From Grozny to Raqqah with stopover Brussels – The ‘Eastern Contingent’ of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters

The latest update of our database on Belgian foreign terrorist fighters added a significant number of Russian sounding names. People rooted in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are still a small minority — but worth a closer look.

By Pieter Van Ostaeyen & Guy Van Vlierden

Belgian authorities have started to disclose identities of foreign terrorist fighters who weren’t prosecuted yet, forced to do so in order to freeze their assets. Using a law from 2006, they can only impose “specific measures against certain people and entities in the fight against the financing of terrorism” when the names are published in the official journal ‘Belgisch Staatsblad/Moniteur belge’.

That has happened now for 251 individuals[1], and a well-informed security source confirmed to us that all of them are “related to the current foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon”. These disclosures have enabled us to fill a lot of blanks — or more precise: anonymous records in our own database. That consists of 621 individuals now, with a somewhat broadened definition as the one we earlier used — see below.

About 30 people seem to have roots in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. 22 are certainly of Russian descent – including 12 from Chechnya, 4 from Kalmykia (including two children), 2 from Ingushetia, 1 from Dagestan and 1 from Kabardino-Balkaria. Furthermore, 2 have roots in Kosovo, 1 in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and 1 in Albania.

It may be small, this ‘Eastern contingent’, but it is likely underestimated too. It is extremely difficult to investigate, as was proven at the trial of some people belonging to what seems the most important ‘Eastern’ network in Belgium. In December 2016, the main defendant Chalil Man, pictured here in court, was sentenced to ten years in jail for being its leader. But at the trial in appeal in June 2017 even his identity wasn’t certain anymore.

“The defendant was known under the aliases Darra, Mohmad, Abdul Azis and Umar”, the written verdict states. “And his real identity is very doubtful, since an authentic Russian passport was found with the picture of the defendant and the name of Magomed Saidov, born on the 29th of April 1964. But possibly this name is also false.”[2] That uncertainty however didn’t prevent the court to raise Chalil Man’s sentence to twelve years.

At the trial, Man was described as an example of the people “who are the liveblood of the harrowing conflicts taking place now in Syria and Iraq”.[3] He was identified as a veteran of the jihad, often bragging about his experiences in Pakistan. He went to Syria himself in the early days of the war, but soon came back to act as a recruiter and an organizer. In order to facilitate the travel of fighers, he even bought an apartment in the Turkish town of Körfez.[4]

Man recruited for the Sunni Islamist militia Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa’l-Ansar (JMA), it was told, and he followed its leader Tarkhan Batirashvili – a citizen from Georgia with an ethnic Chechen background, better known as Abu Omar as-Shishani – when the latter joined Islamic State. “He acted as a leader of JMA abroad”, court documents state about Man, and his apartment has provided shelter to notorious people such as Aslan Sigauri, once named by Russia as one of the 52 most dangerous rebels in the Northern Caucasus.[5]

Chalil Man was also linked to Tourchaev Khassanbek, a man arrested in Greece on the 27th of January 2014 while he tried to cross the Turkish border with some military equipment. Khassanbek is listed as a foreign terrorist fighter in France[6] and apparently lived in Lingolsheim near the city of Strasbourg. During his many travels back and forth between Belgium and Turkey, Chalil Man even visited Malaysia once for a stay of only five days.

Undated image of Tourchaev Khassanbek

The network led by Chalil Man has all the characteristics that seem typical for the recruitment efforts in the Russian and Eastern European Muslim communities in Belgium. All of it is happening independently from other local organizations, where people with a Chechen background for instance are extremely rare. We know only one in the two major networks: Magomed Saralapov, a Shariah4Belgium recruit who was present at the foundation of Islamic State.[7] The so-called Zerkani network apparently has none.

Magomed Saralapov in Syria in 2014

Most of the Eastern contingent’s networks seem to operate in a very covert manner. They do not expose themselves with propaganda, as Shariah4Belgium did — and even its individual members rarely show themselves off on social media, as many Zerkani followers did. And if they do so, they are still protected by a language barrier. An example of that is the ‘Islamsko Romani Dawetsko Organizacija Belgija’ (IRDO-Belgija), an Islamist group within the Romani gypsy community.

That organization was put in the spotlights in 2013 already, when we exposed it as a platform for jihadist preachers from the Balkans.[8] A lot of its activity was openly announced and shown in YouTube videos. But because all communication happened in languages such as Albanian and Bosnian, it was difficult to assess – and only in December 2016 a series of arrests made clear that at least one member – the ethnic Kosovar Mahid Dibrani – had been fighting in Syria.[9]

Screenshot from an IRDO-Belgija video from 2012

Another characteristic of the Eastern networks is that they are very much spread throughout Europe. More than the major jihadist networks in Belgium, it seems — where the top of course has international connections, but people at the lower levels significantly less. The transnational orientation of the Eastern network is likely caused by the limited size of its respective communities, resulting in a more intense cross-border interaction not only in jihadist circles.

Jihadists of Chechen origin in Belgium quite often are  connected with like-minded Chechens in Austria, for instance. A recent example is Adam Abdulkhadzhiev, a Chechen native who had lived in Belgium since he was eleven years old. He married a woman of Chechen descent twelve years his senior in the Austrian town of Baden and planned to leave with her for Syria, it appeared when both were arrested by the Austrian police in the fall of 2016.[10]

An older case in which Chechens from Belgium and Austria were involved, was that of an Antwerp based group arrested in 2010. As an exception, it was made up of Moroccans and Chechens, recruiting for jihad and also plotting an attack “bigger than that in Madrid” – a reference to the March 2004 bombing in which 191 people died – intercepted phone calls learned.[11] One of the defendants was Aslambek Idrisov, a Chechen living in the Austrian town of Neunkirchen.

At the first trial in 2012, Idrisov was acquitted. But in 2014 he was sentenced on appeal to seven years in jail.[12] In 2008, Idrisov had been arrested in Sweden already while traveling in a car that was loaded with weapons. He was in the company of fellow Chechen Akhmad Chatayev.[13] That same Akhmad Chatayev was identified in 2015 as the commander of the Yarmouk Battalion, a Chechen faction of Islamic State,[14] and in 2016 he was named as mastermind of the Istanbul airport attack in which 44 people died.[15]

From a lot of ‘Easterners’ whose names are now on the official list of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters, very little is publicly known. That is the case with 70 year old Danga Youssoupger, a Chechen interviewed by a Belgian newspaper in 2007 about his work as a horticulturalist in a social project in Antwerp[16] — and with Bisera Gerasimovska, an 18 year old girl from Macedonia who told on social media a few years ago that her life in Belgium was “super cool”. Up till now, we have no clue about what has brought these people into jihad.

Bisera Gerasimovska on social media in 2011

An intriguing case is that of Ramzan Makhauri and Islam Borchashvili, who were reported missing back in 2010 while traveling together on a train from Belarus to Moscow[17], and now have their assets frozen in Belgium. The same goes for Aslan Chamutaev, who came back in Belgium in May 2013 after being arrested in Greece and threatened with extradition to Russia[18] – a move he could reportedly avoid thanks to interference by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.[19]

There are also ‘Easterners’ in our database of Belgian foreign fighters who haven’t appeared yet on official lists. An example is Denis Pershin, a native of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic within the Russian Federation, arrested there in December 2015. He reportedly converted to Islam while living in Belgium, studied at a religious school in Egypt and went to Syria for the jihad.[20] In August 2016, the man with dual Belgian and Russian nationality was convicted to four years in jail.[21] But again, we haven’t found any detail about how he would have been radicalized while living in Belgium.

Denis Pershin on social media in 2010

 

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Belgian Foreign Terrorist Fighters Database – definition and new highlights

We do list now every person:

  • of Belgian origin, foreign origin but living in Belgium for a significant time, or clearly recruited by an entity operating from Belgium and departed to the conflict via Belgian soil;
  • having tried to reach the war zone of the Syrian-Iraqi conflict that started in March 2011 or having planned to do so according to official documents and/or court proceedings;
  • with a clear intention to join a local fighting party there, be it as a fighter themselves or in any other role – including family members who may have been forced into the conflict zone.

While it has to be stressed that this definition isn’t limited to Sunni Islamists, they are the main focus of our research and actually 612 (or 98.5% of all our 621 records) can be considered as such. 289 at least have joined Islamic State, while the last known affiliation of 50 individuals is Jabhat an-Nusra — the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate — or one of it’s subsequent forms.

While the share of women was 15% in our previous update, that has risen now to 18%. We do know about 38 children – not counting those who may have been born after their parents have left, and sometimes came back with them. In terms of recruitment, Shariah4Belgium remains the most important actor with 101 individuals in whose departure it was implicated. The so-called Zerkani network can be held responsible for 85 departures.

Since many of our recent additions weren’t detailed enough to assess their status of departure, we have introduced a category ‘unknown’ for that – and after a review of all our records, our estimate of people who have reached the battle zone was lowered to 478. Of those who certainly didn’t succeed, 45 were stopped abroad and 22 in Belgium.

Of those who reached the conflict zone, at least 102 have returned and 129 were reportedly killed. 119 of those deaths have happened in the conflict zone, while 10 individuals were killed after their return to Europe as part of a terrorist plot. A complete list of the deceased is added below – but it has to be stressed more than ever that most deaths cannot be verified, and examples are known of fighters who faked their death to lure security services.

 

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List of Belgian foreign fighters reportedly killed in the current Syrian-Iraqi conflict

 

  1. Julian André Harinton, aka Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki, convert from Antwerp who most likely joined the Free Syrian Army and was killed in April 2012
  2. Hamdi Mahmoud Saad, a Syrian living in Brussels who joined the Free Syrian Army and was killed in Latakia governorate in August 2012
  3. Rustam Gelayev, son of Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev who lived a while in Belgium, killed in Aleppo governorate in August 2012
  4. Soufiane Chioua, Brussels recruit of Denis & Zerkani networks who left in October 2012, joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed at an unkown date
  5. Bilal Zinati, recruit of the Denis network who left in December 2012, joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed at an unknown date
  6. Younes Laabadi, fighter from Houthalen-Helchteren who was related by marriage to IS terrorist Mohamed Abrini. Left in 2012 and considered dead by Belgian authorities
  7. Sean Pidgeon, a convert from Brussels recruited by the Denis & Zerkani networks, killed in Aleppo governorate in March 2013
  8. Anonymous fighterfrom Mechelen, killed before April 2013 according to an imam who assisted his family
  9. Anonymous fighterfrom Vilvoorde whose death was announced in April 2013. He was barely eightteen years old and got killed by a sniper two weeks after his arrival in Syria
  10. Ahmed Stevenberg, the alias of an unidentified fighter of Jabhat an-Nusra, killed by the Syrian army in the Latakia governorate in April 2013
  11. Raphaël Gendron, aka Abdurauf Abu Marwa, a Frenchman raised in Brussels, killed in the ranks of Suqur as-Sham in April 2013
  12. Tarik Taketloune, aka Abu Khattab, figher from Vilvoorde who was recruited by Shariah4Belgium and joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, killed in May 2013
  13. Saïd Amrani, Denis recruit from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg who was killed in May 2013
  14. Ismail Amgroud, a fighter from Maaseik who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in June 2013
  15. Noureddine Abouallal, aka Abu Mujahid, a leader of Shariah4Belgium who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in July 2013
  16. Younis Asad Rahman, the alias of a fighter also known as Asad ar-Rahman al-Belgiki, killed in August 2013 in Latakia governorate
  17. Abu Salma al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter killed in August 2013 in Deir ez-Zor governorate
  18. Youness Kharbache, Denis recruit from Brussels and brother of Hamza Kharbache. Joined Islamic State and was killed in August 2013 in Damascus governorate
  19. Ahmed Daoudi, aka Abu Mochsin, Shariah4Belgium recruit who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, but reportedly soon switched to a hospital job. Was active as a medical worker during the Al Ghouta chemical attack in August 2013, went missing shortly afterwards and was reported dead
  20. Abdel Rahman Ayachi, aka Abu Hajjar, son of the Brussels-Syrian cheikh Bassam Ayachi, killed in the ranks of Suqur as-Sham in September 2013
  21. Abdelgabar Hamdaoui, a Shariah4Belgium recruit fighting for Jabhat an-Nusra, killed in September 2013
  22. Ahmed Dihaj, aka Abu Ateeq, a leading figure within Shariah4Belgium, who left early in 2013 to join Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in September 2013
  23. Houssien Elouassaki, aka Abu Fallujah, Shariah4Belgium recruit who became the emir of the foreign chapter within Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen. Switched side to Jabhat an-Nusra and was killed in September 2013
  24. Mohamed Bali, aka Abu Hudayfa, Shariah4Belgium recruit coming from Antwerp, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in September 2013
  25. Abdelmonhim R’ha, Sunni Islamist fighter from Antwerp, reportedly a relative of former Belgian Guantánamo detainee Moussa Zemmouri. Killed in September 2013
  26. Ibrahim El Harchi, aka Abu Ali, a recruit of Jean-Louis Denis fighting for Islamic State, killed in mid December 2013 during clashes with Ahrar as-Sham in Idlib governorate
  27. Sabri Refla, aka Abu Tourab, Denis recruit from Vilvoorde, who subsequently joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and the Islamic State. Died in Iraq in December 2013. Indications but no proof that he committed suicide attack
  28. Abu al-Baraa al-Belgiki, an anonymous fighter of Algerian descent, who served as emir for Islamic State in the Syrian town of Saraqib and was killed there in January 2014
  29. Ouafae Sarrar, aka Umm Djarrah, wife of Shariah4Belgium recruit and Islamic State fighter Ilyass Boughalab. Reportedly killed around January 2014
  30. Abdelmonaïm Lachiri, aka Abu Sara, recruit of the Zerkani network and a son of its ‘pasionaria’ Fatima Aberkan, killed in the ranks of Jabhat an-Nusra in February 2014
  31. Feisal Yamoun, aka Abu Faris, a leader of Shariah4Belgium who left with wife and three young kids, killed in February 2014
  32. Hamza Kharbache, Denis recruit from Brussels and brother of Younes Kharbache, who joined the Islamic State and was killed in February 2014 in Aleppo governorate
  33. Brahim Labrak, Denis recruit from Brussels with French roots, who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, switched to Islamic State and was killed in February 2014
  34. Nabil Ajraoui, Denis recruit who left as a minor in November 2013 and was killed in February 2014
  35. Ilyass Boughalab, aka Abu Djarrah, Shariah4Belgium recruit killed in March 2014 and mentioned afterwards as a member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar
  36. Yoni Mayne, aka Abu Dujana al-Mali, Zerkani recruit from Brussels with Belgian father and Malinese mother, killed near ar-Raqqah in March 2014 and mentioned afterwards as member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar
  37. Saïd El Morabit, aka Abu Muthanna, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Antwerp, killed between ar-Raqqah and Hasakah in March 2014 and mentioned afterwards as member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar
  38. Abdelilah Jab-Allah, aka Abu Omar, Brussels recruit of Denis & Zerkani networks. Joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in March 2014
  39. Karim Mahrach, aka Abu Azzam, recruit of Jean-Louis Denis from Brussels, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in April 2014
  40. Mohamed Said Haddad, Zerkani recruit from Brussels and brother of the Verviers terrorist plot member Abdelmounaim Haddad. Killed in April 2014
  41. Khalid Bali, aka Abu Hamza, brother of Mohamed Bali, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in May 2014 at the age of seventeen
  42. Khalid Hachti Bernan, aka Abu Mehdi/Abu Qa’qa, member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar, originally from Virton, who was killed in May 2014
  43. Nabil Azahaf, aka Abu Sayyaf, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Vilvoorde who became a member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar and was killed in May 2014
  44. Abu Handalah, anonymous Jabhat an-Nusra fighter who appeared in the video ‘Turning Point’ and was killed in May 2014 near Aleppo
  45. Yassine El Karouni, aka Abu Osama, Shariah4Belgium recruit coming from the Netherlands, but living in Antwerp. Joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in May 2014
  46. Kiéran Luce, aka Abu al-Qada al-Faransi, recruit of Denis network coming from the French-Caribbean island of Martinique. Joined Islamic State and committed suicide attack in northern Iraq in May 2014
  47. Iliass Azaouaj, an imam from Brussels who left to get Belgian fighters back home, then joined Islamic State himself, but was executed on suspicion of being a spy around July 2014
  48. AnonymousBelgian fighter killed in July 2014 in al-Keshkeyyi, Deir ez-Zor governorate
  49. Adem Ben Amor, aka Abu Obayda at-Tunisi, Tunisian who lived as refugee in Antwerp, joined the Islamic State in July 2014 and committed a suicide attack in Kobanê at an unknown date
  50. Souleymane Abrini, Zerkani recruit and brother of Paris & Brussels attacks accomplice Mohamed Abrini. Joined the Islamic State and was killed in August 2014
  51. Abu Jihad al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in battle for airport in Deir ez-Zor governorate on August 31, 2014
  52. Zakaria El Bouzaidi, best friend of Sean Pidgeon, who was recruited together with him by the Denis & Zerkani networks. Killed in September 2014
  53. Abu Mohsen at-Tunisi, anonymous Belgian fighter of Tunisian descent, fighting for Islamic State and killed in September 2014 during a battle near the airport of Deir ez-Zor
  54. Abu Adnan al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter of Algerian descent who switched from Jabhat an-Nusra to Islamic State at the end of 2013 and was killed in September 2014
  55. Abu Mohamed al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter killed in October 2014 in Deir ez-Zor governorate
  56. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter of Saudi descent, killed in the ranks of Jabhat an-Nusra in October 2014 in Latakia governorate
  57. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter mentioned on a list of deaths of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar, published in October 20147. It was later confirmed that this kunya doesn’t refer to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who faked his own death around the same time
  58. Abu Sulayman al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter of Maghribian descent, killed in Kobanê in November 2014
  59. Bilal Barrani, aka Abu Said, Zerkani recruit of French origin who was living in Brussels, joined Islamic State and was killed in December 2014
  60. Fouâd Bouhali Zriouil, aka Abu Ilyass. Brother of al-Qaeda veteran Hicham Bouhali Zriouil from Brussels. Likely left in 2014 and killed at unknown date
  61. Khongr Pavlovitch Matsakov, Sunni Islamist fighter from Ostend with roots in the Russian republic of Kalmykia, killed in January 2015
  62. Abu Taymiyya al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter killed in Kobanê in January 2015
  63. Khalid Ben Larbi, aka Abu Zoubeyr, Islamic State fighter from Brussels who was killed during a police operation in Verviers (Belgium) on January 15, 2015
  64. Soufiane Amghar, aka Abu Khalid, Islamic State fighter from Brussels who was killed during a police operation in Verviers (Belgium) on January 15, 2015
  65. Anis Bouzzaouit, aka Abu Ibrahim, a Zerkani recruit who entered the Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar and was killed in February 2015 in Deir ez-Zor governorate
  66. Fahd Asamghi, aka Abu Sabir, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Antwerp who subsequently fought for Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa’l Ansar and Jabhat Ansar al-Din. Killed in March 2015
  67. Younes Bakkouy, aka Abu Aziz, Islamic State fighter from Genk who left with two brothers, one of whom (and most likely him) was reportedly killed in March 2015 near Tikrit in Iraq
  68. Abu Bakr al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter from Brussels who committed suicide attack in Ramadi (Iraq) on March 11, 2015
  69. Mesut Cankurtaran, aka Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki. Islamic State fighter from Vilvoorde, recruited by Shariah4Belgium and the Denis network. Killed in March 2015 in battle for airport in Deir ez-Zor governorate
  70. Karim Kadir, aka Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki. Islamic State fighter from Charleroi, who committed suicide attack at the Iraqi-Jordan border on April 24, 2015
  71. Abu Tourab al-Belgiki, anonymous Sunni Islamist fighter from Brussels killed in May 2015 in Damascus governorate
  72. Abu Handala al-Belgiki, anonymous Sunni Islamist fighter killed in May 2015
  73. Abu Muhammad Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter with roots in France and Cameroon. Military instructor within elite brigade of IS in Damascus & Homs governorates and reportedly killed in battle of Sokhna in May 2015
  74. Abu Muslim al-Belgiki. Anonymous Islamic State fighter from Antwerp. His death was announced in June 2015, but reportedly happened around a year earlier
  75. Sami Ladri, aka Abu Waliya, Zerkani recruit from Brussels who joined the Islamic State and committed suicide attack near an-Nukhayba (Iraq) on June 22, 2015
  76. Fayssal Oussaih, aka Abu Shaheed, Islamic State fighter from Maaseik, killed in July 2015
  77. Abu Iliace al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter whose death was announced by an Islamic State source in ar-Raqqah in July 2015
  78. Mossi Junior Juma, teenager from Brussels with roots in Burundi, said to be taken to Syria by his mother and killed in July 2015 at the age of sixteen
  79. Lucas Van Hessche, aka Abu Ibrahim, convert from Menen with roots in Haiti, joined Islamic State and was killed in August 2015 in Hasakah governorate
  80. Sahil Ahmed, aka Abu Mariyya al-Belgiki, fighter from Ghent, apparently of Indian descent. Joined Islamic State and was reportedly killed during his very first battle in August 2015
  81. Abu Ayman al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed by British drone strike in ar-Raqqah in August 2015
  82. Brian De Mulder, aka Abu Qasim al-Brazili, convert from Antwerp with Belgian father and Brazilian mother, recruited by Shariah4Belgium. Died in October 2015 of wounds sustained by an air strike three weeks earlier
  83. Mohammed Hajji, Islamic State fighter from Antwerp, killed by an air strike in ar-Raqqah in October 2015
  84. Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State figher, killed in October 2015 by a French air strike on a training camp near ar-Raqqah
  85. Abdelmalek Boutalliss, aka Abu Nusaybah, Islamic State fighter from Kortrijk who committed suicide attack near Haditha (Iraq) on November 11, 2015
  86. Andy Bizala Lubanza, Zerkani recruit from Brussels with Congolese & Rwandese roots, joined Islamic State and was killed in November 2015
  87. Anonymous, Belgian wife of Islamic State emir ‘Abu Khabab’ from Saudi Arabia, killed with her husband in November 2015 in Deir ez-Zor
  88. Bilal Hadfi, aka Abu Mujahid al-Faransi, Islamic State fighter of French origin living in Brussels, who committed suicide attack in Paris (France) on November 13, 2015
  89. Ibrahim Abdeslam, aka Abu Qa’qa al-Belgiki, Islamic State fighter of French origin living Brussels, who committed a suicide attack in Paris (France) on November 13, 2015
  90. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, aka Abu Omar al-Belgiki, Zerkani recruit from Brussels, who joined Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar and was killed on November 18, 2015 during a police operation in Saint-Denis (France) linked to the Paris attacks
  91. Chakib Akrouh, aka Dhul-Qarnayn al-Belgiki, Zerkani recruit from Brussels, who joined the Islamic State and was killed on November 18, 2015 during police operation in Saint-Denis (France) linked to the Paris attacks
  92. Nour-Eddine El Mejdoubi, aka Abu Issa. Spanish-Moroccan IS fighter who resided in Belgium prior to his departure. Appeared in video from Syria in July 2014 and killed at unknown date according to Spanish press report in November 2015
  93. Mohammed Jattari, Sunni Islamist fighter from Tienen, killed at unknown date in 2015
  94. Dniel Mahi, aka Abou Idrissi. Zerkani recruit from Brussels who likely was the ‘Padre’ codenamed leader of the Verviers terrorist plot. Presumed dead by Belgian authorities according to documents dating from 2015
  95. Younes Ahllal, aka Abu Taymiyah al-Belgiki. Zerkani recruit from Brussels, killed in the ranks of IS according to court documents dating from 2016
  96. AnonymousBelgian fighter killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor governorate on January 20, 2016
  97. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in al-Hawiqa near Deir ez-Zor on January 30, 2016
  98. Umm Shérazade al-Belgiki, anonymous woman from Brussels who joined the Islamic State and was reportedly executed for witchcraft in February 2016
  99. AnonymousBelgian fighter in the ranks of the Islamic State, reportedly executed for treason in Deir ez-Zor in February 2016
  100. Salahuddin al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, who was killed as an important battle commander in Deir ez-Zor governorate in March 2016
  101. Mohamed Aziz Belkaïd, aka Abu Abdulaziz al-Jazairi, Islamic State fighter of Swedish/Algerian descent who was killed on March 15, 2016 during a police operation in Forest (Belgium) linked to the Paris attacks
  102. Najim Laachraoui, aka Abu Idriss, Brussels recruit of the Denis & Zerkani networks, who joined the Islamic State and committed a suicide attack at Brussels Airport (Belgium) on March 22, 2016
  103. Ibrahim El Bakraoui, aka Abou Souleymane. Islamic State fighter from Brussels who was stopped on his way to Syria, but committed suicide attack at Brussels Airport (Belgium) on March 22, 2016
  104. Khalid El Bakraoui, aka Abu Walid. IS fighter from Brussels who returned from Syria and committed suicide attack at the Maelbeek metro station in Brussels (Belgium) on March 22, 2016
  105. David Robinsonova, aka Abou Souleyman Belgiki. Fighter from Molenbeek who was stateless prior to his naturalization as a Belgian citizen in 1985. Zerkani recruit who switched side from IS to Jabhat an-Nusra and was killed near Idlib in April 2016, reportedly by an American drone
  106. Abu Anas al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed near Mosul (Iraq) on April 8 or 9, 2016
  107. Abu Dawoud al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter with Jabhat an-Nusra, identified as deputy emir of its foreign fighters in August 2013. Killed by an air strike in May 2016, targeting a meeting of Jabhat an-Nusra leadership at Abu Adh Dhuhur air base in Idlib governorate
  108. Abu Abdilah al-Belgiki, anonymous Jabhat an-Nusra fighter of Maghribian origin, killed in June 2016 by a tank attack of the Syrian army near Aleppo
  109. AnonymousBelgian fighter, killed as Islamic State commander in a battle near Deir ez-Zor in July 2016
  110. Redwane Hajaoui, aka Abu Khalid Al Maghrib, fighter from Verviers who appeared in Islamic State video threatening Belgium and France and 2015, reported death in August 2016
  111. Nasser Azzouzi, fighter from the city of Verviers who left in August 2014, killed at unknown date according to information gathered in August 2016
  112. Zakaria Asbai, aka Abu Zubair, Islamic State fighter from Vilvoorde whose death at undisclosed time and location was reported in August 2016
  113. Abu Miqdad al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in battle near Deir ez-Zor in August 2016
  114. Lotfi Aoumeur, aka Abu Noor al-Jazairi/Abdullah al-Belgiki/Abu Anwar al-Belgiki. Fighter from Verviers who appeared in IS video threatening Belgium and France in 2015. Committed suicide attack in Qarrayah (Iraq) on August 9, 2016
  115. AnonymousBelgian fighter, said to be a leading figure in the media department of IS and killed on August 24, 2016 by an air strike in Qaim according to local media
  116. Abu Abdallah al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter reportedly killed in the ranks of Jabhat Fath as-Sham, the former Jabhat an-Nusra, near Hama on September 29, 2016
  117. Abu Omar al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter reportedly killed in the ranks of Jabhat Fath as-Sham , the former Jabhat an-Nusra, in November 2016
  118. Hicham Naji, aka Abu Mehdi, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Antwerp who was reportedly killed in Islamic State ranks in November 2016
  119. Sammy Djedou, aka Abu Musab al-Baljiki, an early Zerkani recruit who was reportedly involved in the planning of the 2015 Paris attacks. Killed by coalition drone strike in ar-Raqqah at December 4, 2016
  120. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter reportedly killed on January 15, 2017 in al-Andalus neighborhood of Mosul
  121. Kamal Eddine Aharchi, aka Abu Jinaan al-Belgiki. Zerkani recruit from Brussels who left in April 2013. Reportedly killed in the ranks of IS in Aleppo governorate on January 31, 2017
  122. Zacharia Iddoub, aka Abu Yahya Beljiki, Islamic State fighter from Vilvoorde reportedly killed by air strike on January 17, 2017 at undisclosed location
  123. Mohamed Abdel Rahman, aka Abu Hashim. Belgian of Algerian descent killed by coalition air strike in al-Tanak near Mosul on March 28, 2017 according to the Iraqi Ministery of Defense. Reportedly a senior leader overseeing the recruitment of fighters for IS
  124. Anonymous Belgian fighter reportedly killed in the ranks of IS during clashes with the Syrian army near Deir ez-Zor around May 10, 2017
  125. Anonymous Belgian fighter, said to be in Syria since 2014, reportedly killed by Russian air strikes on Hawijah neighborhood of Deir ez-Zor on May 11, 2017
  126. Anonymous Belgian fighter, said to be in Syria since 2014, reportedly killed by Russian air strikes on Hawijah neighborhood of Deir ez-Zor on May 11, 2017
  127. Yacine Azzaoui, aka Abu Abdelhadi al-Belgiki. Molenbeek recruiter of the Denis & Zerkani networks who left himself in August 2014. Reportedly killed near Deir ez-Zor on May 26 or 27, 2017
  128. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous Belgian IS fighter, killed near Deir ez-Zor during clashes with the Syrian army on June 6, 2017. Said to be a “top field commander” and implicated in planning of terrorist attacks abroad
  129. Tarik Jadaoun, aka Abu Hamza al-Belgiki. IS fighter from Verviers who arrived in Syria in June 2014 and became involved in plotting terrorist attacks abroad. Reportedly killed at the end of the battle for Mosul (Iraq) in July 2017

 

[1] The names were published in seven separate Royal Decrees, which can be found here:

[2] Hof van Beroep Gent – Achtste Kamer Correctionele Zaken, Arrest C/928/2017, 28 June 2017. Not publicly available, but in the possession of the authors

[3] Rechtbank van eerste aanleg West-Vlaanderen – afdeling Brugge – sectie correctionele rechtbank, Vonnis 2889/2016, 23 December 2016. Not publicly available, but in possession of the authors

[4] All statements about Chalil Man are taken from the court documents mentioned in the preceding two footnotes

[5] Mairbek Vatchagaev, Hundreds of North Caucasians Have Joined the Ranks of Syria’s Rebels, Eurasia Daily Monitor volume 10 issue 166, Jamestown Foundation, 19 September 2013. Available online at http://jamestown.org/program/hundreds-of-north-caucasians-have-joined-the-ranks-of-syrias-rebels/

[6] According to a French investigation document in the possession of the authors

[7] Pieter Van Ostaeyen & Guy Van Vlierden, The Role of Belgian Fighters in the Jihadification of the Syrian War – From Plotting Early in 2011 to the Paris and Brussels Attacks, European Foundation for Democracy – Counter Extremism Project, 28 February 2017. Available online at http://europeandemocracy.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/The-Role-of-Belgian-Fighters-in-the-Jihadification-of-the-Syrian-War.pdf

[8] Guy Van Vlierden, Romani Gypsies recruiting for Jihad, Emmejihad, 11 December 2013. Available online at https://emmejihad.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/romani-gypsies-recruiting-for-jihad/

[9] Kristof Pieters & Guy Van Vlierden, Uit Syrië teruggekeerde Romazigeuner gevat, Het Laatste Nieuws, 7 December 2016

[10] Alexander Bischofberger-Mahr, Sali S.: “Dann gibt es mich nicht mehr”, Kronen Zeitung, 29 October 2016. Available online at http://www.krone.at/oesterreich/sali-s-dann-gibt-es-mich-nicht-mehr-kroneat-reportage-story-536589

[11] Mark Eeckhout, De terroristen van het Sint-Jansplein, De Standaard, 30 March 2012. Available online at http://www.standaard.be/cnt/a53o5dqi?s=1

[12] Kristof Aerts & José Masschelin, Van vrijspraak naar 8 jaar cel, Het Laatste Nieuws, 9 January 2014

[13] Per Gudmundson, Efterlyses: enarmade tjetjener, gudmundson.blogspot.be, 2 March 2009. Available online at http://gudmundson.blogspot.be/2009/03/efterlyses-enarmade-tjetjener.html

[14] US Department of the Treasury, Treasury Sanctions Individuals Affiliated With Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and Caucasus Emirate, 5 October 2015. Available online at https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0199.aspx

[15] Faith Karimi & Steve Almasy, Istanbul airport attack: Planner, 2 bombers identified, report says, CNN, 2 July 2016. Avalaible online at http://edition.cnn.com/2016/07/01/europe/turkey-istanbul-ataturk-airport-attack/index.html

[16] Thea Swierstra, OCMW Antwerpen stelt leefloners tewerk in tuinbouw, De Morgen, 20 April 2007

[17] Anonymous, Ingusthetian and Chechen disappear on their way to Moscow, Causasian Knot, 23 August 2010. Available online at http://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/14226/

[18] Inge Ghijs, Erkend politiek vluchteling door Griekenland uitgeleverd, De Standaard, 27 March 2013

[19] Inge Ghijs, Belgische politieke vluchteling weer thuis, De Standaard, 18 May 2013

[20] Anonymous, Nalchik resident converted to Islam in Belgium, trained as militant in Syria detained in Kabardino-Balkaria, Interfax, 11 December 2015. Available online at http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=12599

[21] Lyudmila Maratova, Житель Кабардино-Балкарии осужден за причастность к сирийским боевикам, Кавказский Узел, 18 August 2016. Available online at http://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/287786/


Amor Sliti, yet another veteran on list of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters

Belgian authorities have added 37 names to the list of persons whose financial assets are frozen as part of the struggle against terrorism. All 251 people listed now are considered foreign terrorist fighters, mainly active in the Syrian-Iraqi conflict. This latest update does include Amor Ben Mohamed Sliti (57), a true veteran of the Belgian jihad.

Amor Ben Mohamed Sliti

 

In the nineties, Sliti was living in Brussels — coming from Tunisia, but naturalized as a Belgian citizen and working in his own automobile repair shop. Late in 1999, he left for Afghanistan with his wife and five children, then aged 2 to 13. It is said that he wanted to start a restaurant and butcher shop in Kabul. But finally he joined al-Qaeda while settling in Jalalabad.[1]

Sliti quickly adapted to the moral standards of the terrorist group by offering his 13 year old daughter as a bride to a Tunisian fighter, Adel Hkimi. Soon the teenage girl became pregnant, but Hkimi never saw his newborn daughter. He was caught shortly after the American invasion of Afghanistan had started at the end of 2001, and by February 2002 he was imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.

That same fate also met a cousin of Sliti. While living in Italy, Hicham Ben Ali Ben Amor Sliti badly became addicted to drugs. His family sent him to Brussels in order to work in his cousin’s car repair shop as a sort of rehab. But when Amor Sliti left for Afghanistan, he could persuade his cousin that there was no better place to become a decent man — which resulted in twelve years Guantánamo for Hicham.

Amor Sliti kept himself out of the American’s reach. He was caught in February 2002 at the Pakistani-Iranian border and extradited to Belgium. There he was tried in 2003 as an accomplice of Nizar Trabelsi and Malika El Aroud. The latter is the widow of a suicide bomber who killed the Afghan warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud — an ally of the West against the taliban — while Trabelsi planned to blow up an American air base in Belgium.

Sliti was convicted to five years in jail. In December 2010, he also was stripped from his Belgian citizenship — until today one of only four cases. When and how exactly he got involved again in the jihad remains unclear. But it is told that cousin Hicham also has become an ardent supporter of Islamic State after his  transfer from Guantánamo to Slovakia in 2014.

Sliti isn’t the first veteran of Belgian jihad who has surfaced in the ranks of the Islamic State. Earlier, Abdelkader Hakimi was already added to the official Belgian foreign fighters list. Hakimi was a heavyweight of the ‘Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain’, convicted to eight years in jail by a Belgian court in 2006. In 2014, we revealed that he was in Syria, surrounded by a new generation of Belgian Islamic extremists.

It is well known by now that European veterans often play important roles within the Islamic State. Good examples are two former residents of France, Abdelnasser Benyoucef and Boubaker el-Hakim. The latter was considered as one of the leaders of the Amniyat — Islamic State’s security service — at the moment he was killed in November 2016, while Benyoucef is said to have lead Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar.

It was brought to our attention only very recently, that the Abdel Kader Hakim declared dead by coalition forces in December 2015 might be the Hakimi mentioned above. It would mean that this Belgian veteran also had an important position in the Islamic State’s external operations. The coalition’s press desk couldn’t confirm or deny however, when asked last month whether it was the Belgian Hakimi killed in 2015.

 

[1] Biographical details based on ‘The Forgotten Italian Residents in Guantánamo Bay’, a report from the London based organization Reprieve published in June 2008, but not available on their website anymore — and this article published by the Belgian newspaper Le Soir in February 2002

 


The absolutely not convincing case against Oussama Atar

For months already, Oussama Atar (33) is named as mastermind behind the Brussels and Paris attacks. The Belgian jihadist of Moroccan descent is said to be identified as the mysterious ‘Abu Ahmad’, who organized the bloodshed from Syria. But in today’s edition of Het Laatste Nieuws, Belgium’s largest daily newspaper, we reveal how questionable that identification is. Documents that we’ve obtained, clearly show that the investigators desperately want to frame Atar as Abu Ahmad, but lack any evidence.

Oussama Atar after his return from in Iraq in 2012. This picture was used to identify him as Abu Ahmad.

The Abu Ahmad alias entered the investigation in two different ways. One of them was the laptop found shortly after the Brussels attacks on the 22nd of March 2016 in a trash can near the terrorist’s safe house at rue Max Roos in Schaerbeek. That computer contained some audio messages of the perpetrators to their chief in Syria. A man they called Abu Ahmad — as we could verify in transcripts — and to whom they explicitly told: “ You’re the one who decides. You’re the amir.”

The second mention of Abu Ahmad came up during the interrogations of Adel Haddadi and Muhammad Usman. They are two Islamic State terrorists who were caught in Austria after being sent from Syria to commit attacks in the West. They both have stated that it was Abu Ahmad who gave them the orders. That has happened in person, so Haddadi and Usman are the only ones in custody certainly able to tell more about him.

It is the interrogation of Adel Haddadi that has supplied the most important evidence against Oussama Atar. Haddadi is said to have recognized him as Abu Ahmad. The transcript of that interrogation however,  which we could read, tells a somewhat different story. On the 20th of October 2016, a French judge investigating the Paris attacks confronted Haddadi with pictures of ten different men, asking explicitly whether one of them was Abu Ahmad.

Haddadi pointed to the picture of Atar indeed — but he was not sure and also raised a second possibility. “Number one resembles Abu Ahmad”, he said. “But there are some differences. Abu Ahmad has a leaner face, he is older, his head seems smaller and his beard is not that thick. But the picture looks like him. There is also similarity between picture number ten and Abu Ahmad, but it is the man in picture number one that most closely resembles him.”

The differences that he raised, may be explained by the picture being somewhat outdated. Similarly, that he described Abu Ahmad as a man who has surpassed the age of forthy already and speaking Arabic with a Syrian or Iraqi accent, may be a consequence of Oussama Atar’s past. He spent seven years in an Iraqi jail, which may have had an impact on his accent, while the harsh imprisonment can have made him looking older than he really is.

That said, it would be rather biased to declare that Haddadi offered a solid identification — but it was exactly that what investigators did. The next day already, when the same French judge showed the same ten pictures to Muhammad Usman. He declared that he did not recognize any of them. “I am sure”, he said. The French judge insisted, saying that Haddadi had been “almost sure” of picture number one. “That’s not Abu Ahmad”, Usman replied. “I am sure of myself.”

Normally, the sum of a doubtful “yes” and a “no” is not considered as a confirmation. But when a international arrest warrant for Atar was issued on the 17th of November 2016 by a Belgian judge, it stated explicitly that Haddadi had recognized him “with near certainty” as Abu Ahmad. Usman’s contradicting view wasn’t mentioned at all.

It is very well possible that Oussama Atar indeed is Abu Ahmad. He has lots of indications pleading against him. It seems rather sure by now that his brother Yassine Atar had a role in the terrorist plot, and according to the documents that we could see, at least one witness says that it has been under the influence of Oussama Atar that Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui were radicalized.

The Bakraoui brothers were protagonists of the Paris and Brussels attacks. First they arranged at lot of the logistics, and ultimately they blew up themselves. They are nephews of Atar, and it must have sounded like music to the investigator’s ears when Osama Krayem — the terrorist who had refrained from an attack at Maelbeek metro station in Brussels — declared that Abu Ahmed must have been related to them. “Otherwise, he never would have trusted them that much.”

Krayem didn’t say so because he knew, it can be learned from interrogation transcripts that we have seen. “I don’t know Abu Ahmad”, he assured. “But police has showed me a picture already recognized by others as Abu Ahmad. And I learned from media reports that it was Oussama Atar.” While Krayem thus explicitly stated that he had only second hand information about Abu Ahmad — and also that he knew perfectly well what the interrogators liked to hear — a great deal of weight was given to his assumption.

At least three times he was pushed again to confirm that Abu Ahmad was a relative of the Bakraoui brothers. And the more he was asked, the more affirmative he became. So at the end, his assumption about Abu Ahmed being a family member of the Bakraoui brothers appeared as a fact in the arrest warrant for Atar.

Many myths are told already about Oussama Atar. That he has been imprisoned with Islamic State’s caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for instance — while the latter was already free again when Atar was arrested near Ramadi on the 24th of February 2005. Recently, it was reported that Atar has visited his family in Brussels last summer, at a time he was sought world wide already. But that rumour was never confirmed.

On the other hand, we are able to refute that the young Atar went to Iraq for humanitarian reasons, as often is told. In an e-mail we received from the press desk of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq when inquiring about Atar in 2007 already, sergeant Matthew Roe wrote: “The defendant admitted that he had entered Iraq illegally to wage war against Americans and had attended anti-Multi-National Forces sermons. The defendant repeated these statements to Multi-National Forces while in MNF custody.”

 

 


Paris & Brussels terrorists kept weapons and explosives hidden in school

The terrorist cell behind the Paris and Brussels attacks apparently has kept its weapons and explosives for a while in a Belgian school. That can be concluded from a map on a laptop used by Salah Abdeslam — as we reported today in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’.

Hand-drawn map that was found on laptop used by Salah Abdeslam

It was after the shooting during which Salah Abdeslam was able to escape on the 15th of March 2016, that a laptop was found in his safe house at rue Dries in the Brussels municipality of Forest.  That HP EliteBook 8440p contained videos of extremist preachers, pictures of possible targets, information about weapons and military gear, but also a map that was titled ‘Salah’ — indicating that it was used by Abdeslam. Many files were erased, but computer specialists of the Belgian federal police were able to retrieve them, and by doing so they also discovered a rather remarkable map.

The hand-drawn map mentioned two street names: Saviostraat en Elzenstraat. A combination that only exists in Meulenberg, a neighborhood of Houthalen-Helchteren in the east of Flanders, infamous for its security issues and cases of radicalism. The buildings on the map turned out to be the local kindergarten and elementary school. Curious about what Islamic State terrorists were looking for at such a location, about twenty police officers went to Meulenberg on Saturday the 11th of June 2016.

They were armed with search warrants and in the company of Gorro, an explosives dog. The instructions written in French on the map led them along a first building, the regional center for student coaching, to the kindergarten’s playground. There, they found a hole cut in the fence, exactly at the place where was mentioned at the map: “Here you have to jump over”. The hole provided access to an overgrown piece of garden in which they found a ramshackle shed and a garage.

Garage on school domain where weapons likely were hidden

One of the doors in the garage showed traces of a burglary. But besides old school furniture, there was nothing found inside. The investigators left without any answers, but they did inform the State Security — Belgium’s intelligence service. That resulted in a confidential note on the 28th of July 2016 — a document that we have obtained. State Security found out that a former concierge of the sports hall next to the school was killed in Syria fighting for Islamic State. Younes Laabadi, 43 years old at that time, was linked by marriage to the family of Mohamed Abrini — the ‘man with the hat’ who had escaped alive during the Brussels attacks on the 22nd of March 2016.

Putting all the pieces together, the investigators concluded that the school domain has likely served as a weapon storage place. It is known that the terrorist cell possessed an arsenal of which at least four kalashnikov-type rifles, a riot gun, two pistols, two hand grenades and an amount of explosives were left after the massacre in Paris on the 13th of November 2015. Those weapons weren’t used for the Brussels attacks, and a intercepted conversation made clear that they had planned to hide the stash for later attacks.

That was reason enough for the investigators to conduct a second search on Wednesday the 10th of July 2016. Done by ten officers, with the explosives dog Jessy, and also in the sports hall this time. But again it was in vain. The assumption that the weapons have been hidden at the school remains however. “Considering the burglary traces, the possibilit exists that the weapons were retrieved and stored elsewhere just before the Brussels attacks”, the State Security document reads.

School domain with location of garage in red circle

In the meantime, there are even strong suspicions of who has carried the weapons away to hide at another place — a location, by the way, that still isn’t found. According to the intercepted conversation, that assignment was given to a certain ‘Abu Imran’, described as “a brother who has been in Syria already”. That fits perfectly well with the profile of Bilal El Makhoukhi (28), a terrorist from Brussels already known as Abu Imran, who lost a leg while fighting for Islamic State. He already admitted having been in touch with the Brussels terrorist cell in the week before the attacks, while arrested terrorist Osama Krayem declared during one of his interrogations that he met El Makhoukhi in a safe house in Laeken.

It isn’t known how long the weapons possibly were hidden at the school domain. But it is a certainty that they posed a terrible risk. The suspicious garage is situated only twenty meters  from the kindergarten, and even closer to the student coaching center. It is thought that the stash contained explosives of the types C4 and TATP. The first is both extremely powerful and hard to detonate, but the latter so unstable that it can explode by heat, friction or shock. That could easily have led to a devastating chain reaction causing lots of casualties.


Molenbeek couple recruited families instead of fighters for the Caliphate

They recruited door to door. While he was talking a man into leaving for Syria, she tried to persuade his spouse. It wasn’t fighters they were searching for the Caliphate, but families. When a woman was still single, Mélissa offered her own husband Yacine to marry her. Stories that are coming out now that Yacine has died in Syria.

Yacine Azzaoui, Molenbeek recruiter for Islamic State as pictured on his Facebook page in December 2014

When Mélissa Frangi appeared before a Brussels court in the fall of 2015, she didn’t look as an extremist at all. She wore an elegant two-piece suit and didn’t even bother to cover her hair. She told the judge that talking with her Christian father had brought her to repentance. That she once had vented the desire of her son becoming a fighter, was nothing more than a “stupidity”, spoken out without thinking.

That son was fourteen months old when Mélissa left with him for Syria on January 15, 2015. But she was caught at Charleroi airport already. In the French speaking Belgian press, her case became known as the ‘filière poussette’, a reference to the stroller she had taken with her. She didn’t carry any feeding bottles, because she still was breastfeeding. At the trial, she shifted all the blame  to her husband. He was in Syria already, and according to Mélissa he had pushed her to join him.

Her husband Yacine Azzaoui belonged to the network of thieves put in place by Brussels guru Khalid Zerkani to finance the jihad. That became clear after Yacine was caught during a burglary at the Cora hypermarket in the Brussels municipality of Anderlecht in May 2014, court documents learn. All five others involved tried to leave for Syria shortly afterwards. One of them was Souhaib El Abdi, later convicted as one of the leaders behind the terrorist plot thwarted by a deadly police operation in Verviers on 15 January 2015 — the very same day Mélissa tried to leave.

She had married Yacine in October 2012. Barely nineteen years old, but converted to islam about four years already. He was 22 and they knew each other only a couple of days. “I was in the middle of a depression and constantly fighting at home”, Mélissa declared. “Yacine came as a savior to me.” But allegedly that savior soon became a tyrant, beating her and forcing her to wear a niqab. According to Mélissa, they were separated already at the time Yacine left. But when he ordered her to join him with their child, she didn’t manage to resist. “I was lonely and lost.”

With that story, Mélissa succeeded to get a conditional sentence. She was tried to four years, but didn’t have to go to jail. In Molenbeek though, the notorious Brussels municipality where they lived, a completely different story is told. There, Mélissa still is branded as an extremist at least as radical as Yacine, who relentlessly tried to lure people to the Caliphate. That those stories are surfacing now, has everything to do with the reported death of Yacine in Syria. He was killed allegedly around the 27th of May, fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State near Deir ez-Zor.

“Yacine and Mélissa recruited door to door”, says Bahar Kimyongur, an activist for human rights of Turkish-Syrian descent. He lives in Molenbeek himself, and having lots of contacts in the war zone he was often acclaimed by families whose relatives had left. Quite regularly, those families put the blame at Yacine and Mélissa. “They focussed their recruitment effort on families”, Kimyongur says. “Yacine was talking with the men, while Mélissa tried to persuade their spouses.” Besides fighters, the Caliphate also needed civilians.

“Mélissa was extremely cunning. In order to gain confidence, she bought toys for the children of the families she was trying to recruit.” Fighting wasn’t mentioned — they only insisted that a good Muslim had no better place to live than in the Caliphate. Single women were attracted with the promise of a marriage, for which Yacine himself was offered as the groom. “A Moroccan baker’s wife told me in shock how Mélissa visited her, asking whether her sister would want to become Yacine’s second wife.”

How many religious marriages were arranged that way, isn’t known. But at Mélissa’s trial, another defendant was a second wife of Yacine. Julie, a 26 years old convert calling herself ‘Princess Hiphop’ before, married Yacine by Skype when he was in Syria already. Julie was arrested a few days after Mélissa, while she too was preparing to leave. She intended to travel to Syria with her daughter from an earlier relation, about seven years old.

Yacine and Mélissa are responsible for the departure of four families at least, of which two are known to have taken little children with them. It is very well possible though, that the numbers are higher. And while some of their recruits are desperately trying now to return, Mélissa is at home in Molenbeek. According to eyewitnesses, she is wearing her niqab again and shortly after the death of Yacine she reportedly married another extremist man.


Belgian IS terrorist Tarik Jadaoun exposed as executioner in Mosul

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’.

Belgian IS terrorist Tarik Jadaoun, pictured in front of the Grand Mosul Mosque in March, 2016

“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.

Azeddine Kbir Bounekoub, a Shariah4Belgium recruit also known as Abu Abdullah and Abu Gastbijshaam

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.

Google Maps image of al-Sadeer tourist complex, where most Western fighters were living

“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.

Redwane Hajaoui, an IS terrorist from the city of Verviers, also known as Abu Khalid al-Maghribi

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.

Azzedine El Khadaabia, an IS terrorist from Brussels named already in a suicide attack plot, also known as Abu Isleym al-Belgiki

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.”


Terror chief who commanded Abaaoud also came from Molenbeek

The notorious Abdelhamid Abaaoud was not the mastermind of the terrorist attacks in which he was involved. At the time of the plot that was foiled in Verviers, he was under the command of man code-named ‘Padre’. Investigators could not figure out yet who he is. But the Belgian daily ‘Het Laatste Nieuws‘ discovered that ‘Padre’ very likely is a Belgian too — hailing from the same Brussels suburb as Abaaoud.

Dniel Mahi in Syria on a Facebook picture posted on the 5th of March 2015

Dniel Mahi in Syria on a Facebook picture posted on the 5th of March 2015

‘Padre’ is barely mentioned in the judgment of last summer’s trial about the Verviers plot, while he was the highest in command of all terrorists named in that 200 page document. He was even higher ranked than Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian of Moroccan descent once labeled by some as the Islamic State’s minister of war. Telephone tapping made clear that Abaaoud had to obey Padre’s orders, the judgment states explicitly.

One example is the call that Abaaoud made on the 2nd of January 2015, thirteen days before the Verviers plot was foiled. “Our chief says that you have to keep quiet”, he told an accomplice in Belgium, while he was coordinating the plot from Greece himself. “He says that you should stop talking too much.” The accomplice reacted in anger, asking Abaaoud to call “Padre” and tell him that he should reprimand someone else. “It’s someone over there who is talking about me”, he fulminated — clearly pointing to a person in Syria.

A second phone call indicating that ‘Padre’ was in charge over the Verviers plot, happened on the 13th of January 2015. It was Soufiane Amghar, one of the terrorists killed two days later during the police operation in Verviers, telling Abaaoud: “Padre told that you will warn as soon as there are ten of us. That’s what he told, isn’t it? I’m asking you because it is depending on this when everything will start, you see?”

But more has never become known about ‘Padre’ — even not from which country he hailed. He wasn’t included in the list of defendants at the Verviers trial last year, and when asked whether his identity has become clear in the meantime, the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office answered in the negative last week. We did find a strong indication however in our archive of Facebook accounts of Belgian foreign fighters in Syria: a picture of a man who was called “Padre” in 2015, while posing together with Younes, Abaaoud’s little brother he took with him to Syria three years ago.

Screenshot of the Facebook post identifying Dniel Mahi as "Padre" on the 31st of January 2015

Screenshot of the Facebook post identifying Dniel Mahi as “Padre” on the 31st of January 2015

The man on the picture is Dniel Mahi, a thirty year old Belgian from Molenbeek. He also used the alias ‘Abu Idriss’ and has his roots in Nador, a city in the north of Morocco, where Spanish often is the second language instead of French. That might explain why he was code-named with the Spanish word for ‘father’. It is known that Mahi left for Syria on the 20th of January 2014. Exact the same day as Abaaoud departed for a second time, after picking up his brother Younes from school.

There are other Facebook pictures showing that Mahi belonged to Katibat al-Battar, the elite brigade within Islamic State which also included Abaaoud among its members, and often has served as a recruitment pool for terrorist attacks in the West. Up till now, Mahi’s name was rarely mentioned in the investigations, although he seems to be involved in multiple plots. The first one is the shooting on the 24th of May 2014 against the Jewish museum in Brussels, where Mehdi Nemmouche has killed four people in what is considered as Islamic State’s very first attack on European soil.

That Nemmouche did not act as a lone wolf, as initially was thought, was proven by a phone call with Abaaoud four months prior to the attack. Nemmouche was at that time in Turkey, while Abaaoud was in Belgium. Their conversation lasted 24 minutes. But Abaaoud was not the first Islamic State operative Nemmouche wanted to call. “Earlier that day, Nemmouche had tried to contact Dniel Mahi, (…) then in Belgium and a close friend of Abaaoud”, it was reported recently in an overview of Islamic State’s attacks in Europe published by the CTC Sentinel.

Dniel Mahi in Syria on a Facebook picture posted on the 26th of February 2014

Dniel Mahi in Syria on a Facebook picture posted on the 26th of February 2014

Chances exist that Mahi was also involved in the attempt to steer Frenchman Reda Hame to an attack. Hame was sent back to Europe in June 2015, but he was caught in time. During interrogations, he declared that Abaaoud was one of the people in Syria who had commanded the attack. Before he left, Abaaoud had given him a piece of paper with a telephone number, mentioning the word “papa”. That’s the French equivalent of ‘Padre’, and although most sources have considered it as a code name for Abaaoud, Hame has never told so explicitly and stated that the number got lost.

As far as we know, there are no indications that Mahi was involved in the attacks of November 2015 in Paris and March 2016 in Brussels. Apparently, the code name ‘Padre’ did not surface in those investigations. That could be a consequence of Mahi being killed in the meantime in Syria. There are rumours about that, although it is absolutely not clear how reliable they are. Because the attack in Brussels was planned at the times of Verviers already (prove of that are drawings of a terrorist carrying a bomb on a luggage cart at Brussels airport, found at an Athens address where Abaaoud was hiding early in 2015), it is reasonable to think that Mahi had a role in those early plans too.