For the first time, a Belgian fighter in Syria admits that he has murdered there — a scoop that my colleague Patrick Lefelon presents today in Belgium’s largest daily newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’. Hakim Elouassaki, repatriated badly wounded last year and still imprisoned, says he executed a man because he didn’t dare to disobey the orders of his commander.
Hakim Elouassaki, 22 years old today, is a younger brother of former Shariah4Belgium firebrand Houssien. Born and raised in Vilvoorde, a town on the outskirts of Brussels, both went to Syria at the end of 2012. They fought in the ranks of ‘Majlis Shura al-Muhajireen’, a militia that later would become part of the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Sham’ — now known as IS. Hakim returned in March of the following year, after being hit in the head by a grenade. He spent some time in a Belgian hospital — but in April 2013, he was arrested in his family’s home.
The police confronted him with an intercepted phone call he made with his girlfriend while staying in Syria. “Guess what?” investigators heard him say. “I have killed a man today. He was an unbeliever that was captured long before. His family only raised 30,000 euro’s for him, while they had to pay 70,000 to set him free. I killed him with a bullet in the head. Bang! I wanted to film it, but my camera was badly placed so that went wrong.”
In front of his interrogators, Hakim denied having executed someone. He insisted that he made up the story to impress his girl, and he sticked to that version until about two weeks ago. Then, all of a sudden, he informed the police he had a declaration to make. He confessed the crime, saying that he was driven by fear. He would have signed his own death warrant by ignoring the orders of his commander, he told.
For the prosecution, Hakim’s confession came as a pleasant surprise. They mainly relied on the phonetaps and some shaky videos from other murders by Belgian fighters to prove the worst crimes of the 46 people from Shariah4Belgium that will stand trial at the end of this month. Therefore, the murders already were separated from the list of accusations — so they can be investigated further and be the subject of a second trial at a later time.
According to his lawyer, Hakim’s confession is meaningless though. He says his client cannot make a reliable statement anymore because his brains were irreversibly damaged by the grenade — a fact that is confirmed by a panel of medical experts. Lawyer Abderrahim Lahali also insists that the murders have to tried at the same time as the other accusations — such as membership of a terrorist organization — since they all were committed in a same context, and thus are interrelated.
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.
A Belgian muslim extremist close to a network of Syria fighters threatens with a terrorist attack during the New Year celebrations in the cities of Antwerp and Brussels.
In a private Facebook message sent on Sunday to the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’, the extremist pointed out that the firework spectacle along the river Scheldt, the city’s Central Station and the main shopping street Meir are possible targets, while in Brussels the Atomium monument was named. “I’m warning muslims against attending these events and against joining non-believers there”, he wrote.
The author of the message is using a Facebook account with the name ‘Madjlis Shura Muhajirien’, a reference to the brigade of foreign fighters in Syria that counted several Belgians in it’s ranks before it was integrated in the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Sham’ (ISIS). The Facebook account was started early in 2013 within the entourage of Houssien Elouassaki, the former leader of the Shariah4Belgium movement in the town of Vilvoorde, who reportedly has been killed in Syria since.
Recently, that same account was used already two times to send threatening messages towards Belgium. One in October — a video in which a masked Syria fighter fulminated with an Antwerp accent against “the descendants of apes and pigs who fight islam” — and another earlier this month — a nasheed-like audio message in Dutch in which the Belgian Defense Secretary Pieter De Crem was warned for a car bomb and the Atomium in Brussels also was mentioned as a target for a terrorist attack.
A high ranking Belgian security source told ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ that the new threat has to be taken seriously. “Moments as this are real nightmares for us”, he did admit. “The extremists are choosing their targets quite well, it shows. What happened today in the Russian city of Volgograd is proving how difficult it is to secure public places. In Russia, even railway stations are equipped with scanners. But that doesn’t guarantee they can thwart every attack.”
Houssien Elouassaki (22), Belgium’s most notorious jihadi fighter in Syria, has disappeared. Friends who kept in touch with him by telephone and Facebook accounts, say he gave no sign of life since August 20. In his home town of Vilvoorde rumours say Elouassaki has been killed — but at this point, nobody is willing or able to confirm.
According to sources in the local muslim community, Elouassaki’s father himself announced the dead of his son some time ago. “I am mourning for the third time”, he allegedly told friends, a reference to his oldest son Abdelouafi — who died in a motorcycle accident in May — and the younger Hakim — imprisoned after he returned from Syria with grave injuries. But asked about Houssien by the Belgian daily ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ this week, the father declined to confirm. “I will not mourn until I see his dead body”, he told.
Well-informed official sources say they too have heard about Houssien’s death. “According to our reports, fellow fighters killed him with a shot in the chest”, they say. “But we weren’t able yet to verify and do not know whether it was some kind of infight or a case of friendly fire.”
Houssien Elouassaki came in the picture last year as one of the most outspoken members of Shariah4Belgium, a radical muslim organization that now is dissolved. He was arrested during street protests in Brussels against the so-called violent treatment of a niqab-wearing woman by the police. That made him a hero, able to gather so much support that muslim youths from Vilvoorde rapidly became the main force of Shariah4Belgium in the Brussels area.
At the end of 2012, he went to Syria. At that moment, Belgian security services already considered him as an important recruiter for the jihadist struggle against the regime of president Assad. Intercepted phone calls pointed both to cruelties he apparently committed in Syria, such as beheadings, and plans for a major terrorist attack in his home country after his return — as was mentioned here.
Houssien Elouassaki in a Shariah4Belgium video
One of the suspects in the case of the Belgian Syria fighters has died in a traffic accident. Abdelouafi Elouassaki (29) succumbed to his injuries after a crash with his motorcycle on monday evening in Brussels.
Abdelouafi was the elder brother of Syria fighters Houssien and Hakim Elouassaki. The latter came back to Belgium with serious injuries and is now in jail. The first, considered as a recruiter, still hasn’t returned.
It was Abdelouafi with whom Houssien has talked about plans for a terrorist attack in Brussels during an intercepted phone call. The contents of that call were confirmed by two separate security sources and reported ten days ago in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’.
Abdelouafi didn’t show signs of religious extremism — he fancied parties with well known deejays and was pictured only last weekend with Djibril Cissé, the French-Ivorian soccer star annex deejay who converted from islam to christianity.
But because of the suspicion he has helped his brothers both practically and financially with their travel to Syria, Abdelouafi was jailed for a while after the large police operation against Syria fighters in Belgium last month. Both brothers belong to the radical movement ‘Shariah4Belgium’.
Abdelouafi for his part was a leading member of ‘Kamikaze Riders’, a Brussels motorcycle club known for illegal stunts on public roads. Once he boasted on Facebook about being caught in France driving at a speed of 235 km/h.
Coincidence or not, the founder of ‘Kamikaze Riders’ is also considered as a radical muslim with links to the case of the Syria fighters — as Abdelouafi’s brothers are. That founder is a youth friend of Abdelouafi living in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht, Saïd S. (a.k.a. ‘Said Kamikaze’, ‘Said KR’ and ‘Said Delta Box III’).
Apparently, Saïd S. has been in jail already for burglary and weapon crimes, and still appears to be behind bars at the moment — according to messages of support friends have posted with his picture online. But the reason of that current arrest we don’t know.
The biggest fear surrounding the case of western Syria fighters is coming true: a war-hardened extremist that wants to commit violence on western soil. A recently intercepted phone call between Syria fighter Houssien Elouassaki and one of his brothers in their Belgian home town of Vilvoorde has made clear that the first one is plotting a terrorist attack against Brussels’ main court house. Apparently, the needed weapons and explosives are gathered via contacts in the world of serious crime.
The revelation that was confirmed by two independent security sources to Belgium’s largest newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ and published last weekend, is a serious one. Within a few weeks there could be a major terrorist attack in the country, probably against the landmark Brussels court house.
That is what police has learned from the phone call that Houssien Elouassaki made from Syria to one of his brothers. Weapons and explosives are sought abroad via contacts within Brussels’ serious crime community. But nobody wanted to tell whether they are already obtained.
Also an open question is whether Houssien Elouassaki wants to return from Syria to commit the attack himself. Another possibility is recruiting terrorists within the large group of followers he got as a leader of the now disbanded extremist group ‘Shariah4Belgium’. Fact is that his Facebook account recently was removed, as was the case with that of some of his friends. As if their contacts suddenly had to be hidden.
Houssien Elouassaki was one the most notorious members of ‘Shariah4Belgium’. He has already spend some time in jail after violent street protests in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek last year, and was convicted to compulsory community service for that. In February of this year, he went to Syria and according to the latest information he is still fighting there.
His younger brother Hakim also fought in Syria, but he was gravely wounded and returned. Last month, Hakim was arrested when Belgian police conducted a large operation against the network of Syria fighters that has grown out of ‘Shariah4Belgium’, as was the case for their oldest brother Abdelouafi. He is suspected of aiding the Syria fighters, both practically and financially. Abdelouafi was released on May 8th, and it seems it was with him that Houssien has talked about his terrorist plot.
The Elouassaki family, originally from the Moroccan town of Nador, is well known for violence. At the age of 16, Hakim already wounded three cops so badly they all had to be hospitalized, while Abdelouafi threatened to attack a female journalist of ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ when she asked about the extremist background of his brothers about a month ago.
Shortly after publication in ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’, the Belgian federal prosecution office told the Belga press agency that the story isn’t correct. But it didn’t want to elaborate — Entirely false? Wrong in a particular detail? — “in order to protect the investigation”. The journalists stick to their story, explaining that their second source was genuinely appalled that a newspaper had heard about it — since it was highlighted in the dossiers as strictly confidential.That could be the reason why authorities want to stop the media attention for the case as soon as possible. But the acknowledgment that there is an investigation, tells at least there is something to investigate…