the possibilit exists that the weapons were retrieved and stored elsewhere just before the Brussels attacks”, the State Security document reads.
In the meantime, there are even strong suspicions of who has carried the weapons away to hide at another place — a location, by the way, that still isn’t found. According to the intercepted conversation, that assignment was given to a certain ‘Abu Imran’, described as “a brother who has been in Syria already”. That fits perfectly well with the profile of Bilal El Makhoukhi (28), a terrorist from Brussels already known as Abu Imran, who lost a leg while fighting for Islamic State. He already admitted having been in touch with the Brussels terrorist cell in the week before the attacks, while arrested terrorist Osama Krayem declared during one of his interrogations that he met El Makhoukhi in a safe house in Laeken.
It isn’t known how long the weapons possibly were hidden at the school domain. But it is a certainty that they posed a terrible risk. The suspicious garage is situated only twenty meters from the kindergarten, and even closer to the student coaching center. It is thought that the stash contained explosives of the types C4 and TATP. The first is both extremely powerful and hard to detonate, but the latter so unstable that it can explode by heat, friction or shock. That could easily have led to a devastating chain reaction causing lots of casualties.
They recruited door to door. While he was talking a man into leaving for Syria, she tried to persuade his spouse. It wasn’t fighters they were searching for the Caliphate, but families. When a woman was still single, Mélissa offered her own husband Yacine to marry her. Stories that are coming out now that Yacine has died in Syria.
When Mélissa Frangi appeared before a Brussels court in the fall of 2015, she didn’t look as an extremist at all. She wore an elegant two-piece suit and didn’t even bother to cover her hair. She told the judge that talking with her Christian father had brought her to repentance. That she once had vented the desire of her son becoming a fighter, was nothing more than a “stupidity”, spoken out without thinking.
That son was fourteen months old when Mélissa left with him for Syria on January 15, 2015. But she was caught at Charleroi airport already. In the French speaking Belgian press, her case became known as the ‘filière poussette’, a reference to the stroller she had taken with her. She didn’t carry any feeding bottles, because she still was breastfeeding. At the trial, she shifted all the blame to her husband. He was in Syria already, and according to Mélissa he had pushed her to join him.
Her husband Yacine Azzaoui belonged to the network of thieves put in place by Brussels guru Khalid Zerkani to finance the jihad. That became clear after Yacine was caught during a burglary at the Cora hypermarket in the Brussels municipality of Anderlecht in May 2014, court documents learn. All five others involved tried to leave for Syria shortly afterwards. One of them was Souhaib El Abdi, later convicted as one of the leaders behind the terrorist plot thwarted by a deadly police operation in Verviers on 15 January 2015 — the very same day Mélissa tried to leave.
She had married Yacine in October 2012. Barely nineteen years old, but converted to islam about four years already. He was 22 and they knew each other only a couple of days. “I was in the middle of a depression and constantly fighting at home”, Mélissa declared. “Yacine came as a savior to me.” But allegedly that savior soon became a tyrant, beating her and forcing her to wear a niqab. According to Mélissa, they were separated already at the time Yacine left. But when he ordered her to join him with their child, she didn’t manage to resist. “I was lonely and lost.”
With that story, Mélissa succeeded to get a conditional sentence. She was tried to four years, but didn’t have to go to jail. In Molenbeek though, the notorious Brussels municipality where they lived, a completely different story is told. There, Mélissa still is branded as an extremist at least as radical as Yacine, who relentlessly tried to lure people to the Caliphate. That those stories are surfacing now, has everything to do with the reported death of Yacine in Syria. He was killed allegedly around the 27th of May, fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State near Deir ez-Zor.
“Yacine and Mélissa recruited door to door”, says Bahar Kimyongur, an activist for human rights of Turkish-Syrian descent. He lives in Molenbeek himself, and having lots of contacts in the war zone he was often acclaimed by families whose relatives had left. Quite regularly, those families put the blame at Yacine and Mélissa. “They focussed their recruitment effort on families”, Kimyongur says. “Yacine was talking with the men, while Mélissa tried to persuade their spouses.” Besides fighters, the Caliphate also needed civilians.
“Mélissa was extremely cunning. In order to gain confidence, she bought toys for the children of the families she was trying to recruit.” Fighting wasn’t mentioned — they only insisted that a good Muslim had no better place to live than in the Caliphate. Single women were attracted with the promise of a marriage, for which Yacine himself was offered as the groom. “A Moroccan baker’s wife told me in shock how Mélissa visited her, asking whether her sister would want to become Yacine’s second wife.”
How many religious marriages were arranged that way, isn’t known. But at Mélissa’s trial, another defendant was a second wife of Yacine. Julie, a 26 years old convert calling herself ‘Princess Hiphop’ before, married Yacine by Skype when he was in Syria already. Julie was arrested a few days after Mélissa, while she too was preparing to leave. She intended to travel to Syria with her daughter from an earlier relation, about seven years old.
Yacine and Mélissa are responsible for the departure of four families at least, of which two are known to have taken little children with them. It is very well possible though, that the numbers are higher. And while some of their recruits are desperately trying now to return, Mélissa is at home in Molenbeek. According to eyewitnesses, she is wearing her niqab again and shortly after the death of Yacine she reportedly married another extremist man.
The text below is a rough translation of an article that was published in Dutch by the author in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’.
“It will soon blow over”, Hashim was thinking when Islamic State started to attack Mosul during the night of June the 6th 2014. The terrorist group had done that before, and it never lasted longer than a couple of days before such an attack was repelled. No one believed as a matter of fact that IS could really endanger the second largest city in Iraq. But this time, things went different. “When the fighting briefly resumed around eleven in the morning, I saw a fighter with the black flag of Jihad for the first time in my life. And that evening, the entire western half of Mosul was in the hands of IS.” The eastern part would follow quickly, and while IS had started the attack with no more than 300 fighters, its ranks swelled fast. ‘They liberated 900 inmates from Mosul prison. Most of them were in jail for terrorism and immediately joined the fight. There was also a significant number of civilians who turned to IS. It was shocking to see how people who had cursed the terrorists a few days before, now sided with them. But years of corruption and frustration made Mosul ready for IS.”
Hashim has fled to a Western country now. “Leaving Mosul was the hardest thing I’ve ever done”, he says. “I wanted to stay in order to witness about what was happening, but IS got track of me.” He has testified extensively about the cruelties by tweeting under an alias, and documented life under IS in detail. Names, locations, dates… he wrote everything down. That makes him priceless as a witness, and he was consulted already by Western authorities. We started our conversations with him in January of this year, when the eastern half of Mosul just was liberated. Our communication happened via Telegram, the well encrypted application that is also popular with terrorists. “I must still be cautious, since IS can try to find me. And I am afraid for my family too.” Hashim is a historian, explaining things meticulously in a factual manner. But sometimes, the conversation also took a personal turn. On the moment for example when he told that his brother had died — killed by a grenade attack on his house, four days before his neighborhood was liberated from IS. “He is free at least”, Hashim sighted. “And we have still his kids. I’ll take care of them.”
In the first weeks it controlled Mosul, IS did not show its true face yet. “There were executions already, but they were limited to administrators and security people, of whom IS had made lists. For ordinary citizens, little changed immediately. I tried to talk my family into leaving the city, but they refused. Most people wanted to stay, and lots of them even thought that life would ameliorate under IS.” It was after the massive arrival of foreign IS fighters at the end of July 2014 that the horror began. “Islamic police started to force women into wearing the niqab and men into growing their beards.” Public executions became routine. “Friday was the usual day for that. Citizens were rarely forced in a physical manner to attend. But you had to show up often enough for not becoming a suspect yourself.” Asked how many executions he has witnessed himself, Hashim only says: “A lot.” Four times he saw good friends being executed. “Two of them were shot and two beheaded. I still hear the voices of their executioners calling ‘Allahu akbar’ regularly in my head.”
Of the executioners that Hashim has seen, at least one is a Belgian: Tarik Jadaoun from Verviers. Hashim knows him by his kunya ‘Abu Hamza al-Belgiki’ and has written down about him: “Participated in the execution of three people convicted for apostasy on the 7th of July 2015 near Bab al-Tub.” The execution happened with gunfire and Hashim knows even the names of victims: “Jihad Fadhil, Lu’ay Abdulwahid and Muhialdin Ilyas.” The identification of Jadaoun is not merely based on his kunya — Hashim also recognized him on photos we’ve sent. “His face, I will never forget. I was terrified for him. The first that I saw him, was in a tea house near Mosul university. He was Moroccan dressed and spoke French. He was working at the university, where he served as guardian for the Diwan al-Ta’lim, the IS department that made new school books there.” When the university was liberated, it became clear that those school books educated children of Mosul in maths by counting tanks, pistols and bullets.
Jadaoun is one the terrorists for whom the French authorities recently warned, thinking that they may have returned to stage an attack. Last week, he featured in a brand new propaganda video of IS, and Hashim knows where he was filmed. “It must have been in the West of Mosul, near the Nuri mosque”, he says. It is difficult however to establish when the footage was made — and thus to know whether Jadaoun is still in Mosul. We did send Hashim a lot of other pictures of Belgians who have joined IS — and he is sure that he has seen three others in Mosul. “This one also worked as a guardian and was often patrolling in front of Mosul’s central bank”, Hashim says about Azeddine Kbir Bounekoub, a Shariah4Belgium recruit from Oostmalle who has left in 2012. He repeatedly called for attacks in the West, and also threatened the Belgian Defense secretary in an audio message. But he doesn’t seem to have become an important figure within IS.
“In Mosul, he was a low-ranking fighter”, says Hashim. “But as a Westerner, he still was better off than most of the locals were. Westerners were better paid and it was considered as a honour when a they wanted to marry with the sister or the daughter of a local fighter. It wasn’t hard for Westerners to chose their brides. But they also were distrusted to a certain extent — both by local fighters and the leaders of IS. The latter gave the Westerners the most luxurious places to stay. But by putting them apart, they also made it easier to keep an eye on them.” The Western fighters were staying in a former tourist complex in Northeast Mosul. “It is known as al-Sadeer and prior to IS it was often used for marriages and parties”, Hashim says. Pictures of the location show well-furnished bungalows, each equipped with airconditioning.
The other two Belgian fighters who Hashim has recognized, are Azzedine El Khadaabia from Brussels and Redwane Hajaoui from Verviers. Both of them were also named already in possible terrorist plots, reinforcing the suspicion that IS has organized its plots against the West from within Mosul. Last year, we revealed how a former IS member told us that Tarik Jadaoun was groomed as “a new Abdelhamid Abaaoud” — referring to the terrorist from Molenbeek who acted as a coordinator for the Paris attacks. In August, we also wrote about a Belgian fighter ready to commit a suicide attack, his final message videotaped already. That guy was El Khadaabia. “He was still alive and present in Mosul in November of last year”, Hashim now says.
About the future of Mosul, Hashim is not optimistic yet. “IS may be almost defeated, but that doesn’t take away the threat”, he says. “The terrorists will probably resort to their old tactics of bomb attacks, murders and maybe even drone attacks. Moreover, the anger against the regime is still widespread enough to guarantee them new supporters. That is not only the case in Iraq, by the way. All over the world, you can find Muslims who truly believe that everyone else is plotting against them, even moderate ones. That makes them vulnerable for extremist thoughts, which can’t be eradicated with military means. On the contrary. IS doesn’t need a territory, since its most important territory is in people’s minds.”
Since the latest update in December of last year1, 28 individuals were added to our database of Belgian fighters in the current Syrian-Iraqi conflict. That brings our estimate to 591 people, including relatives who did not leave to fight themselves. 40 of these Belgian foreign fighters are converts to Islam, with a remarkably high share of autochthonous women.
Pieter Van Ostaeyen & Guy Van Vlierden
On a total number of 591 people from Belgium who at least have tried to join an armed group in Syria/Iraq during the current conflict (including Belgians, people who resided in Belgium and/or were recruited by Belgian networks), 40 are certainly or very likely converts. That’s almost 7%.
This share is significantly lower than in some of the surrounding countries. In Germany, converts represent 12% of all foreign terrorist fighters, while in France their share amounts to 23%.2 We don’t have a solid explanation for the lower Belgian number, but the importance of the Zerkani network in the Belgian recruitment may be at play. That network consisted almost exclusively of people from North African descent, and thereby had very few converts in its ranks.
18 of the 40 Belgian converts have a fully European background — of whom 11 fully Belgian. 10 are children of a mixed marriage between a European and a non-European parent, 5 have fully non-European backgrounds, and 2 were adopted. For the remaining 5, we do not know. Foreign backgrounds include Italy (6), France (5), Congo (5), Algeria (1), Brazil (1), Haiti (1), Ivory Coast (1), Lebanon (1), Mali (1), Nigeria (1), the Philippines (1), Rwanda (1) and South Africa (1). Please note that one individual can have multiple foreign backgrounds.
26 of the converts are male, and 14 female. With 35% of the converts, the share of women is remarkably high. On the total number of Belgian foreign fighters, they only represent 15%. That may be at least partly caused by a higher number of females converting to Islam overall in Belgium. But while that overrepresentation of women is often cited, the exact proportions are not known apparently.3
Moreover, there appears to be a significant difference between both sexes in terms of ethnic background. While 75% of the males has some kind of non-European roots (due to mixed marriages or adoption), that is the case for only 8% of the females — and while females only count for 35% of our total number of converts, they do represent 82% of all those with a fully Belgian background.
Our sample may be too small for solid conclusions, but the impression exists that identity issues resulting from a multi-ethnic background (that doesn’t necessarily includes Islam already) are less important as a driver of conversion and radicalization for women than for men. It is noteworthy that a study of converted foreign fighters from Belgium and the Netherlands found that almost all the women were driven by very personal problems — i.e. not related to an ethnic, cultural or religious background — while the situation of the men was much more diverse.4
Definition of Belgian fighters
Altogether, we do estimate the number of Belgian foreign fighters in the current Syrian-Iraqi conflict at 591 now, defining them as follows:
1) 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 zone via Belgian soil;
2) having at least physically tried to reach the war zone of the Syrian-Iraqi conflict that started in March 2011;
3) with a clear intention to join a local fighting party there, be it as a fighter themselves or in any other role.
While it has to be stressed that this definition is broader than Sunni Islamists, actually 582 (or 98% of all our records) can be considered as such.5
Highlights of our current estimates
First of all we have to emphasize that adding individuals to our database doesn’t say anything about the phenomenon’s evolution in time. Such additions are rarely people who have recently left, but much more often older cases newly known to us.
That said, our current estimate includes 259 people in the ranks of the Islamic State — 69.4% of all 373 records for which an exact affiliation is known. The Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate formerly known as Jabhat an-Nusra, remains the second most important group with 50 people or 13.4%.
531 people have reached the battle zone — a rate of 89.8%. 42 or 7.1% were stopped abroad and 18 or 3% in Belgium. We do have information about 158 people who returned, including those who left but never reached their goal.
118 people were reportedly killed — 109 in the war zone and 9 others after their to Europe to commit a terrorist attack. It has to be stressed that most of the deaths could not be verified, and examples are known of fighters faking their death to lure security services.
That could for instance be the case with Redwane Hajaoui, considered dead last year by the mayor of his hometown Verviers.6 Very recently, a wanted notice allegedly issued by France started circulating on the internet, indicating that Hajaoui is alive and may be plotting an attack. But as long as the authenticity of that notice isn’t established, we keep him on our list.
List of Belgian foreign fighters reportedly killed
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, joinedMajlis 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. Sean Pidgeon, a convert from Brussels recruited by the Denis & Zerkani networks, killed in Aleppo governorate in March 2013
7. Anonymous fighter from Mechelen, killed before April 2013 according to an imam who assisted his family
8. Anonymous fighter from 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
9. Ahmed Stevenberg, the alias of an unidentified fighter of Jabhat an-Nusra, killed by the Syrian army in the Latakia governorate in April 2013
10. Raphaël Gendron, aka Abdurauf Abu Marwa, a Frenchman raised in Brussels, killed in the ranks of Suqur as-Sham in April 2013
11. Tarik Taketloune, aka Abu Khattab, figher from Vilvoorde who was recruited by Shariah4Belgium and joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, killed in May 2013
12. Saïd Amrani, Denis recruit from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg who was killed in May 2013
13. Ismail Amgroud, a fighter from Maaseik who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in June 2013
14. Noureddine Abouallal, aka Abu Mujahid, a leader of Shariah4Belgium who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in July 2013
15. Younis Asad Rahman, the alias of a fighter also known as Asad ar-Rahman al-Belgiki, killed in August 2013 in Latakia governorate
16. Abu Salma al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter killed in August 2013 in Deir ez-Zor governorate
17. Younes Kharbache, Denis recruit from Brussels and brother of Hamza Kharbache. Joined Islamic State and was killed in August 2013 in Damascus governorate
18. 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
19. 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
20. Abdelgabar Hamdaoui, a Shariah4Belgium recruit fighting for Jabhat an-Nusra, killed in September 2013
21. 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
22. 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
23. Mohamed Bali, aka Abu Hudayfa, Shariah4Belgium recruit coming from Antwerp, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in September 2013
24. Abdelmonhim R’ha, Sunni Islamist fighter from Antwerp, reportedly a relative of former Belgian Guantánamo detainee Moussa Zemmouri. Killed in September 2013
25. 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
26. Sabri Refla, aka Abu Tourab, Denis recruit from Vilvoorde, who subsequently joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and the Islamic State. Committed suicide attack in Iraq in December 2013
27. 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
28. Ouafae Sarrar, aka Umm Djarrah, wife of Shariah4Belgium recruit and Islamic State fighter Ilyass Boughalab. Reportedly killed around January 2014
29. 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
30. Feisal Yamoun, aka Abu Faris, a leader of Shariah4Belgium who left with wife and three young kids, killed in February 2014
31. 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
32. 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
33. Nabil Ajraoui, Denis recruit who left as a minor in November 2013 and was killed in February 2014
34. 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
35. 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
36. 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
37. Abdelilah Jab-Allah, aka Abu Omar, Brussels recruit of Denis & Zerkani networks. Joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in March 2014
38. Karim Mahrach, aka Abu Azzam, recruit of Jean-Louis Denis from Brussels, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in April 2014
39. Mohamed Said Haddad, Zerkani recruit from Brussels and brother of the Verviers terrorist plot member Abdelmounaim Haddad. Killed in April 2014
40. 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
41. 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
42. 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
43. Abu Handalah, anonymous Jabhat an-Nusra fighter who appeared in the video ‘Turning Point’ and was killed in May 2014 near Aleppo
44. 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
45. 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
46. 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
47. Anonymous Belgian fighter killed in July 2014 in al-Keshkeyyi, Deir ez-Zor governorate
48. Adem Ben Amro, 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
49. Souleymane Abrini, Zerkani recruit and brother of Paris & Brussels attacks accomplice Mohamed Abrini. Joined the Islamic State and was killed in August 2014
50. Abu Jihad al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in battle for airport in Deir ez-Zor governorate in August 2014
51. Zakaria El Bouzaidi, best friend of Sean Pidgeon, who was recruited together with him by the Denis & Zerkani networks. Killed in September 2014
52. 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
53. 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
54. Abu Mohamed al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter killed in October 2014 in Deir ez-Zor governorate
55. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter of Saudi descent, killed in the ranks of Jabhat an-Nusra in October 2014 in Latakia governorate
56. Abu Yahya al-Belgiki, anonymous member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar, killed in October 2014
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. Khongr Pavlovitch Matsakov, Sunni Islamist fighter from Ostend with roots in the Russian republic of Kalmykia, killed in January 2015
61. Abu Taymiyya al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter killed in Kobanê in January 2015
62. 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
63. Soufiane Amghar, aka Abu Khalid, Islamic State fighter from Brussels who was killed during a police operation in Verviers (Belgium) on January 15, 2015
64. 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
65. 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
66. 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
67. Abu Bakr al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter from Brussels who committed suicide attack in Ramadi (Iraq) on March 11, 2015
68. 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
69. 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
70. Abu Tourab al-Belgiki, anonymous Sunni Islamist fighter from Brussels killed in May 2015 in Damascus governorate
71. Abu Handala al-Belgiki, anonymous Sunni Islamist fighter killed in May 2015
72. 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
73. Abu Muslim al-Belgiki. Anonymous Islamic State fighter from Antwerp. His death was announced in June 2015, but reportedly happened around a year earlier
74. 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
75. Fayssal Oussaih, aka Abu Shaheed, Islamic State fighter from Maaseik, killed in July 2015
76. Abu Iliace al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter whose death was announced by an Islamic State source in ar-Raqqah in July 2015
77. 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
78. 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
79. 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
80. Abu Ayman al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed by British drone strike in ar-Raqqah in August 2015
81. 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
82. Mohammed Hajji, Islamic State fighter from Antwerp, killed by an air strike in ar-Raqqah in October 2015
83. Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State figher, killed in October 2015 by a French air strike on a training camp near ar-Raqqah
84. Abdelmalek Boutalliss, aka Abu Nusaybah, Islamic State fighter from Kortrijk who committed suicide attack near Haditha (Iraq) on November 11, 2015
85. Andy Bizala Lubanza, Zerkani recruit from Brussels with Congolese & Rwandese roots, joined Islamic State and was killed in November 2015
86. Anonymous, Belgian wife of Islamic State emir ‘Abu Khabab’ from Saudi Arabia, killed with her husband in November 2015 in Deir ez-Zor
87. 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
88. 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
89. 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
90. 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
91. Mohammed Jattari, Sunni Islamist fighter from Tienen, killed at unknown date in 2015
92. Younes Ahllal, aka Abu Taymiyah al-Belgiki. Zerkani recruit from Brussels, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in January 2016
93. Anonymous Belgian fighter killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor governorate on January 20, 2016
94. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in al-Hawiqa near Deir ez-Zor on January 30, 2016
95. Umm Shérazade al-Belgiki, anonymous woman from Brussels who joined the Islamic State and was reportedly executed for witchcraft in February 2016
96. Anonymous Belgian fighter in the ranks of the Islamic State, reportedly executed for treason in Deir ez-Zor in February 2016
97. Salahuddin al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, who was killed as an important battle commander in Deir ez-Zor governorate in March 2016
98. 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
99. 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
100. Ibrahim El Bakraoui, 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 (Belgium)
101. Abou Souleyman Belgiki, anonymous fighter from Brussels, who switched side from the Islamic State to Jabhat an-Nusra and was killed near Idlib in April 2016, reportedly by an American drone
102. Abu Anas al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed near Mosul (Iraq) in April 2016
103. 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
104. 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
105. Anonymous Belgian fighter, killed as Islamic State commander in a battle near Deir ez-Zor in July 2016
106. 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
107. Anonymous Belgian fighter from the city of Verviers, killed at unknown date according to a declaration of the Verviers mayor in August 2016
108. Zakaria Asbai, aka Abu Zubair, Islamic State fighter from Vilvoorde whose death at undisclosed time and location was reported in August 2016
109. Abu Miqdad al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in battle near Deir ez-Zor in August 2016
110. 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
111. Anonymous Belgian 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
112. 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
113. Abu Omar al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter reportedly killed in the ranks of Jabhat Fath as-Sham , the former Jabhat an-Nusra, in November 2016
114. Hicham Naji, aka Abu Mehdi, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Antwerp who was reportedly killed in Islamic State ranks in November 2016
115. 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
116. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter reportedly killed on January 15, 2017 in al-Andalus neighborhood of Mosul
117. Zacharia Iddoub, aka Abu Yahya Beljiki, Islamic State fighter from Vilvoorde reportedly killed by air strike on January 17, 2017 at undisclosed location
118. 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
1Guy Van Vlierden & Pieter Van Ostaeyen, Belgian Fighters in Syria and Iraq – An Update of Our Data, pietervanostaeyen.com, 7 December 2016, https://pietervanostaeyen.com/2016/12/07/belgian-fighters-in-syria-iraq-december-2016/
2Bibi van Ginkel and Eva Entenmann (Eds.), The Foreign Fighters Phenomenon in the European Union. Profiles, Threats & Policies, The Hague, The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2016, http://icct.nl/publication/report-the-foreign-fighters-phenomenon-in-the-eu-profiles-threats-policies/
3Ann Peuteman & Ewald Pironet, “In het begin ben je tot over je oren verliefd op de islam”, Knack, 27 January 2016, http://www.knack.be/nieuws/belgie/bekeerd-tot-de-islam-waarom-vlaamse-vrouwen-moslim-worden/article-longread-650859.html
4Marion van San, Lost Souls Searching for Answers? Belgian and Dutch Converts Joining the Islamic State, Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 9, N°5 (2015), http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/460
5For more details about our methods and data, please see the most recent update mentioned above and the previous one at https://pietervanostaeyen.com/2016/08/03/belgian-fighters-in-syria-and-iraq-an-important-review-of-our-data/
6Trois djihadistes verviétois tués au Moyen Orient, La Meuse, 12 August 2016, http://www.lameuse.be/1643707/article/2016-08-11/trois-vervietois-sont-presumes-morts-en-combattant-pour-l-etat-islamique
The notorious Abdelhamid Abaaoud was not the mastermind of the terrorist attacks in which he was involved. At the time of the plot that was foiled in Verviers, he was under the command of man code-named ‘Padre’. Investigators could not figure out yet who he is. But the Belgian daily ‘Het Laatste Nieuws‘ discovered that ‘Padre’ very likely is a Belgian too — hailing from the same Brussels suburb as Abaaoud.
‘Padre’ is barely mentioned in the judgment of last summer’s trial about the Verviers plot, while he was the highest in command of all terrorists named in that 200 page document. He was even higher ranked than Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian of Moroccan descent once labeled by some as the Islamic State’s minister of war. Telephone tapping made clear that Abaaoud had to obey Padre’s orders, the judgment states explicitly.
One example is the call that Abaaoud made on the 2nd of January 2015, thirteen days before the Verviers plot was foiled. “Our chief says that you have to keep quiet”, he told an accomplice in Belgium, while he was coordinating the plot from Greece himself. “He says that you should stop talking too much.” The accomplice reacted in anger, asking Abaaoud to call “Padre” and tell him that he should reprimand someone else. “It’s someone over there who is talking about me”, he fulminated — clearly pointing to a person in Syria.
A second phone call indicating that ‘Padre’ was in charge over the Verviers plot, happened on the 13th of January 2015. It was Soufiane Amghar, one of the terrorists killed two days later during the police operation in Verviers, telling Abaaoud: “Padre told that you will warn as soon as there are ten of us. That’s what he told, isn’t it? I’m asking you because it is depending on this when everything will start, you see?”
But more has never become known about ‘Padre’ — even not from which country he hailed. He wasn’t included in the list of defendants at the Verviers trial last year, and when asked whether his identity has become clear in the meantime, the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office answered in the negative last week. We did find a strong indication however in our archive of Facebook accounts of Belgian foreign fighters in Syria: a picture of a man who was called “Padre” in 2015, while posing together with Younes, Abaaoud’s little brother he took with him to Syria three years ago.
The man on the picture is Dniel Mahi, a thirty year old Belgian from Molenbeek. He also used the alias ‘Abu Idriss’ and has his roots in Nador, a city in the north of Morocco, where Spanish often is the second language instead of French. That might explain why he was code-named with the Spanish word for ‘father’. It is known that Mahi left for Syria on the 20th of January 2014. Exact the same day as Abaaoud departed for a second time, after picking up his brother Younes from school.
There are other Facebook pictures showing that Mahi belonged to Katibat al-Battar, the elite brigade within Islamic State which also included Abaaoud among its members, and often has served as a recruitment pool for terrorist attacks in the West. Up till now, Mahi’s name was rarely mentioned in the investigations, although he seems to be involved in multiple plots. The first one is the shooting on the 24th of May 2014 against the Jewish museum in Brussels, where Mehdi Nemmouche has killed four people in what is considered as Islamic State’s very first attack on European soil.
That Nemmouche did not act as a lone wolf, as initially was thought, was proven by a phone call with Abaaoud four months prior to the attack. Nemmouche was at that time in Turkey, while Abaaoud was in Belgium. Their conversation lasted 24 minutes. But Abaaoud was not the first Islamic State operative Nemmouche wanted to call. “Earlier that day, Nemmouche had tried to contact Dniel Mahi, (…) then in Belgium and a close friend of Abaaoud”, it was reported recently in an overview of Islamic State’s attacks in Europe published by the CTC Sentinel.
Chances exist that Mahi was also involved in the attempt to steer Frenchman Reda Hame to an attack. Hame was sent back to Europe in June 2015, but he was caught in time. During interrogations, he declared that Abaaoud was one of the people in Syria who had commanded the attack. Before he left, Abaaoud had given him a piece of paper with a telephone number, mentioning the word “papa”. That’s the French equivalent of ‘Padre’, and although most sources have considered it as a code name for Abaaoud, Hame has never told so explicitly and stated that the number got lost.
As far as we know, there are no indications that Mahi was involved in the attacks of November 2015 in Paris and March 2016 in Brussels. Apparently, the code name ‘Padre’ did not surface in those investigations. That could be a consequence of Mahi being killed in the meantime in Syria. There are rumours about that, although it is absolutely not clear how reliable they are. Because the attack in Brussels was planned at the times of Verviers already (prove of that are drawings of a terrorist carrying a bomb on a luggage cart at Brussels airport, found at an Athens address where Abaaoud was hiding early in 2015), it is reasonable to think that Mahi had a role in those early plans too.
Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi, the Dutch imprisoner of James Foley & co — His true identity revealed — His death detailed — His French successor namedPosted: 2017/01/12
It went largely unnoticed when the Dutch Minister of Security and Justice designated Moroccan citizen Mohamed Amine Boutahar as an unwanted foreigner in July 2015. The official announcement did not mention a reason, but that reason became clear when Boutahar’s accounts were frozen the following month. Born in the Moroccan capital Rabat on the 4th of April 1983, Boutahar was added to the growing list of Dutch terror suspects, and local media quickly pointed out that his alias ‘Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi’ meant that Boutahar is the infamous heavyweight of the Islamic State serving as the head of security in Aleppo under whose command several Western hostages were imprisoned there.
Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi was first identified in that role by Jejoen Bontinck, a Belgian foreign fighter who returned from Syria in October 2013. Interrogated by Belgian police, he told how he had joined his former friends of Shariah4Belgium — the country’s most important recruitment organization — in the ranks of Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, a local Islamist militia that soon became a keystone of the newly established ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Sham’. Bontinck was imprisoned by his own militia on suspicion of being a spy, and during that imprisonment he briefly shared a cell with the American hostage James Foley, Briton John Cantlie and German Toni Neukirch. He described the man responsible for the prison as a Dutchman of Moroccan descent, who was in his twenties at the time and had graduated as an engineer. “He is tall, slender and tanned, speaks Arabic perfectly, and has two wives and three children, of whom the oldest is about seven years old.”
Abu Ubaida/Boutahar is often described as the “prison chief” of Foley and co, but that is not entirely accurate. As head of security, his powers reached far beyond the supervision of the prison system of Islamic State at the time. According to James Harkin’s elaborate research into the Western hostages, he even had a deputy who was solely responsible for the prisons — a Syrian from near the border with Iraq named ‘Abu Maryam’ — and every separate prison had its own chief too. While the Westerners were held in Sheikh Najjar near Aleppo for instance, the prison chief there was a French-Tunisian going by the name of ‘Abu Mohamed al-Faransi’. “He was more French than Tunisian”, Harkin wrote, “and didn’t seem to know any Arabic.”
Even while he likely is identified now, nothing is known with certainty about Abu Ubaida/Boutahar’s past. But his death is fairly documented now. Two years ago already, there were rumours about him being executed by Islamic State. According to some sources he was beheaded, while others told that he was shot. But most accounts agreed about the reason, being the suspicion that he had passed secret information to a foreign intelligence service — possibly during negotiations about the fate of Western hostages he held. A recent German court document not only confirms that Abu Ubaida/Boutahar was executed by his own group, but also provides details. The information is contained in the judgment of a German foreign fighter named Nils Donath, who was sentenced to four years and six months in jail on 4 March 2016 in Düsseldorf. Donath served a while in one of the prisons that were led by Abu Ubaida/Boutahar while he was in Syria between October 2013 and November 2014.
According to the judgment, Abu Ubaida/Boutahar was arrested mid-April 2014 on the orders of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, who had succeeded Abu Athir al-Absi as Islamic State’s Aleppo governor shortly before. The reason for that arrest was a suicide attack ordered by Abu Ubaida/Boutahar in that same month, in which Jabhat an-Nusra commander Abu Muhammad al-Ansari was killed with his wife and his daughter in the Idlib governorate. The German defendant Nils Donath declared that in his opinion, that attack was wrongly aimed. The man who had to be killed, Donath told his interrogators, was Jabhat an-Nusra’s number one — the Syrian Ahmed Hussein al-Shar’a, better known as Abu Mohammad al-Julani. At the end of April 2014, Abu Ubaida/Boutahar was executed by gunshot in the presence of several members of Islamic State’s security department, after which his body was thrown in a well. The judgment doesn’t state explicitly whether Donath witnessed the execution himself.
Still according to the German judgment — and thus the declarations of defendant Nils Donath — Abu Ubaida/Boutahar was succeeded as security chief in Aleppo by a man identified as ‘Abu Mohamed Franzi’. This Frenchman, Donath told, had served as bodyguard for Umar as-Shishani, the former leader of ‘Katibat al-Muhajireen’ who soon became the overall military commander of Islamic State in Syria. In his confessions, Donath spoke about a large gathering in March 2014 on a military airport near the city of al-Bab, where hundreds of fighters pledged their oath of allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They did so in the hands of a Saudi judge who had arrived there with as-Shishani, and for whom the Frenchman ‘Abu Mohamed Franzi’ seemed to serve as bodyguard too. It is very likely that this ‘Abu Mohamed Franzi’ was the very same person as the ‘Abu Mohamed al-Faransi’ mentioned above as the one-time prison chief in Sheikh Najjar.
This French successor of Abu Ubaida/Boutahar must have been Salim Benghalem, one of the most notorious Frenchmen within Islamic State. He has a profile that matches the function and is known as ‘Abu Mohamed al-Faransi’. Together with Mehdi Nemmouche (the perpetrator of the terrorist attack against the Jewish Museum in Brussels on 24 May 2014), Benghalem served as a warder for the four French hostages (Didier François, Edouard Elias, Nicolas Hénin and Pierre Torres) in a prison in Aleppo between July and December 2013. He was described as “Nemmouche’s superior” and “a professional veteran of the Jihad who had patiently climbed the ladder of Islamic State”. According to a memo from the French internal security service DGSI, quoted by Le Monde, Benghalem has also belonged to the religious police and acted as an executioner at an Islamic court in al-Bara near Aleppo.
When the United States Treasury Department added the above-mentioned Umar as-Shishani to its list of ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorists’ in September 2014, it did so simultaneously with Benghalem — Shishani’s one time bodyguard, if it’s him who has indeed replaced Abu Ubaida/Boutahar.