A picture has surfaced of the Belgian Interior Minister Joëlle Milquet posing with a self-proclaimed Al Qaeda militant. The man is Iliass Azaouaj, a salafist imam from Brussels who went to Syria and recently threatened with terrorist attacks on Belgian soil.
Azaouaj, already known for hatemongering against homosexuals and close relations to proponents of the Syrian jihad such as the Saudi sheikh Mohammed Al-Arifi, officially went to Syria in order to bring back young Belgian muslims fighting there. Only a few days after his arrival somewhere in April, his family stated that he was abducted by a terrorist group who considered him a traitor and threatened to execute him. But in August Azaouaj himself began to distribute menacing language on his Twitter account. “Belgians, be prepared”, he wrote, “because the war is starting. Do not use trains or trams anymore, since they will change your life.”
He signed with “a member of Al Qaeda” at a moment that chatter about planned attacks against the public transportation system kept Belgium already in a heightened state of alarm. Family members declared that Azaouaj’s Twitter account was hacked and misused to distribute a message he surely didn’t condone. But in early November, a video appeared on YouTube in which Azaouaj confirmed that he had joined the ranks of Al Qaeda — “in order to kill the ones that are killing us and to fight the ones that are fighting against us”. He showed a gun, told he was wearing an explosive belt and declared: “People have to understand that fighting is the only way to be heard.”
According to Milquet, she met Azaouaj at a conference about diversity long before he went to Syria. “He asked me for a picture like lots of people do”, she told the Belgian daily ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ in which the story first appeared. “I didn’t recognize him, nor had any discussion with him. It was completely innocent. When I’m surrounded by hundreds of people, I can’t ask them all to show their identity cards.” But the picture is humiliating for the Belgian security services overseen by Milquet, since Pro-Syrian websites are distributing it now as a proof of western support for the terrorists active in the Syrian war. Questions also arise about the seriousness of Milquet’s own protection and the screening of people who are able to approach her that close.