Another Belgian veteran of terrorism spotted in Syria

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.”


IS fighters from the Belgian town of Maaseik: A rare connection between actual networks and old school terrorists

Recently, a new Belgian fighter has surfaced within the ranks of the Islamic State (IS). The fourth already from Maaseik. The radical islamist community in that little border town is bridging the gap between the actual networks and old school terrorists — a rather rare phenomenon in Belgium.

IS fighter 'Abou Shaheed' from the Belgian town of Maaseik, shortly after his arrival in Syria in December 2014.

IS fighter ‘Abou Shaheed’ from the Belgian town of Maaseik, shortly after his arrival in Syria in December, 2014

He posted his picture a few days ago on his Facebook account, the Belgian fighter who’s using the alias ‘Abou Shaheed’. Standing beside the seemingly obligate pick-up truck and holding an impressive rifle. Little is told about the location, the date of his arrival and his true identity. But apparently he went to Syria somewhere last month, his friends at home are calling him ‘Fasil from Maaseik’ and his actual Facebook account previously has carried the name of Fayssal Oussaih.

The name Oussaih rings a bell for anyone familiar with the extremist scene of Maaseik. Back in 2006, several inhabitants of the town were convicted at a trial in Brussels for their membership of the ‘Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain’ (GICM), a terrorist organization held responsible for the bloody attacks of Casablanca (45 deaths at May 16, 2003) and Madrid (191 deaths at March 11, 2004). Later, it became a part of ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ (AQIM), the North African branch of Osama bin Laden’s network. More on its background can be read here.

One of the defendants was tried in absentia because he was imprisoned in Syria already. At that time, the country was known as main gate to the jihad against the US military presence in Iraq. Apparently, GICM was active in the recruitment of fighters for that struggle, and Khalid Oussaih — a man from Maaseik who was in his early twenties then — had lent his passport to a higher ranking GICM member in order to let the latter escape during one of their travels. While he was sentenced to four years in jail by the Belgian court, Syria responded to an extradition request of Morocco, leading to another sentence of three years there.

After being freed in Morocco, Khalid Oussaih spent some time in France. But in 2013, he decided to settle again in Maaseik. In November of that year, he was arrested in Belgium because he never had served his prison time here. But he appealed against the initial verdict — a case that is lingering on — and in the meantime, he’s free. The exact relation between Khalid and Fayssal Oussaih isn’t clear yet, but since they share their name and their rather tiny hometown, chances are high that they are relatives.

Fact is that Fayssal Oussaih has connections with at least two other convicts of the trial in 2006. On Facebook, he is friends with Khalid Bouloudo and Abdallah Ouabour — who were both sentenced to five years in jail for being members of GICM. The same is true for Jamal Elkoua, one of the other fighters in Syria with roots in Maaseik. And a third one, Rachid Iba, was convicted himself to three years in jail back in 2006.

So in Maaseik, there exists some kind of continuity between the ‘old school’ terrorists of GICM and the current networks recruiting for IS. That is quite exceptional in the Belgian context. The country has seen a very wide range of islamic extremism in the past decades, but nowadays everything seems to be centered around completely new organizations — of which Shariah4Belgium certainly has been the most important one.

Interestingly, there is a connection between the fighters from Maaseik and Shariah4Belgium too — since Rachid Iba has married the sister of Brahim El Mimouni, an important lieutenant of Shariah4Belgium founder Fouad Belkacem. El Mimouni was the webmaster of the organization until he left for Syria himself. Nowadays he seems to serve IS both in its propaganda department and in its foreign relations — more specifically by strengthening the ties between Syrian an Libyan cells. Apparently, El Mimouni grew that important that comrades now are calling him ‘sheikh’.

Finally, we’ve mentioned already another figure with roots in the ‘old school’ Belgian jihad, who currently is forging ties with the new generation of extremists. In April of last year, Abdelkader Hakimi posted pictures taken in Aleppo on his Facebook account — an apparent sign of being in Syria — while he too had friends already within the regiment of Belgian fighters recruited by Shariah4Belgium. Hakimi was considered as the European leader of GICM and sentenced to eight years in prison at the trial in 2006.

All those links may be results of merely personal acquaintances and coincidence, but it would be interesting to know whether there are similar patterns in other European countries too. We are very keen to learn about connections between the actual jihad in Syria and Iraq — not only IS — and former operatives of GICM.


Convicted European top terrorist Abdelkader Hakimi has traveled to Syria

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.

Screenshot of Hakimi's actual Facebook page.

Screenshot of Hakimi’s actual Facebook page.

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.

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