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.
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.
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.
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.