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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
OF 450 TERROR SUSPECTS LISTED IN BELGIUM AFTER AN EXTERNAL TIP-OFF:
• 26% WERE DENOUNCED BY RELATIVES
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.
• 25% WERE FLAGGED BY FOREIGN AUTHORITIES
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.
• 13% GAVE AWAY TOO MUCH ON SOCIAL MEDIA
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.
• 5% WERE EXPOSED BY PUBLIC SOURCES
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.
• 4% SPILLED THE BEANS THEMSELVES
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.
• 2% WERE DETECTED AT SCHOOLS
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.
• 1% REPORTED BY EMPLOYERS OR CO-WORKERS
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.