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.
At last week’s terrorism trial in Brussels, a man who has admitted a beheading in Syria was sentenced to five years in jail. But the judge didn’t listen to the plea of the public prosecutor to arrest him on the spot. So the man could freely walk out.
Iliass Khayari is a 25 year old Muslim born in Brussels. In December 2012, he left for Syria, apparently sent by Jean-Louis Denis. Denis is a notorious recruiter initially siding with Shariah4Belgium, but later also active in the network of Khalid Zerkani, the man who has recruited three of the perpetrators of the Paris and Brussels attacks. Khayari stayed only half a year in Syria. He returned to Belgium in June 2013 after being hit by a bullet, causing him a pneumothorax and a fractured upper arm.
But his stay in Syria was long enough to commit a cruelty there. In a phone call to a friend at home, which was tapped by the police, he told on the 3rd of May 2013 how he had beheaded a man. “I swear I did”, he said, according to a transcript obtained by the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’. “We ripped his head off!” When asked which crime the victim had committed to deserve a treatment like that, Khayari responded: “He was a taghut, my friend. An enemy of Allah.”
That his confession was overheard by Belgian police, did not land him in jail for long time after he had returned. He was tried for membership of a terrorist organization, but when the verdict was read exactly three years after the call, he appeared in court as a conditionally free man. Khayari got five years in jail, but half of that sentence was suspended — with as one of the conditions that he cannot go to war anymore — and the judge did not honour the plea of the public prosecutor to arrest him on the spot.
So the self-declared beheader remains free until his conviction is definitive — meaning several months in case of appeal. A separate investigation was opened into the beheading, but it isn’t sure yet whether that will lead to further prosecution. In the meantime, Khayari insists that he was misinterpreted. Although he clearly stated in the phone call that he performed the beheading himself, now he says that he only witnessed it on some public place.
There is little reason to believe that he speaks the truth, however. Until now, he also insists that he never participated in any fight. But in another tapped call, he told in detail about such a battle, describing how his unit surrounded the enemy and how a comrade died. In his own version, he quickly left his fighting comrades to start working in a hospital himself. But his phone details reveal that he still was with his friends months after that.
He also says that he is not radicalized, while on his phone loads of extremist content was found. That, he says, must be saved by the Syrian man from whom he bought the device. “I’ve never noticed myself that those things were on my phone.” One of the documents however, is a text in French, titled “Why I support Fouad Belkacem” — a reference to the imprisoned Shariah4Belgium founder. Chances are slim that a Syrian man kept a document like that on his phone.
There are even tapped conversations in which Khayari makes clear how he prepared to delude the Belgian authorities after an eventual return. “I will not be sent to jail as long as everyone testifies that I only have joined the Free Syrian Army”, he once told a friend. Clinging to his lies until the end of the trial, Khayari did not show the slightest sense of guilt or remorse — which could have been an argument for the judge for being that mild.
The two men who are in a Belgian jail because they brought Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam back to Brussels, made suspicious journeys before. Hamza Attou went to the UK with a man of Iraqi descent only three days before the attacks, while Mohamed Amri visited Turkey at least seven times during the past two years.
Mohamed Amri (26) and Hamza Attou (21) belonged to the very first suspects who were caught after the Paris attacks. They quickly confessed that they had brought the only surviving perpetrator back to Brussels that night. On the phone, Salah Abdeslam reportedly said that he had suffered a car accident. It was only when they met him in Paris, that he told them about his role in the bloodbath. According to their declarations, he threatened to blow up Amri’s Volkswagen Golf if they refused to give him a lift.
Amri and Attou are still behind bars, but no details have surfaced yet about a further implication in the terrorist plot. When Molenbeek mayor Françoise Schepmans named the Paris suspects who were on a list of radicalized inhabitants prior to the attacks, she did not mention these two. In the 55 pages long report that the Paris police has written about the attacks for the French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve however, it is stated that the Belgian authorities knew Amri already as “being close to the movement of the extremist Islam”.
That same report also reveals how both Amri and Attou undertook suspicious journeys in the days and years before the Paris attacks. Airline registers learned that Amri went to Istanbul at least seven times between May 2013 and May 2014. When returning, he often flew to other destinations than his home town Brussels — such as Paris, Marseille, and Copenhagen. The report contains no proof that his travel was related to terrorist activities, but they happened at a time when Turkey served as the main gate to Syria for tens of members of the network behind the Paris and Brussels attacks.
Hamza Attou left Belgium on the 10th of November 2015 for a journey to the UK. He did so in the company of a man from Brussels with roots in Iraq, and a Dutchman of Somali descent. It was the latter who drove the Ford Focus with Dutch license plate when they boarded the ferry from Dunkerque to Dover. Their tickets were booked by an autochtonous Dutchman we could reach and who provided some background about the trip.
He told us that the Dutchman of Somali descent is a youth friend who wanted to visit relatives in the UK. “On the internet, he searched for people who would join him in order to share some of the costs. That’s how he came into contact with the men from Brussels. He did not know them at all prior to that England trip.” Reportedly, the trio was stopped in the UK because something was wrong with the identity papers of one of the Brussels men. But what exactly was the problem, is not known — and neither is how long they were held.
The men from Brussels did not travel back together with the Dutchman, but if they did so with their initial reservation, they came back the very same day as the Paris attacks. Again, the French police report does not allege that their stay in the UK was somehow linked to terrorism. The Brussels man of Iraqi descent, 43 year old A.J.I.H. seems to have relatives living in London, which can mean there is a completely innocent reason for visiting the UK. We do not know whether he was interrogated about the trip, but the Dutchman of Somali descent certainly was.
The suspect of the Paris attacks identified on Monday as the mysterious ‘Soufiane Kayal’ is a Belgian citizen for whom an international arrest warrant was issued already in 2014. That did not prevent him to return from Syria and supposedly serve as bomb maker for the terrorist plot.
Najim Laachraoui, a Belgian citizen born on the 18th of May 1991 in the Moroccan town of Ajdir, but raised in the Brussels municipality of Schaerbeek. That’s the true identity of Paris suspect Soufiane Kayal, according to a public statement of the Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s Office.1
Early in December of last year, a wanted notice was distributed for Kayal and his companion Samir Bouzid2, stating that their names were false, but that both men were present in the car of Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam during a control at the Hungarian-Austrian border on September 9, 2015.
On the 5th of October, the passport of Kayal was used to rent a house in Auvelais, in the southern Belgian province of Namur. A house that was subsequently used by several of the Paris suspects. Apparently it was meant to store explosives, since a perfectly dry basement was asked.
It was thought for quite some time that Kayal and Bouzid only have had a limited role in the logistics of the attacks. But a reconstruction of the telecommunication between all different actors learned that they coordinated the attacks in real time from somewhere in Brussels.
According to a detailed account that CNN has compiled, Kayal and Bouzid were even the ones who directed Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s niece to his initial hiding place. Compared with the man who long was named as mastermind of the Paris attacks, investigators stated about Kayal and Bouzid: “They outranked Abaaoud”.3
In hindsight it seems odd that it took so long to identify Kayal, since Laachraoui is one of 30 defendants at a terrorist trial that started in Brussels a month ago. All the accused belong to the network of Khalid Zerkani, the very same jihad recruiter who has sent Abaaoud to Syria.
Laachraoui left for Syria himself in February, 2013. Investigators say that he became responsible for the reception of new recruits, and for that significant role within the terrorist group Islamic State, the maximum of 15 years in jail was asked against him. The verdict is expected in May.
It is in the official complaint for the so-called case ‘Zerkani-bis’ (the first trial concluded last summer and convicted Abaaoud to 20 years in jail) that the two year old international arrest warrant against Laachraoui was revealed. More precisely, it was issued on March 18, 2014.
For Laachraoui — who is also known as ‘Abou Idriss’ — that wasn’t an obstacle for his return. Chances are high that he has served as the bomb maker for the terrorist plot. Apart from the house in Auvelais, his DNA was also found on two of the explosives belts that were used in the Paris attacks.4
His DNA was also found in the Schaerbeek apartment where the bombs reportedly were made, and Laachraoui was skilled for the job. When he finished secondary education at the ‘Institut de le Sainte Famille d’Helmet’ in Schaerbeek, he went on to study electromechanics.5
1An updated wanted notice was published here: http://www.police.be/fed/fr/avis-de-recherche/recherches/suspects-connus/1203497-najim-laachraoui
2Samir Bouzid was recently identified as Mohamed Aziz Belkaid, an Algerian with residence in Sweden. He was killed during a counter-terrorist operation in the Brussels municipality of Vorst on March 15, 2016
5See on page 12 of this school magazine: http://www.sainte-famille.be/telechargements/maillon116.pdf
Belgian authorities knew as early as 2012 that terrorists linked to the bloodshed in Paris were plotting attacks in the West. But little was done to disrupt the build-up of a network that subsequently became a cornerstone of the worst violence since decades in France.
The revelation, published by the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’, is based on court documents mentioning a secret memo that the State Security addressed to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office on April 11, 2012. It contained a warning about suspicious meetings in an apartment in the now notorious Brussels municipality of Molenbeek. Conversations overheard there were about the need for armed attacks against the “principal adversary of Islam”: Western democracy. Apparently, plans were made already to obtain heavy weapons and explosives to carry them out.
The apartment in the rue de Ribaucourt belonged to Gelel Attar, the 26 year old Belgian of Moroccan descent who was arrested near Casablanca on January 15 in connection with the November Paris attacks. It isn’t clear yet whether he has played a direct role in that plot. But in January 2013, he traveled to Syria together with Chakib Akrouh (25), recently identified as one of the Paris attackers. Akrouh is the one who blew himself up in an apartment in Saint-Denis five days later, also causing the death of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, long considered to be the mastermind behind the Paris attacks.
While Attar was hosting those early terrorist meetings, Abaaoud still had to radicalize. According to his own father, that happened in the second half of 2012, when he was in jail for an attempted burglary. Soon after he was liberated in September of that year, Abaaoud became a member of Khalid Zerkani’s entourage. Zerkani (42) was convicted in summer last year as the head of a recruitment cell for the Syrian jihad. He was also present at the meetings in Attar’s apartment, and the fact that Attar was known to be his lieutenant, underlined back then already that Zerkani had much more in mind than recruiting fighters for a struggle far from home.
However they knew that, Belgian security services did little to disrupt the build-up of Zerkani’s network. His recruits not only traveled freely to Syria, they also came back as they liked. One of them, Soufiane Alilou (22), even managed to do so five times before he was caught. Traveling back and forth often seemed to serve the transfer of new recruits, the transport of cash and all of kind of materials, such as computer equipment. In 2014 however, one of Zerkani’s fighters returned with far more dangerous plans.
Ilias Mohammadi (24) — in official documents said to be close both to Attar and Akrouh — re-entered in Belgium using false identity papers on the 25th of May, one day after the Jewish Museum in Brussels had been hit by a terrorist attack. State Security distributed a warning only two weeks later, stating that Mohammadi was “armed and nervous”, and it took another two weeks before he was apprehended. At that time, weapons weren’t found anymore. But a significant amount of ammunition was uncovered, so chances are high that Belgium — or one of its neighboring countries — closely escaped another attack.
It is highly improbable that ringleader Zerkani has played a role in the practical organization of the Paris attacks, since he was imprisoned in February, 2014. It also has to be stressed that not all of the Paris attackers were recruited within his network, and that the true plotting likely has happened at a much higher level in Syria, not in Molenbeek. But with three of his recruits figuring already on the list of Paris suspects, Zerkani’s contribution clearly is significant. Which also means that the Belgian security services could have done much more against the plot.
That the fate of the Syrian people and their oppression by a dictator never has been the biggest concern of Zerkani, is also echoed by the trajectory of his recruit Youssef Bouyabarem. He also was present at the 2012 Molenbeek meetings, but left shortly afterwards trying to reach al-Shabaab in Somalia. His brother Moustapha was fighting already in the ranks of that Al Qaeda orientated terrorist group. It was only after he failed in his attempt to get into Africa, that Youssef Bouyabarem set his sights on Syria — another arena of the jihadist movement that he never did reach, by the way.
The identification of Chakib Akrouh as one of the Paris attackers makes clear that the very same Islamic State cell was actively plotting terror in Europe as early as May, 2014.
A close friend of Chakib Akrouh, who was sent to the Syrian jihad by the same recruiter as Akrouh and the well known Paris attacker Abdelhamid Abaaoud, arrived back in Belgium on the 25th of May, 2014. According to an alert that the Belgian State Security sent out two weeks later, Ilias Mohammadi was “armed and nervous” at the time.
It took the Belgian police another two weeks to locate Mohammadi. He was arrested in Brussels on June 25, 2014. In the house where he had stayed, no weapons were found. But a significant amount of ammunition was discovered there. This was first reported by the Belgian newspaper ‘De Morgen’ and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s ‘CTC Sentinel‘.
All the information comes from Belgian court documents — more precisely from the trial that was held last summer in Brussels against jihad recruiter Khalid Zerkani and members of his cell. Abdelhamid Abaaoud was convicted there to 20 years, and Akrouh to 5 years in jail — both in absentia. Mohammadi was present and sentenced to 7 years in jail.
In the judgment of the trial, it is stated that Mohammadi left for Syria on the 7th of January, 2014. He had booked a flight to Turkey together with Souleymane Abrini, whose brother Mohammed is sought now as a suspected accomplice of the Paris attackers.