The text below is a rough translation of an article that was published in Dutch by the author in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’.
“It will soon blow over”, Hashim was thinking when Islamic State started to attack Mosul during the night of June the 6th 2014. The terrorist group had done that before, and it never lasted longer than a couple of days before such an attack was repelled. No one believed as a matter of fact that IS could really endanger the second largest city in Iraq. But this time, things went different. “When the fighting briefly resumed around eleven in the morning, I saw a fighter with the black flag of Jihad for the first time in my life. And that evening, the entire western half of Mosul was in the hands of IS.” The eastern part would follow quickly, and while IS had started the attack with no more than 300 fighters, its ranks swelled fast. ‘They liberated 900 inmates from Mosul prison. Most of them were in jail for terrorism and immediately joined the fight. There was also a significant number of civilians who turned to IS. It was shocking to see how people who had cursed the terrorists a few days before, now sided with them. But years of corruption and frustration made Mosul ready for IS.”
Hashim has fled to a Western country now. “Leaving Mosul was the hardest thing I’ve ever done”, he says. “I wanted to stay in order to witness about what was happening, but IS got track of me.” He has testified extensively about the cruelties by tweeting under an alias, and documented life under IS in detail. Names, locations, dates… he wrote everything down. That makes him priceless as a witness, and he was consulted already by Western authorities. We started our conversations with him in January of this year, when the eastern half of Mosul just was liberated. Our communication happened via Telegram, the well encrypted application that is also popular with terrorists. “I must still be cautious, since IS can try to find me. And I am afraid for my family too.” Hashim is a historian, explaining things meticulously in a factual manner. But sometimes, the conversation also took a personal turn. On the moment for example when he told that his brother had died — killed by a grenade attack on his house, four days before his neighborhood was liberated from IS. “He is free at least”, Hashim sighted. “And we have still his kids. I’ll take care of them.”
In the first weeks it controlled Mosul, IS did not show its true face yet. “There were executions already, but they were limited to administrators and security people, of whom IS had made lists. For ordinary citizens, little changed immediately. I tried to talk my family into leaving the city, but they refused. Most people wanted to stay, and lots of them even thought that life would ameliorate under IS.” It was after the massive arrival of foreign IS fighters at the end of July 2014 that the horror began. “Islamic police started to force women into wearing the niqab and men into growing their beards.” Public executions became routine. “Friday was the usual day for that. Citizens were rarely forced in a physical manner to attend. But you had to show up often enough for not becoming a suspect yourself.” Asked how many executions he has witnessed himself, Hashim only says: “A lot.” Four times he saw good friends being executed. “Two of them were shot and two beheaded. I still hear the voices of their executioners calling ‘Allahu akbar’ regularly in my head.”
Of the executioners that Hashim has seen, at least one is a Belgian: Tarik Jadaoun from Verviers. Hashim knows him by his kunya ‘Abu Hamza al-Belgiki’ and has written down about him: “Participated in the execution of three people convicted for apostasy on the 7th of July 2015 near Bab al-Tub.” The execution happened with gunfire and Hashim knows even the names of victims: “Jihad Fadhil, Lu’ay Abdulwahid and Muhialdin Ilyas.” The identification of Jadaoun is not merely based on his kunya — Hashim also recognized him on photos we’ve sent. “His face, I will never forget. I was terrified for him. The first that I saw him, was in a tea house near Mosul university. He was Moroccan dressed and spoke French. He was working at the university, where he served as guardian for the Diwan al-Ta’lim, the IS department that made new school books there.” When the university was liberated, it became clear that those school books educated children of Mosul in maths by counting tanks, pistols and bullets.
Jadaoun is one the terrorists for whom the French authorities recently warned, thinking that they may have returned to stage an attack. Last week, he featured in a brand new propaganda video of IS, and Hashim knows where he was filmed. “It must have been in the West of Mosul, near the Nuri mosque”, he says. It is difficult however to establish when the footage was made — and thus to know whether Jadaoun is still in Mosul. We did send Hashim a lot of other pictures of Belgians who have joined IS — and he is sure that he has seen three others in Mosul. “This one also worked as a guardian and was often patrolling in front of Mosul’s central bank”, Hashim says about Azeddine Kbir Bounekoub, a Shariah4Belgium recruit from Oostmalle who has left in 2012. He repeatedly called for attacks in the West, and also threatened the Belgian Defense secretary in an audio message. But he doesn’t seem to have become an important figure within IS.
“In Mosul, he was a low-ranking fighter”, says Hashim. “But as a Westerner, he still was better off than most of the locals were. Westerners were better paid and it was considered as a honour when a they wanted to marry with the sister or the daughter of a local fighter. It wasn’t hard for Westerners to chose their brides. But they also were distrusted to a certain extent — both by local fighters and the leaders of IS. The latter gave the Westerners the most luxurious places to stay. But by putting them apart, they also made it easier to keep an eye on them.” The Western fighters were staying in a former tourist complex in Northeast Mosul. “It is known as al-Sadeer and prior to IS it was often used for marriages and parties”, Hashim says. Pictures of the location show well-furnished bungalows, each equipped with airconditioning.
The other two Belgian fighters who Hashim has recognized, are Azzedine El Khadaabia from Brussels and Redwane Hajaoui from Verviers. Both of them were also named already in possible terrorist plots, reinforcing the suspicion that IS has organized its plots against the West from within Mosul. Last year, we revealed how a former IS member told us that Tarik Jadaoun was groomed as “a new Abdelhamid Abaaoud” — referring to the terrorist from Molenbeek who acted as a coordinator for the Paris attacks. In August, we also wrote about a Belgian fighter ready to commit a suicide attack, his final message videotaped already. That guy was El Khadaabia. “He was still alive and present in Mosul in November of last year”, Hashim now says.
About the future of Mosul, Hashim is not optimistic yet. “IS may be almost defeated, but that doesn’t take away the threat”, he says. “The terrorists will probably resort to their old tactics of bomb attacks, murders and maybe even drone attacks. Moreover, the anger against the regime is still widespread enough to guarantee them new supporters. That is not only the case in Iraq, by the way. All over the world, you can find Muslims who truly believe that everyone else is plotting against them, even moderate ones. That makes them vulnerable for extremist thoughts, which can’t be eradicated with military means. On the contrary. IS doesn’t need a territory, since its most important territory is in people’s minds.”
One of the most notorious terrorists ever known in Belgium, has surfaced on the Syrian front. Abdelkader Hakimi (48) — once supposed to be the European leader of the ‘Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain’ and named as one of the brains behind the deadly bombing in Madrid of March 11, 2004 — is befriending young recruits of Shariah4Belgium now.
The flood of Belgian fighters going to Syria until now consisted mainly of young and unexperienced recruits. People who came never into contact with real terrorism yet and were still children when the west was hit by bloody attacks like those of 9/11 in the United States. The remnants of the underground cells that formed the operational core of Al Qaeda those days — and often had ramifications into Belgium — didn’t seem to join the Syrian jihad. But that is changing now.
In April of last year already, Belgian media reported that Rachid Iba (34) had left his town Maaseik to fight in Syria. In 2006, Iba was convicted as a member of the ‘Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain’ (GICM), a terrorist organization that later would become part of ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ (AQIM). At that time, it was already named as perpetrator of the bombings at Atocha railway station in the Spanish capital Madrid, were 191 people were killed in 2004. At the proces against the Belgian cell of GICM, Iba wasn’t considered a heavyweight. He got three years of which two suspended and was free again soon afterwards.
That wasn’t the case for Abdelkader Hakimi, who was seen as the European leader within GICM and whose contacts reached as far as the inmate population of Guantánamo Bay. In the eighties already, he was sentenced to death in his native Morocco, and being on the run for many years, he lived in Algeria, Libya, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Botswana using several false identities. According to intelligence services, he has fought on the side of muslim extremists in the Bosnian war, and reportedly he also got a terrorist training in Afghanistan.
In Morocco, he’s suspected of complicity in the Casablanca bombings that killed 45 people on May 16, 2003. He is also considered as one of the architects of the bloody attack by GICM in Madrid, that reportedly was partly planned during a meeting with French and Spanish GICM members in the quiet Belgian town of Maaseik. With that resume, Hakimi certainly ranks as one of the most dangerous islamic terrorists that ever appeared in a Belgian court. He got eight years and had to stay behind the bars until the end of 2011.
After he got out of jail, he settled in Brussels with his wife, according to media reports. At that time his lawyer said Hakimi had become “a completely different person”. But his Facebook account that the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ discovered recently — and that is linked to genuine former comrades — shows little proof of that. It contains a picture of the late Osama bin Laden, surrounded by heavy weapons of war. His profile picture is showing him at the time of his trial, blindfolded and surrounded by cops during the transport from his cell to the court — as if he’s proud of being convicted.
The most intriguing detail however, are the snapshots that he posted in April this year — made out of a car in the war torn suburbs of Aleppo, the northern Syrian city that has long been under control of extremist groups. It is not clear how long Hakimi has been in Aleppo, nor whether he still is in Syria. The Facebook page doesn’t give any detail about his activities there, but his friends list may be a reason to worry. It clearly shows that he is forging ties with young western fighters on the Syrian front.
One of his actual friends is the Belgian ISIS fighter Azeddine Kbir Bounekoub (21, a.k.a. ‘Abu Gastbijshaam’), the guy that only last week has called for more attacks in Belgium, explicitly referring to the brutal murder of four people in the Brussels Jewish Museum. Belgian security services are rightly concerned about an extremist like Bounekoub returning home, and their fear should grow now that his links with a seasoned Al Qaeda operative are established. People like Hakimi can pass decades of experience in the world wide terrorism to the young foreign fighters, learn them all the tricks needed to commit an attack and introduce them in a network that has proved it’s bloody clout already several times.