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.
In his testimony before the ‘Commission d’enquête sur la surveillance des filières et des individus djihadistes’ within the French parliament, senior counterterrorism judge Marc Trévidic disclosed that a second veteran of the jihad in Western Europe with strong links to Belgium has joined the Syrian war.
“In recent months, a new phenomenon has surfaced”, Trévidic declared under oath. “The veterans have taken up their task again. I learned for instance that Farid Melouk has traveled to Syria with two other people. I know him since I handled the case of the first Afghan network, back in 2000. He headed a very important network for the recruitment of jihadists.”
Speaking only about that 15 year old case doesn’t justice to Farid Melouk. The Frenchman of Algerian descent, who was born half a century ago in Lyon, started his career in the violent form of islamism in the early nineties already. Reportedly trained in Afghan terrorist camps, he was one of the defendants at a trial held in Paris in 1997 against the ‘Groupe islamique armé’ (GIA) — a predecessor of today’s ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ (AQMI).
Melouk was sentenced in absentia for his role in a series of attacks that frightened France during the summer of 1995 and resulted in eight deaths and more than 200 injured. He got seven years in jail, but remained a free man until the 5th of March 1998, when he was traced to a house in the Brussels municipality of Ixelles. His arrest was preceded by an armed standoff that lasted all day, and a Belgian court convicted him to an additional nine years behind bars.
After the case in 2000 that Trévidic mentioned, nothing more was heard about Melouk. But after the bloody attack against the Paris weekly ‘Charlie Hebdo’ last January, his name has suddenly surfaced again. Chérif Kouachi, one of the brothers who murdered 12 people then in the name of Al Qaeda, turned out to be an acquaintance of several veterans of the jihad.
On the 11th of April 2010, French security services pictured Kouachi during sport exercises on a soccer field in the Auvergne region. He was seen there before with Djamel Beghal, a notorious terrorist who became Kouachi’s mentor after they had met in prison, as we know now. On that specific day, they got the company of two earlier convicts — Ahmed Laidouni and Farid Melouk.
Melouk is the second veteran of jihad with strong links to Belgium who turns up in Syria. In June of last year, we reported about the presence there of Abdelkader Hakimi, a convicted terrorist belonging to the ‘Groupe islamique combattant marocain’ (GICM). He posted pictures of his stay in Aleppo on his Facebook page, but has apparently returned to Europe since. Shortly before his Facebook account disappeared, he mentioned a village in the Netherlands as place of residence.
We didn’t find any footprint of Melouk on social media. But a woman who declares herself to be his spouse, has a Facebook account. The maiden name she mentions is Samira Ghamri, probably meaning she is the 28 year old widow of another French jihadist, Hamza el-Alami — a relationship mentioned in an Italian court document.
El-Alami was recruited by the network of the notorious Al Qaeda couple Moez Garsalloui and Malika el-Aroud, and he died fighting in Afghanistan at the end of 2009. It isn’t clear whether Ghamri has traveled to Syria too. On her Facebook page, where she was active until last month, the French town of Vénissieux is mentioned as her place of residence.
In his testimony, Trévidic emphasized the danger of veterans like Melouk joining the Syrian war. “Are the intelligence services able to find out what has become of all those people sentenced in the past for their implication in jihadist networks?” he asked. “They should, because those veterans have a tremendous address book, both in France and Belgium, and they can easily incite other people to join them in Syria.”
Supporters of ISIS — the terrorist group that once was a branch of Al Qaeda and still is fighting in Syria — run an ironic Facebook group. It is called ‘War Crimes of The Islamic State of Iraq and Shaam’ and only shows innocent actions by ISIS members, asking: “Are they criminals? You be the judge.”
At first sight, the Facebook group that was established three days ago, seems critical for ‘al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham’ — as ISIS is named in Arabic. But the reference to war crimes committed by ISIS in the name of the group is clearly meant to ridicule such accusations.
The pictures that are posted, show ISIS members distributing food, teaching children, playing in the snow and even taking care for a kitten — always with a comment such as: “ISIS visits little injured boy in a hospital. Oh what a crime he has committed! Off with his head! How dare he comfort a child!”
A look at the more than 700 people who had liked the page today already, also learns a lot about it’s real purpose. Most of them are muslim extremists openly supporting ISIS in it’s struggle for an islamic state and in cruelties such as random killings and beheadings — as their profiles and other likes show.
They come from all kind of countries, with a significant share from Belgium and the Netherlands. Among them is at least one of the actual Belgian Syria fighters — ‘Abu Dujana Al-Muhajir’ from Brussels — and remarkably enough also Jejoen Bontinck, aka ‘Sayfullah Ahlu Sunna’, the young convert from Antwerp who was recently released from jail.
Bontinck joined the ranks of ISIS, but returned to Belgium after the much publicized search his father undertook in Syria. At first, he denied he had been fighting, but later he apparently cooperated with security services, testified against his former comrades and told he doesn’t support ISIS anymore — which resulted in death threats against him already.
One of the conditions for his release was refraining from contacts with his former extremist companions, and after the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ today reported his adherence to the Facebook group, his ‘like’ has quickly disappeared.
A picture has surfaced of the Belgian Interior Minister Joëlle Milquet posing with a self-proclaimed Al Qaeda militant. The man is Iliass Azaouaj, a salafist imam from Brussels who went to Syria and recently threatened with terrorist attacks on Belgian soil.
Azaouaj, already known for hatemongering against homosexuals and close relations to proponents of the Syrian jihad such as the Saudi sheikh Mohammed Al-Arifi, officially went to Syria in order to bring back young Belgian muslims fighting there. Only a few days after his arrival somewhere in April, his family stated that he was abducted by a terrorist group who considered him a traitor and threatened to execute him. But in August Azaouaj himself began to distribute menacing language on his Twitter account. “Belgians, be prepared”, he wrote, “because the war is starting. Do not use trains or trams anymore, since they will change your life.”
He signed with “a member of Al Qaeda” at a moment that chatter about planned attacks against the public transportation system kept Belgium already in a heightened state of alarm. Family members declared that Azaouaj’s Twitter account was hacked and misused to distribute a message he surely didn’t condone. But in early November, a video appeared on YouTube in which Azaouaj confirmed that he had joined the ranks of Al Qaeda — “in order to kill the ones that are killing us and to fight the ones that are fighting against us”. He showed a gun, told he was wearing an explosive belt and declared: “People have to understand that fighting is the only way to be heard.”
According to Milquet, she met Azaouaj at a conference about diversity long before he went to Syria. “He asked me for a picture like lots of people do”, she told the Belgian daily ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ in which the story first appeared. “I didn’t recognize him, nor had any discussion with him. It was completely innocent. When I’m surrounded by hundreds of people, I can’t ask them all to show their identity cards.” But the picture is humiliating for the Belgian security services overseen by Milquet, since Pro-Syrian websites are distributing it now as a proof of western support for the terrorists active in the Syrian war. Questions also arise about the seriousness of Milquet’s own protection and the screening of people who are able to approach her that close.