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.
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.