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.”
Three young muslims from the Belgian city of Kortrijk who left to Syria in June, seem to become new poster boys of the ‘good life’ in the Islamic State.
Olivier Calebout (27, aka ‘Abu Sayfudeen’), Abdelmalek Boutalliss (19, aka ‘Abu Nusaybah’) and Lucas Van Hessche (19) are very active on social media these days, showing more joy than cruelty or war. Below are some of their most recent pictures — while two movies can be seen here and here.
Apparently, they are living in ar-Raqqah at the moment (after a short stay in Deir ez-Zor) and recognizable in their company is Azeddine Kbir Bounekoub from Malle near Antwerp — who has threatened Belgium a while ago with terrorist attacks and will be tried in absentia later this month.
James Foley, the American reporter beheaded last week, shared a prison cell with former Belgian fighter Jejoen Bontinck for at least three weeks. Reportedly, they were held at that time by Bontinck’s former comrades from Shariah4Belgium, who brandished Jejoen as a traitor because he wanted to go home.
It was CEO Philip Balboni of GlobalPost, the American news site for which Foley was working in Syria, who broke the news about his deplored journalist and Jejoen Bontinck knowing each other. “In September 2013, a young Belgian who had travelled to fight in Syria had befriended Foley and, once that jihadist went back to Belgium, offered excellent information on roughly where Jim was held and by whom”, he was quoted by NBC News. “It was the first time we knew that Jim was alive. It was a wonderful, wonderful moment.” Balboni didn’t mention the name of the Belgian — but that wasn’t hard to find for anyone familiar with the phenomenon of Belgian fighters in Syria.
Jejoen Bontinck (19) went to Syria in February, 2013. He converted to islam a few years before and joined the radical organization ‘Shariah4Belgium’. He says he didn’t want to fight, but provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. Disgusted by the violence of war, he wanted to go home already in March of that year. But his comrades from Shariah4Belgium with whom he teamed together, considered him as a traitor or even a spy, and imprisoned him for several months. He was held in Aleppo, the northern Syrian city which was the main stronghold of the radical islamic resistance at that time.
Bontinck was never a prisoner of the Islamic State, his lawyer Kris Luyckx explained to the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’. Although most of his Belgian comrades now have joined the extremely brutal group, at that time they were still active under the banner of ‘Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen’ or ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’. That Bontinck was held together with Islamic State victim Foley — as confirmed by Luyckx — is consistent with the claim that Foley’s abduction was carried out by of one of those groups. When the American got caught in November 2012, the Islamic State didn’t exist yet in Syria. It was founded in April 2013 as ISIS — the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Sham’.
“Bontinck and Foley shared a cell for at least three weeks around August of last year”, says Luyckx. “And they weren’t the only Westerners — there was a European journalist too. Apparently, the two reporters were later transfered to ar-Raqqah, and it must have been there Foley was held by the British fighters that are known now as ‘The Beatles’. Jejoen has never met the guy who killed Foley or one of his accomplices. He always stayed in the hands of his former comrades of Shariah4Belgium.” If that is true, it means that Foley too was held by the Belgians for some time.
It isn’t clear whether they were also involved in Foley’s abduction — and an important question that also remains, is whether it were Bontinck’s former brothers in arms who have delivered Foley directly to those who’ve killed him now. The Belgian judiciary has indicted thirteen people for taking Bontinck hostage — based on the names he reportedly mentioned himself — and at least some of those people can be suspected in Foley’s case too. All belong to a group of 46 that has to stand trial this fall — although for most of them it will be a trial in absentia, since they are still fighting in Syria or were killed in action there.
Of the thirteen former Shariah4Belgium members that are indicted for imprisoning Bontinck, at least four have died already: Houssien Elouassaki from Vilvoorde, Nabil Azahaf from Brussels, Noureddine Abouallal from Antwerp and Yassine El Karouni — a Dutchman that apparently has spent most of his last years in Antwerp. Of those who are considered still alive, the highest ranking is Hicham Chaïb, alias ‘Abu Haniefa’. He became one of the leaders of Shariah4Belgium after the imprisonment of it’s founder Fouad Belkacem. Chaïb is living in ar-Raqqah now, where he was seen already in the company of senior Islamic State commander Abu Waheed.
The remaining eight names are Azeddine Kbir Bounekoub, Said M’Nari, Brahim El Mimouni and Fouad Akrich from Antwerp — Zakaria Asbai and Magomed Saralapov from Vilvoorde — Rachid Iba from Maaseik — and Redouan Akdim from Naarden in the Netherlands. Noteworthy is that Iba was already convicted as a member of the terrorist ‘Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain’ back in 2006, that Kbir Bounekoub has appeared in a gruesome video with dead bodies in Syria, and that Akrich is one of the exceptions who stayed in the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra — a fact that has ignited already vicious debates on Facebook, where he’s still a ‘friend’ of his former comrades who went to the Islamic State.
Jejoen was freed in September 2013 and after his return in Belgium, he was intensively interrogated by security services of several countries. According to his lawyer, the information he provided about the location where he and Foley were held, has been the motor behind the rescue operation undertaken for Foley by American elite soldiers. But the details Bontinck gave about his prison — “near a courthouse and a hospital”, for instance — were about the place where he was held in Aleppo. And apparently the raid took place at a time Foley was moved to ar-Raqqah already.
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.