The identification of Chakib Akrouh as one of the Paris attackers makes clear that the very same Islamic State cell was actively plotting terror in Europe as early as May, 2014.
A close friend of Chakib Akrouh, who was sent to the Syrian jihad by the same recruiter as Akrouh and the well known Paris attacker Abdelhamid Abaaoud, arrived back in Belgium on the 25th of May, 2014. According to an alert that the Belgian State Security sent out two weeks later, Ilias Mohammadi was “armed and nervous” at the time.
It took the Belgian police another two weeks to locate Mohammadi. He was arrested in Brussels on June 25, 2014. In the house where he had stayed, no weapons were found. But a significant amount of ammunition was discovered there. This was first reported by the Belgian newspaper ‘De Morgen’ and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s ‘CTC Sentinel‘.
All the information comes from Belgian court documents — more precisely from the trial that was held last summer in Brussels against jihad recruiter Khalid Zerkani and members of his cell. Abdelhamid Abaaoud was convicted there to 20 years, and Akrouh to 5 years in jail — both in absentia. Mohammadi was present and sentenced to 7 years in jail.
In the judgment of the trial, it is stated that Mohammadi left for Syria on the 7th of January, 2014. He had booked a flight to Turkey together with Souleymane Abrini, whose brother Mohammed is sought now as a suspected accomplice of the Paris attackers.
The Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ reports today about Mohammed C. — a Belgian-Moroccan father who took his whole family to the Syrian war. He pushed his mentally unstable son into the fighting, while he forced his minor daughter to marry an Algerian commander of Islamic State.
On October 6, 2013, a family of six took a plane at Charleroi airport with destination Turkey. That they didn’t leave for a vacation was proven by their one way tickets, the fact that their home had been re-rented and most of their possessions were sold. Mohammed C. had been in contact with radical muslims longtime already, and most of his acquaintances apparently knew that he wanted to move to Syria.
His wife, Maria G. — a woman from Italian descent who calls herself ‘Fatiha’ since being converted — largely agreed with that plan. During later interrogations, she told about her intent to stay in Turkey with her three daughters, while her husband and her son would travel on to Syria. But the Belgian judiciary casted doubt upon her declaration that her husband finally forced all of them to cross the Turkish-Syrian border and settle near the northern city of Aleppo.
After their arrival, Mohammed hastened to carry out his plans. “They were only a few days at place, when he started to push his teenage daughter H. to marry a local ISIS emir”, it is noted in the judgment of a terrorism trial that was held in Brussels last July. The Algerian born commander was 27, while the daughter was barely 16. “She agreed to the marriage”, the judgment states, “because she feared that any other choice of her father would be worse.”
The mother remained with her two younger daughters in an apartment that they hardly ever could leave. “They lived there like recluses, on the rhythm of their prayers, and in constant fear for the war that happened outside.” Father Mohammed and son Rachid meanwhile presented themselves as fighters. But for the latter, it likely didn’t happen voluntarily, since he was diagnosed as a mentally unstable young man.
Apparently, the son was used for the dirtiest jobs. According to his sister, who saw him only every now and then, he was forced to risk his own life during the battles by collecting the corpses of fellow fighters who were killed. Soon already, mother and daughters wanted to leave, but father Mohammed resisted to that. Only after daughter H. got pregnant, he allowed her a journey to Turkey. From there, she traveled back to Belgium, soon followed by her mother and her two sisters.
Nothing is known about the current situation of the teenage girl and her baby that should be born. But her father, her mother and her brother are convicted now. At the trial against a Brussels based cell of recruiters — to which the well known Abdelhamid Abaaoud also belonged — Mohammed was sentenced to ten years in jail for leadership of a terrorist group. Son Rachid got ten years for membership of that group, while mother Maria got two years with probation for the same crime. She was present in court, while her husband and her son were tried in absentia.
About Rachid, nothing has been heard recently. Certain is that he didn’t join his father when Mohammed left Islamic State in May, 2014. That was about a month after the departure of his wife and his daughters. Mohammed switched to the brigade of Bassam Ayachi, the self styled ‘Cheikh’ from Molenbeek that once was named a key figure in nearly every Belgian jihadist plot. Nowadays, Ayachi holds a much more moderate profile, and he even fights against Islamic State. Mohammed himself is still active on social media, where he posts paintings and poems that he has made in Syria.
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.
One of the perpetrators of the mass beheading that was shown in the latest video of Islamic State (IS) allegedly is Belgian. Sources within the security services are quite confident they recognized a member of Shariah4Belgium who is currently on trial in absentia.
PLEASE READ IMPORTANT UPDATE BELOW.
The most gruesome part of the video message in which IS confirmed last weekend that it has killed Peter Kassig, wasn’t the murder of the American aid worker himself. That act wasn’t shown. But the movie did contain chilling footage of about 20 Syrian soldiers beheaded by IS terrorists. One of them was the notorious Briton ‘Jihadi John’. He was masked and dressed in black, similar to the previous videos. His accomplices however, wearing camouflage suits, did show their face.
French authorities confirmed already that Maxime Hauchard (22), a muslim convert from Normandy known within IS as ‘Abou Abdallah Al-Faransi’, is one of them. And British media identified another one as Nasser Muthana (20), a medical student from Cardiff in Wales. While those names were coming out, the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ was looking into rumours that a third one comes from Belgium.
We didn’t get complete certainty, but a source within Belgian security services told about his confidence that Abdelmajid Gharmaoui (28) — a.k.a. ‘Abu Dujana Al-Muhajir’ — is one of the executioners indeed. Another senior official confirmed that the presence of the former Shariah4Belgium member is investigated since Sunday already, and the highly respected independent IS specialist Pieter Van Ostaeyen also thinks is it him.
Apart from the striking physical resemblance, there are some other facts that make it a probable case. Gharmaoui indicated already that he is active within the propaganda department of IS and his Facebook account mentions Dabiq as current place of residence. That Syrian town north of Aleppo is rarely mentioned as such by European fighters, but it is there that the Kassig video was filmed — according to its own caption and independent Syrian media activists who pinpointed the exact location on satellite images.
Gharmaoui was one of the most active Shariah4Belgium members from of the town of Vilvoorde, frequently accompanying his local leader Houssien Elouassaki at gatherings in Antwerp, the main base of the radical organization those days. He left for Syria in October 2012 with Elouassaki’s brother Hakim and fought in the ranks of Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen, an Aleppo based militia that was led by the Syrian brothers Firas and Amr al-Absi before becoming part of ISIS during the first half of 2013.
At the trial that is currently held against 46 members of Shariah4Belgium, the public prosecutor has demanded ten years of imprisonment against Gharmaoui for membership of a terrorist organization. Like most of the defendants, he is tried in absentia. Lately, we mentioned his name when we reported about allegations of murder against a Belgian fighter who has returned and is free on conditions, Elias Taketloune. It was Gharmaoui who spread those rumours, probably as an act of revenge because Taketloune had cooperated with the police.
If Gharmaoui’s implication in the recent mass beheading sufficiently can be proven, the possibility exists he will be tried for that seperately at a later stage. There are already six defendants facing such a second trial, since the most serious complaints — abduction and murder — were left out of the current case. Those complaints are still investigated and of course they can result in far more severe punishment.
UPDATE (November 18, 2014 – 11u30 PM Brussels time) – In reaction to the story above as it was published in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ this morning, the mayor of Gharmaoui’s hometown of Vilvoorde stated that it certainly isn’t him who can be seen in the video.
“People within the security services initially thought so indeed, but in the meantime they are telling me it was a mistake”, politician Hans Bonte told. Asked for their assessment again, several sources — including a specialist in the matter within a Belgian security service — denied that their meaning has changed. So, the only conclusion is that even authorities do not agree yet on the question whether it is Gharmaoui or not.
The federal prosecutor’s office confirmed it is investigating the case, but declined any further comment. And in circles of radical muslims different meanings also occur. The brother of another well known IS fighter from Vilvoorde wrote on Facebook: “That isn’t Majid”, while acquaintances from Brussels anonymously told the opposite.
UPDATE (November 19, 2014 – 1u30 PM Brussels time) – According to the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office, the man in the Kassig video isn’t Abdelmajid Gharmaoui. “The physical resemblance made us think so”, spokesman Eric Van Der Sypt just told us, “but technology is pointing to the contrary. For us, the investigation is closed.”
The latest story of a Belgian citizen trying to join the Islamic State, seems to reveal a controversial swap by the Turkish government. According to a list that is widely circulating now, the Belgian was caught on his way to Syria. But Turkey exchanged him with IS as part of the deal about the Turkish hostages that recently were set free.
Johan Castillo Boens (35) isn’t the average Belgian fighter within IS. He is the son of a retired professor at the chemistry department of Leuven University, whose wife comes from the Philippines. They raised their son as a christian, but Johan converted to islam several years ago after some serious personal troubles. Nowadays, he is married with a woman from the Philippines himself. They have five children, of which the youngest one was born in June of this year. His wife was also a christian, but has followed him into islam.
According to his mother, Johan didn’t manage to find a decent job, although he has studied business management and took additional courses in IT. “Because he is half Philippino, he looks a bit like a foreigner”, she is quoted today in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’. “And letting his beard grow, made things only worse. We often tried to convince him to shave off that beard. It isn’t necessary that everyone can see you’re a muslim, we told. But he didn’t want to listen. Recently, he spoke about moving to Jordania and in August he left to search there for a job.”
At least, that was what he told. Two separate sources informed us this week that Johan went to Turkey instead, trying to join the Islamic State in Syria. According to the first source, his name is on a list of several European IS supporters that were recently caught by the Turkish police. The second told us that he was in Turkey indeed about fortnight ago, but since has crossed the Syrian border. Caught or gone to Syria? That seems to be a contradiction. But both sources say they have indications that Johan was part of a shadowy deal.
At least one other man — a Briton, we are told — was mentioned on the same list, but has joined IS in Syria now. It is thought that Turkey has handed them over to IS as a part of the exchange that has set 49 Turkish hostages free, including the staff of the Turkish consulate in Mosul. According to the Turkish press, there has been such a swap indeed. But until now, it was thought Turkey only persuaded the Syrian resistance movement Liwa al-Tawheed to hand over some of their IS detainees, but didn’t release anyone itself. The fate of Johan Castillo Boens possibly can prove otherwise. If he really is in Syria now after being detained by the Turkish authorities, Ankara will have to explain a few things.
The Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ had a look into the transcripts of the interrogations of Jejoen Bontinck after he came back from Syria. They learn a lot about the western hostages with whom he was imprisoned by the Islamic State last year — the now beheaded James Foley, the actual hostage John Cantlie and a German citizen that wasn’t mentioned before.
The background of Bontinck’s story can be found here. Below are some highlights of what he told to the Belgian police. Quotes sometimes are bundled from different interrogations about the same topics and can only serve to get a picture of the situation, not for legal means whatsoever
• ABOUT THE ORGANIZATIONS IMPLICATED:
When Bontinck arrived in Syria in February of last year, there were three organizations active near Aleppo, where he teamed up with the other Belgians he knew. He was part of Majlis Shura Mujahideen, while Jabhat al-Nusra and “the group of Omar Shishani”, as Bontinck described it, also kept a presence there. While he was already imprisoned on suspicion of being a spy, both his own group and that of Omar Shishani became part of the newly founded ISIS — “the State”, as he says. But several members of Majlis Shura Mujahideen left to Jabhat Al-Nusra at that point. It isn’t clear which organization held him captive directly after that split, since he kept seeing people of both groups.
• HOW BONTINCK BECAME A PRISONER OF IS HIMSELF:
That happened after being kept as a prisoner by his own comrades for several months. “It was completely unexpected that they relocated me the day after Eid al-Fitr. I was told that I had to appear in a court, and would be freed afterwards. They tied my hands and blindfolded me. I don’t know exactly where they brought me. But it was in Aleppo, about half an hour driving from Kafr Hamra. The court belonged to the State. It was lead by a Dutchman, Abu Ubaida. During the first days of my imprisonment there, he once came to my cell — just to have a look. At that time, I didn’t know who he was. I shared a room with a Jordanian man and two Syrian boys.” Bontinck says he heard people being tortured all the time, but wasn’t tortured there himself.
• ABOUT HIS FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH FOLEY & CO:
“After four days, they put me in another room. There were people looking like Westerners. Three men. James Foley, the American journalist who was already missing for more than a year, and John Cantlie who worked with him. They were caught about ten months before and spent the first five months with Jabhat Al-Nusra. They were tortured then. They were very thin, they didn’t get any food. There was also a German with them, Toni Neukirch. They told me their stories, and I told them mine. We exchanged our contact details and promised each other to meet again, once we would be free. I wrote the numbers of James’ mother and John’s wife in a booklet, but unfortunately I don’t have that anymore. We were together in that room for about three weeks.” The German Bontinck mentions, disappeared in June of last year, but was freed a few months ago.
• HOW THE THREE WESTERNERS WERE CAUGHT:
“John and James were captured together and moved to another location three or four times. One of the places where they were held, is Idlib. But I don’t know whether they were apprehended there. They were caught after visiting an internet cafe. They stood out as foreigners and always used the same taxi driver. When they left the internet cafe, masked men overpowered them. They told me it was a local brigade of Jabhat al-Nusra that acted without orders from the top.” About the capture of the German, Bontinck doesn’t tell that much. “At first, he had some kind of house arrest. He had access to internet at that time and even managed to inform his family about his fate.”
• ABOUT THE HOSTAGES’ CONVERSION TO ISLAM:
“I talked a lot with them about that”, Bontinck says. “They told me that they weren’t living really good lives before. That they didn’t respect their mothers enought, for instance. It was their conversion that made them see that. When I first met them, they were converted already five months.” It can be doubted that the conversion of the three Westerners was completely sincere. Probably they only obeyed to the demand of their captors, hoping it would save their lives. Prison director Abu Ubaida told Bontinck he should do ‘dawah’ — the preaching to non-muslims — when he sent him to the cell of Foley & co, so he wasn’t that convinced about the conversion of the Westerners himself.
• ABOUT THE CELL THAT THEY SHARED:
“It was an ordinary room with pale brown walls, a pale brown floor in stone and a ceiling of the same colour. There were mattresses and reed mats and we had some books. I think it was about four meters long and eight meters wide. There was electricity and light. It was half underground and the sash-window was overlooking a huge dead wall. We had to eat in our cell. Apart from going to the toilet, we had to stay there all day. But still I think of all the prisoners, we were treated the best.”
• ABOUT THE DUTCH-MOROCCAN PRISON CHIEF:
“Abu Ubaida is a tall, slender and tanned. He must be in his twenties. He graduated as an engineer, so I think he’s at least 22 years old. He is of Moroccan descent and I do not know his real name. I can’t tell how he came to Syria or how he has got his important position. But he speaks Arabic perfectly, that was surprising for me. He has two wives and three children, of which the oldest is about seven years old. They are also in Syria and his second wife was born there.” Bontincks description seems to match with the Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi named by other sources as the highest ranking security chief of IS near Aleppo. More about the possibility that we are speaking about the same person, can be read here.
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.