Is the Dutchman that was named this week as chief of the prison where James Foley was held in Aleppo, in the meantime executed himself? That seems very likely, as pointed out today in Belgium’s largest daily newspaper, ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’. That source, by the way, should be explicitly mentioned when reporting about what is told below.
It is Jejoen Bontinck (19), a former foreign fighter from the Belgian city of Antwerp, who revealed that Foley’s prison near Aleppo was led by a Dutchman at that time. Bontinck was imprisoned there for a while together with Foley because he wanted to leave and his former comrades concluded that he was a spy — as mentioned earlier. Belgium’s federal prosecution office and GlobalPost CEO Philip Balboni — for which Foley was working in Syria — confirmed the fact that Bontinck shared a cell with the US journalist beheaded last week by the Islamic State (IS).
The true identity of the Dutchman isn’t known, but reportedly he’s using the alias Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi, indicating that he has Moroccan roots. A man with the same ‘nom de guerre’ recently was executed by the Islamic State. Beheaded, according to several sources, while others reported that he was shot. The Jordanian news site al-Kawn published the story with the picture of a dead body that is shown above — without mentioning explicitly that it is the executed Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi, though.
It it isn’t sure that the two Abu Ubaidas are one and the same, since the name is rather common at the Syrian front. But the executed man was described as the security chief of the Islamic State in the region of Aleppo, which seems to fit with supervising the prison there. Remarkably, his execution was announced one day after the video of Foley’s beheading was posted on the internet. And the reason of his punishment also suggests that he has been involved in the imprisonment of Westerners.
According to most news reports, the Islamic State suspected him of passing secret information to a foreign intelligence service — of a European country that had a hostage in the hands of the Islamic State together with Foley, to be precise. It is known already that the militants who guarded Foley were allowed to negotiate themselves with Western authorities about the conditions for a release. They only needed permission of Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi, the highest leader of IS, for setting someone free in case an agreement was reached. So, it is very well possible that the alleged betrayal happened in the course of those talks with the West.
The Abu Ubaida that was executed, is described as having been one of the most powerful men within the Islamic State. Reportedly, he was responsible for the assassination of Abu Khalid al-Suri, the highest commander of the somewhat less extremist salafist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham. That occured last February and contributed to the vicious war within the Syrian resistance between the Islamic State — at that point still known as ISIS — and most of the rest.
An additional clue that the executed Abu Ubaida and Foley’s prison chief from the Netherlands were the same, can be found in a recent interview done by Souad Mekhennet for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. She met a man described as “one of the few with direct access to al-Baghdadi”, the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State. The man with whom Mekhennet spoke, was a security chief of IS near the border with Turkey, most likely meaning the governorate of Aleppo.
He used another alias — Abu Yusaf — but Mekhennet explicitly mentioned that he had several pseudonyms. His parents are North African, but he was born in one of the countries together known as Benelux: Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. At the age of 18, he went to Iraq and joined the terrorist group of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — which is in fact the predecessor of the Islamic State. Mekhennet understandably declined to tell us whether ‘Abu Yusaf’ is Dutch, and said she doesn’t know whether he is the Aleppo security chief that recently was executed.
James Foley, the American reporter beheaded last week, shared a prison cell with former Belgian fighter Jejoen Bontinck for at least three weeks. Reportedly, they were held at that time by Bontinck’s former comrades from Shariah4Belgium, who brandished Jejoen as a traitor because he wanted to go home.
It was CEO Philip Balboni of GlobalPost, the American news site for which Foley was working in Syria, who broke the news about his deplored journalist and Jejoen Bontinck knowing each other. “In September 2013, a young Belgian who had travelled to fight in Syria had befriended Foley and, once that jihadist went back to Belgium, offered excellent information on roughly where Jim was held and by whom”, he was quoted by NBC News. “It was the first time we knew that Jim was alive. It was a wonderful, wonderful moment.” Balboni didn’t mention the name of the Belgian — but that wasn’t hard to find for anyone familiar with the phenomenon of Belgian fighters in Syria.
Jejoen Bontinck (19) went to Syria in February, 2013. He converted to islam a few years before and joined the radical organization ‘Shariah4Belgium’. He says he didn’t want to fight, but provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. Disgusted by the violence of war, he wanted to go home already in March of that year. But his comrades from Shariah4Belgium with whom he teamed together, considered him as a traitor or even a spy, and imprisoned him for several months. He was held in Aleppo, the northern Syrian city which was the main stronghold of the radical islamic resistance at that time.
Bontinck was never a prisoner of the Islamic State, his lawyer Kris Luyckx explained to the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’. Although most of his Belgian comrades now have joined the extremely brutal group, at that time they were still active under the banner of ‘Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen’ or ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’. That Bontinck was held together with Islamic State victim Foley — as confirmed by Luyckx — is consistent with the claim that Foley’s abduction was carried out by of one of those groups. When the American got caught in November 2012, the Islamic State didn’t exist yet in Syria. It was founded in April 2013 as ISIS — the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Sham’.
“Bontinck and Foley shared a cell for at least three weeks around August of last year”, says Luyckx. “And they weren’t the only Westerners — there was a European journalist too. Apparently, the two reporters were later transfered to ar-Raqqah, and it must have been there Foley was held by the British fighters that are known now as ‘The Beatles’. Jejoen has never met the guy who killed Foley or one of his accomplices. He always stayed in the hands of his former comrades of Shariah4Belgium.” If that is true, it means that Foley too was held by the Belgians for some time.
It isn’t clear whether they were also involved in Foley’s abduction — and an important question that also remains, is whether it were Bontinck’s former brothers in arms who have delivered Foley directly to those who’ve killed him now. The Belgian judiciary has indicted thirteen people for taking Bontinck hostage — based on the names he reportedly mentioned himself — and at least some of those people can be suspected in Foley’s case too. All belong to a group of 46 that has to stand trial this fall — although for most of them it will be a trial in absentia, since they are still fighting in Syria or were killed in action there.
Of the thirteen former Shariah4Belgium members that are indicted for imprisoning Bontinck, at least four have died already: Houssien Elouassaki from Vilvoorde, Nabil Azahaf from Brussels, Noureddine Abouallal from Antwerp and Yassine El Karouni — a Dutchman that apparently has spent most of his last years in Antwerp. Of those who are considered still alive, the highest ranking is Hicham Chaïb, alias ‘Abu Haniefa’. He became one of the leaders of Shariah4Belgium after the imprisonment of it’s founder Fouad Belkacem. Chaïb is living in ar-Raqqah now, where he was seen already in the company of senior Islamic State commander Abu Waheed.
The remaining eight names are Azeddine Kbir Bounekoub, Said M’Nari, Brahim El Mimouni and Fouad Akrich from Antwerp — Zakaria Asbai and Magomed Saralapov from Vilvoorde — Rachid Iba from Maaseik — and Redouan Akdim from Naarden in the Netherlands. Noteworthy is that Iba was already convicted as a member of the terrorist ‘Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain’ back in 2006, that Kbir Bounekoub has appeared in a gruesome video with dead bodies in Syria, and that Akrich is one of the exceptions who stayed in the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra — a fact that has ignited already vicious debates on Facebook, where he’s still a ‘friend’ of his former comrades who went to the Islamic State.
Jejoen was freed in September 2013 and after his return in Belgium, he was intensively interrogated by security services of several countries. According to his lawyer, the information he provided about the location where he and Foley were held, has been the motor behind the rescue operation undertaken for Foley by American elite soldiers. But the details Bontinck gave about his prison — “near a courthouse and a hospital”, for instance — were about the place where he was held in Aleppo. And apparently the raid took place at a time Foley was moved to ar-Raqqah already.
The number of Belgians in the ranks of the Islamic State can be as high as 270. That’s the estimate I published yesterday in the newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’, showing two of the most recent recruits.
The estimate of 270 compatriots within the Islamic State is based upon the database of Belgian fighters in Syria that arabist Pieter Van Ostaeyen and I maintain using several open sources. It has to be stressed that the number is an extrapolation, since we do not know for sure the affiliation of all 385 entries already on our list.
We do have that information for 72 of the Belgian fighters, and identified 50 as members of IS. What means that in this sample, the share of the Islamic State amounts to almost 70 percent. Details about the others can be found at Pieter’s blog. The ratio can be different in the total figure of course, but seemingly there are no reasons to assume that difference is significant. So it’s fair to say that the Belgian presence within IS can amount to 270.
In the meantime, new images emerged of two Belgians who traveled to Syria last June to join IS. They already posted pictures on Facebook from halfway in Turkey, but these are the first that show them in Syria — more precisely Deir ez-Zor. The guy wearing sunglasses is Olivier Calebout (27), also known as Abu Sayfudeen, while the Dolce & Gabbana adept is Lucas Van Hessche (19), who was born in Haiti and adopted at young age by a Belgian couple.
Van Hessche was an amateur boxer who converted recently to islam. He and Calebout went to Syria with Abdelmalek Boutalliss (19) — alias Abu Nusaybah — a Belgian of Moroccan origin. Al three lived in the western city of Kortrijk, where Calebout reportedly was known by the police as a possible recruiter for jihad. The fathers of Boutalliss and Van Hessche traveled to Syria themselves already to bring their sons home, but apparently they failed.
The widely reported abduction of a Japanese citizen in Syria has put a previously little-known Belgian jihadi in the spotlights. Younes Bakkouy (20) apparently made most of the images during the first interrogation of Haruna Yukawa by terrorists of the Islamic State.
Bakkouy posted pictures (that can be seen here, here and here) and videos (here and here) of the captured Yukawa on his Facebook page last Friday already, a day before they started to spread all over the internet and came to the attention of the Japanese authorities. He explicitly mentioned that he made the images himself, stating that the Japanese was carrying a M-16 rifle and a camera. “But those things were are already taken from him by our brothers when I was filming”, he told. He also stipulated that Yukawa justified his presence in Syria by saying that he was a photo journalist and a doctor alternately.
When Facebook friends at home asked him whether the captive already was killed — “Please show us the video of his beheading” — he answered that Yukawa was handed over to “the security department of Dawla”, meaning the ‘Islamic State’. At the end of one of the videos, Bakkouy shortly is filming himself — but what he tells, is difficult to hear and in the version that was distributed officially by the Islamic State on Sunday, as the Belgian IS-expert Pieter Van Ostaeyen tweeted, that part was cut out. In the meantime, Bakkouy’s Facebook page has disappeared too.
Bakkouy is a Belgian of Moroccan descent who lived in the eastern city of Genk. He started his current Facebook account only two months ago, but has left for Syria already in April of last year. Reportedly, he travelled to the war with his brothers Mohamed and Ismaïl — and according to the mother of Isa Özdemir, a guy with Turkish roots from Genk, her son accompanied these three. The Belgian daily newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ and it’s online offshoot hln.be were the first to reveal the full identity of Bakkouy today.
Since he filmed the interrogation that apparently took place shortly after Yukawa was captured, Bakkouy can be regarded as an accomplice legally. It hasn’t happened often yet that a Belgian fighter in Syria could be implicated so clearly with a concrete crime — apart from being member of a terrorist group. Of the 46 accused at the trial that will start this fall against fighters and recruiters for the Syrian war from the now disbanded organization ‘Shariah4Belgium’, only six are indicted for abductions and murder — apart from the alleged captivity of their own comrade Jejoen Bontinck when he wanted to go home.
I do not elaborate about the background of Yukawa because of the excellent work others have published already — such as Storify. But because I’ve named him a mercenary in one of my first tweets about the case, I would like to raise the possibility he was in Syria for a much more innocent purpose than his position as CEO of ‘Private Military Company’ does insinuate. Japanese is not my thing, but the website of that firm seems to offer security for humanitarian missions in war zones too, naming Syria explicitely. That could be an explanation for Yukawa mentioning the profession of medical doctor during his interrogation. Some are saying that the firm only exists in the imagination of Yukawa himself, but Reuters at least has spoken to an adviser of it.