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.
The Belgian top terrorist Abdelhamid Abaaoud may be dead, but that doesn’t stop the threats from within his entourage. The latest one is aimed at a cop in Verviers — the Belgian town where two Islamic State terrorists were killed last year — and coming from a man who was in touch with Fabien Clain, possibly one of the true architects behind the Paris attacks.
“If I see a head like yours, I would like to grab my kalashnikov.” That’s how Islamic State terrorist Tarik Jadaoun commented on the picture of a uniformed policeman that he posted on his Facebook account early this week. The officer — whom we do not name for security reasons — has several things in common with the jihadi who left for Syria in the spring of 2014.
Both are from Verviers, the town in eastern Belgium where early last year a major terrorist plot was foiled by a police raid that left two terrorists dead. Both have their roots in Morocco, while the Facebook image of the policeman that Jadaoun posted, mentions four mutual friends. It has to be stressed that most of Jadaoun’s connections looked like old friends from Verviers without any semblance of extremist views.
When asked, the policeman stated that he knew about the threat and that relevant authorities were dealing with it. He denied any personal acquaintance with Jadaoun. He also asked not to publish anything about the threat — a request we have honored until the Belgian newspaper L’Avenir broke the news in its Thursday’s edition. It mentioned that the policeman gets special protection as a result of the threat.
Tarik Jadaoun — also known as ‘Abou Hamza al-Belgiki’ and ‘Abou Abbas al-Belgiki’ — is a notorious Belgian within IS. After the raid in Verviers, he was named as one of the dead by several sources, including a prominent Twitter supporter of the terrorist group. The news that he had died, turned out to be false. Until today, it even isn’t clear whether Jadaoun had anything to do with the plot. But he is certainly connected to the entourage of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the well-known protagonist.
On Facebook, he befriended the Frenchman Fabien Clain, a veteran of jihadist activity who left for Syria himself and could be heard in the audio message with which IS has claimed the Paris attacks. Several sources have pointed already to Clain as one of the possible masterminds. Jadaoun was also mentioned in a recent article of the French daily Le Monde as one of the very first extremist friends of Reda Hame, a French recruit of Abaaoud sent back to Europe last summer already in order to commit a terrorist attack.
Jadaoun himself has repeatedly made clear that he is willing to shed blood in the West. “If I ever come back to Belgium, it will be armed”, he wrote on Facebook in the fall of 2014 already. “I will get even with the devil’s worshippers in the name of Allah.” In March of last year, he vowed that IS will destroy his former home country. “We have brothers anywhere, only waiting for an order to attack”, he told a French journalist.
In a video that appeared on Jadaoun’s Facebook page shortly before it was suspended this week, he named Mosul as his current place of residence.
The Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ reports today about Mohammed C. — a Belgian-Moroccan father who took his whole family to the Syrian war. He pushed his mentally unstable son into the fighting, while he forced his minor daughter to marry an Algerian commander of Islamic State.
On October 6, 2013, a family of six took a plane at Charleroi airport with destination Turkey. That they didn’t leave for a vacation was proven by their one way tickets, the fact that their home had been re-rented and most of their possessions were sold. Mohammed C. had been in contact with radical muslims longtime already, and most of his acquaintances apparently knew that he wanted to move to Syria.
His wife, Maria G. — a woman from Italian descent who calls herself ‘Fatiha’ since being converted — largely agreed with that plan. During later interrogations, she told about her intent to stay in Turkey with her three daughters, while her husband and her son would travel on to Syria. But the Belgian judiciary casted doubt upon her declaration that her husband finally forced all of them to cross the Turkish-Syrian border and settle near the northern city of Aleppo.
After their arrival, Mohammed hastened to carry out his plans. “They were only a few days at place, when he started to push his teenage daughter H. to marry a local ISIS emir”, it is noted in the judgment of a terrorism trial that was held in Brussels last July. The Algerian born commander was 27, while the daughter was barely 16. “She agreed to the marriage”, the judgment states, “because she feared that any other choice of her father would be worse.”
The mother remained with her two younger daughters in an apartment that they hardly ever could leave. “They lived there like recluses, on the rhythm of their prayers, and in constant fear for the war that happened outside.” Father Mohammed and son Rachid meanwhile presented themselves as fighters. But for the latter, it likely didn’t happen voluntarily, since he was diagnosed as a mentally unstable young man.
Apparently, the son was used for the dirtiest jobs. According to his sister, who saw him only every now and then, he was forced to risk his own life during the battles by collecting the corpses of fellow fighters who were killed. Soon already, mother and daughters wanted to leave, but father Mohammed resisted to that. Only after daughter H. got pregnant, he allowed her a journey to Turkey. From there, she traveled back to Belgium, soon followed by her mother and her two sisters.
Nothing is known about the current situation of the teenage girl and her baby that should be born. But her father, her mother and her brother are convicted now. At the trial against a Brussels based cell of recruiters — to which the well known Abdelhamid Abaaoud also belonged — Mohammed was sentenced to ten years in jail for leadership of a terrorist group. Son Rachid got ten years for membership of that group, while mother Maria got two years with probation for the same crime. She was present in court, while her husband and her son were tried in absentia.
About Rachid, nothing has been heard recently. Certain is that he didn’t join his father when Mohammed left Islamic State in May, 2014. That was about a month after the departure of his wife and his daughters. Mohammed switched to the brigade of Bassam Ayachi, the self styled ‘Cheikh’ from Molenbeek that once was named a key figure in nearly every Belgian jihadist plot. Nowadays, Ayachi holds a much more moderate profile, and he even fights against Islamic State. Mohammed himself is still active on social media, where he posts paintings and poems that he has made in Syria.
A confidant of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the Paris terrorists killed by French police, has made a new threat. He posted a picture of Abaaoud’s brother Younes, insinuating that the 15 year old boy is on his way to Europe for revenge.
The author of the Facebook message that was posted on Tuesday and reported by the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’, presents the younger Abaaoud as “my dear Abu Mansour”. That is an alias already used by Younes himself, after his brother took him to Syria in January of last year.
“Abu Omar al-Soussi may have been martyred”, the message continues, refering to the police operation in Saint-Denis on the 18th of November in which Abdelhamid died. “But his brother is alive. And we are coming to the worshippers of the cross.”
The picture showing Younes as a soldier isn’t new. It was posted in December of last year already by another IS fighter linked to the Molenbeek brothers. So it isn’t clear whether the author is really in touch with the teenager, and can speak about his plans. From Younes himself nothing was heard on social media recently, although his latest Facebook account still exists.
Other pictures on the author’s Facebook account suggest that he also is in Syria, however. And late last year, the same ‘Abou Soufiane Belgikimohajir’ was connected to Abaaoud’s sister Yasmina, not an extremist herself. A clear sign of his close relationship to Abaaoud.
Nowadays, he is connected both to members of Katibat al-Battar — the elite militia within IS to which Abaaoud belonged — and extremists all over Europe. An example of the latter is Michael ‘Younnes’ Delefortrie, a former Shariah4Belgium member who came back from Syria, was convicted but is free again.
Fear exists that a 16 year old Belgian boy has died in Syria. Junior Juma, the son of a former soccer star with roots in Burundi, disappeared eight months ago. His family has indications that he was taken to the war by his separated mother, together with his 10 year old brother.
Junior is the son of Mossi Juma, the greatest soccer legend in the Central African country where he was born. Mossi served as captain of the Burundese national team for eleven years, played for top clubs in the Emirates, and landed in Belgium as a striker for KV Mechelen — at that time playing in the second division. He obtained the Belgian citizenship in 2006.
Since the divorce of his parents, Junior and his younger brother Issa lived with their mother. But they stayed close with their father and two unrelated children with whom they were raised. In an exclusive for the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, 21 year old Annaa disclosed what has happened with them.
“We had signs some time already, that the biological mother of my two little brothers was radicalizing”, she told. “But we never thought that it could take this dramatical turn. We are not certain, but there are reasons to believe that she took her children to the Syrian war. Including two from a later relationship, the youngest only four.”
Junior and his siblings were raised as Muslims, but in a very moderate way. “We do fast during the month of Ramadan”, Annaa says. “But I was never pushed to wear a headscarf, for instance. And we do not pray five times a day.” On Junior’s Facebook page, that wasn’t updated after April of last year — at least not publicly — there is not the slightest sign of interest in religious matters.
After Junior’s disappearance, he still contacted Annaa a few times via Facebook. “He always asked how we were doing, but brushed off all questions on his whereabouts”, she says. “He told me that wasn’t allowed to say anything. I think he even wasn’t supposed to get in touch with me, but did it secretely. The last time I have heard from him, was about two months ago.”
On July the 3rd, the ill-fated message arrived. “My father got a phone call from a person we don’t know, telling that Junior had died. After that, he immediately hung up. At first, my father didn’t believe it. But shortly after that, he got a second call — again anonymous and without details. We do suppose now that it’s true however, that Junior is dead.”
It is harrowing for Junior’s relatives to have no certainty. “Don’t ask me where in Syria he was, who convinced his mother to go there, and which group they’ve joined”, Annaa says. “We simply do not know. It is a terrible idea that Junior might be forced into the fighting and was killed in combat. I am sure that he never would have wanted to become a part of that.”
If Junior effectively was killed in Syria, he would be the youngest Belgian victim of that war. According to the independent Belgian researcher Pieter Van Ostaeyen, at least 60 Belgian fighters already have died. Prior to Junior, the youngest of them was former Shariah4Belgium member Khalid Bali. He died near Deir ez-Zor in July of last year, fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State.
The rivalry between Al Qaeda and Islamic State also creates a deep division among the foreign fighters from Belgium. Guys who marched together in the ranks of Shariah4Belgium, now threaten each other to chop off the head. Except for war and religion, they even quarrel about women.
When the first foreign fighters departed from Belgium, most of the Syrian muslim militias still fought side by side. The Belgians were spread across different groups, but remained friends. Nowadays, a bitter rivalry is raging between Jabhat al-Nusra — the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda — and its breakaway Islamic State. That causes heated debates between Belgian fighters who have ended up at different sides, but still find each other on social media.
Two of the biggest adversaries there are ‘Abu Haniefa’ and ‘Shaam Al-Mubarak’. The first is the alias of Hicham Chaib (33), a man from Antwerp once known as the bodyguard of Shariah4Belgium leader Fouad Belkacem. He was reportedly appointed chief of the religious al-Hisba police in ar-Raqqah, the Syrian capital of the Islamice State. The British ‘Daily Mirror’ portrayed him last week as the “killer cop” of IS. The second is presented as a collective account of several ex-Shariah4Belgium members fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra.
“IS conspires with dictator Assad. Or is it a coincidence that he attacked us at the same time as you have done?” they accused their former comrades within IS during a recent Facebook discussion. “You are fighting for America and you don’t apply the sharia in the regions you control. Drinking, music, prostitution… It is all allowed”, Chaib striked back, before threatening: “We stand on your doorstep and before you know it, your head will roll. It is time for revenge for what you’ve done to our brothers and our sisters.”
According to Chaib, one of the Belgians within Jabhat al-Nusra has already killed compatriots who were fighting for IS. He identified the man only by his alias ‘Abu Dawud’, while stressing that the Belgian is on the “black list” of IS. “Brothers of Jabhat al-Nusra who defected to us, all did tell the same story: that he came back one day with blood on his shirt after he had killed our brothers attacking them in the back.”
That the rivalry also extends to women, is proven by a lament of Chaib about “ex-wives of the true lions who are married now with apostates”. He didn’t mention names, but apparently he was speaking about widows of Belgians killed in the ranks of IS. “By Allah! Your previous men, who are martyrs now, have done everything for you to live in an islamic state. But you married apostates who in Belgium already sought the company of hypocrites, always critized the ones who were on the path of truth, and were playing 007 muslims instead of distributing the faith.”
Chaib himself was already married when he went to Syria, and his wife Kaoutar Bioui (28) tries to lure other women to Syria too. When asked on Facebook by a woman from Antwerp whether it’s permissible to leave against the will of her husband, she replied: “How can a muslim woman be satisfied by a man who loves the land of the infidels more than jihad? We see many sisters arriving after they have left their husbands. Recently, even one of 48 years old, who gave up nearly 30 years of marriage for the sake of Allah.”
NOTE: A first version of this article stated that ‘Shaam Al-Mubarak’ is the alias of Redouan Akdim, a former member of Shariah4Belgium who has joined Jabhat al-Nusra. That assumption was based on information gathered in former Shariah4Belgium circles some time ago. After publication though, several sources denied that there is an actual link between ‘Shaam Al-Mubarak’ and Akdim.