A car theft in the Netherlands, a seemingly insignificant note that was found in Molenbeek, and a shop for swimming pool equipment in the North of France. These are the three ingredients of the best clue there ever has been to thwart the Paris and Brussels attacks — a new investigation by the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws reveals.
A lot has been written already about the clues that security services missed in the run-up to the Paris and Brussels attacks — clues that could have prevented the bloodshed by Islamic State. Could have. In hindsight, it is easy to list the mistakes. Yes, it was known to the police that Salah Abdeslam had started to radicalize. But at that time, it was the case with tens, if not hundreds of Belgian Muslims like him. And yes, only 22 days before the Paris attacks, a search took place in the house of Khalid El Bakraoui because he tried to obtain kalashnikov chargers. But he was known as a gangster and in the end no weapons were found.
Bayroshock without chlorine
About one clue, however, nothing has been published yet — and that clue is likely the very best chance authorities missed to detect the terrorist cell. It started with the theft of a car in a small village between the Dutch rivers Maas and Waal. It was a silver colored Audi S4 built in 2003 that disappeared in the night from August 10 to 11, 2015 at a parking lot in Rijswijk — part of the municipality of Woudrichem and not to be confused with the much bigger town of Rijswijk near The Hague. “Klerelijers”, a friend of the owner reacted at a notice on Facebook, using an equivalent for “assholes” that is endemic for the Netherlands — while another one hurled: “Your country will be proud of you”, easily assuming that the thief was of foreign origin.
The rightful owner got his car back after it was found in the Brussels municipality of Molenbeek, and during a subsequent house search a handwritten note was found. It seemed of little importance: “Bayroshock without chlorine”, it mentioned, followed by the addresses of two shops for swimming pool equipment in the North of France. Bayroshock is a product against algae that consists of hydrogen peroxide at a concentration of 34%. Apart from being recommended for the treatment of pools, that same substance is also a main ingredient of TATP. Triacetone triperoxide is the explosive often called ‘the Mother of Satan’ and known as a terrorist’s favorite since the failed attempt by ‘shoe bomber‘ Richard Reid to blow up a plane between Paris and Miami in December 2001.
The man in whose house the note was found, is Ahmed Dahmani — a naturalized Belgian citizen of Moroccan descent. He was born in 1989 in Al Hoceima, a town between the Rif mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. In 2015, he was living in a fourteen-storied building in the Molenbeek ‘Zone du Canal’ — not the kind of address where a swimming pool owner can be expected. He was mainly known to the judiciary as a multi-recidivist criminal, who was caught for theft already at the age of twelve. The latest of the 51 cases in which his name appeared, was about a massive traffic in hard drugs between Belgium, France and Luxembourg. But there were signs of radicalization too, much stronger signs in fact than those present at that time with his childhood friend Salah Abdeslam.
Blessing the expansion of Shariah4Belgium
With Abdeslam, he underwent an identity check on board of a ferry between Patras in Greece and Bari in Italy only a week before the car theft in the Netherlands. Now, we know that they conducted one of many travels along the refugee route that was used by the Islamic State to smuggle terrorists to the West, but then it understandingly did not raise a particular suspicion yet. Ten days after the search that uncovered the note, however, Dahmani was named in a report about radicalism. Written by a motorized patrol of the Brussels police that had apprehended a suspected candidate for the Syrian jihad. Friends of the suspect had tried rather brutally to prevent that arrest, and Dahmani was one of them.
At Facebook, Dahmani did not hide his beliefs. There, he complained in 2014 already that the word extremism was “invented by enemies of the Islam”, while posting a quote that the Islamic State often uses to recruit criminals like him for the jihad — the one in which the second caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab declared: “Sometimes the people with the worst past create the best future”. Dahmani also posted Islamic State videos, and three days before a terrorist attack was foiled in Verviers — in January 2015 — he threatened: “One day everything will be paid.” He did all of that under the cover of a pseudonym, but his contacts with a suspect in the Verviers case could have lead to his identification back then already.
In Dahmani’s family tree, radicalism became obvious almost a decade ago. His older brother Mohamed — who basically raised him instead of their always absent father and their chronically ill mother — was named in a terrorist case as early as 2009. He was investigated for his contacts with the suspects of a bomb attack in Cairo that killed a French teenager — the same suspects behind the earliest plot against the Bataclan in Paris. Mohamed Dahmani was never charged, but by the time his brother Ahmed entered the scene, at least three of Mohamed’s friends had left for Syria. One of them departed from Brussels in the company of the later terrorist commander Abdelhamid Abaaoud. And in 2012 already, Mohamed himself was known as a patron of Shariah4Belgium, asked explicitly for his blessings when leader Fouad Belkacem wanted to expand his recruitment from Antwerp to Brussels.
“Talking like youngsters, but not impolite”
Altogether, there were plenty reasons to raise the alarm when Ahmed Dahmani showed his interest in an ingredient for bombs. But that did not happen, and at the 8th of October 2015 — a month after the note of Dahmani was found — a BMW left Molenbeek towards the North of France. At 4h04 that afternoon, the car was caught by a speed camera at the A2 highway in Neuville-sur-Escaut. The license plate would later learn that the vehice was rented by Salah Abdeslam, and the GPS revealed two stops: at 5h02 in the rue Maurice Thorez in Saint-Sauveur, and at 5h44 in the rue Ferdinand de Lesseps in Beauvais — the two shops mentioned on Dahmani’s note.
Both are branches of Irri Jardin, a chain “for your swimming pool, irrigation and spa”. The shop in Saint-Sauveur had ran out of Bayroshock, it seems. But the Beauvais manager recounted to the police how he sold his entire stock that day. “I had three jerrycans of five liters each, and they asked for more. When I told that half a jerrycan is sufficient for one pool, they claimed that they did the maintenance of several pools in the Paris area. Then they asked for a similar product, which I couldn’t offer. ‘Let’s buy these three then, we have to leave’, one of them said. They paid with cash and didn’t look tense, only a bit in a hurry.”
The manager described the two men as North-Africans between 25 and 30 years old. Both were of average build, had short hair and a short shaved beard. One of them was wearing a jacket over his sweater, the other one a bodywarmer. They spoke French — also when they talked to each other — without a particular accent. “They expressed themselves like youngsters do, but they weren’t impolite”, the manager said. Confronted with the pictures of known suspects, he thought to recognize Salah Abdeslam. But he wasn’t sure. Altogether, the two men spent no more than seven minutes in his shop, after which they made a fuel stop at the Total station of Hardivillers and returned to Molenbeek.
Forbidden in Belgium now, but not in France
French investigators are fairly confident that their purchase has served to fabricate the bombs that were used for the attacks in Paris on the night of 13 November 2015. There were eight explosive belts, of which two have failed to detonate. Each of them contained between one and two kilograms of TATP, and according to explosives experts of the French police, the terrorists could make ten kilograms with fifteen liters Bayroshock. In Belgium, the EU directive banning the sale of hydrogen peroxide in concentrations above 12% to private customers was passed into law in July 2016. But in France, a softened version entered into force last year, just requiring registration for private purchases.
Ahmed Dahmani is in Turkish custody now. He took a flight in Amsterdam on the morning after the Paris attacks, with a ticket that was bought a few hours prior to the bloodbath — indicating that he knew what was going to happen. When he was arrested near Antalya on the 16th of November 2015, he was still in the possession of his Belgian documents, including membership cards of the Christian trade union CSC and the Grand Casino in Brussels. In the meantime, however, he had also bought a false Syrian passport with the name Mazen Mohamad Ali, and the WhatsApp conversations on his phone revealed that he had planned to reach the territory of Islamic State. In December 2016, a Turkish court convicted him to ten years and nine months in jail for membership of a terrorist organization. After he has served that sentence, Belgian and French extradition requests are awaiting him.
Families of terror suspects often suffer from all kind of prejudice. It is thought that they are covering for their relatives, that they have contributed to the radicalization themselves, or that they quietly are proud. Sometimes that is true — but it seems rather rare, according to research published in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’. We examined how people landed on the Belgian list of foreign fighters and recruiters — and found that on a total number of 450 cases where authorities acted on external tip-offs, family members who raised the alarm were the most important factor.
OF 450 TERROR SUSPECTS LISTED IN BELGIUM AFTER AN EXTERNAL TIP-OFF:
• 26% WERE DENOUNCED BY RELATIVES
At least 117 names were put on the official Belgian list of suspected foreign fighters and recruiters after relatives spoke out. Sometimes they confirmed suspicions that authorities already had, but often they alerted the police spontaneously out of fear for the departure of their relative to the Syrian-Iraqi conflict zone. We found 60 cases indeed of which security services wouldn’t have known (or would have known much later, at least) without cooperation from within the suspect’s family.
Marion van San, a criminologist who has talked with many families for her research into the motives of foreign fighters and the attitude of relatives, is not surprised at these figures. “Until now, I have never visited a family that was happy with the departure of a relative”, she says. “We should remain cautious when drawing conclusions, since relatives who are radicalized themselves are not willing to talk — and if a quarter of those families alerted the authorities, there are still three quarters who did not. But I also have to say that families often only realize what was going on after a relative has departed. It is almost unbelievable how they didn’t see the signs.
It has to be feared, according to van San, that the willingness to report a relative for radicalization has diminished over the years. “Because it didn’t help the families who did”, she says. “The police rarely acted adequate. They either told that whoever wanted to leave, could not be stopped — or they talked immediately about making an arrest.” In van San’s experience, radicalization often happens within families with rather too little than too much religion — raising their children as Muslims without really making an issue of it. “I wish that I had taught my son much more about Islam”, a father told van San. “So that he would have known enough to fend off these people with their wrong ideas.”
They do exist of course, families where children are raised as extremists — and where a departure for the jihad is a reason for joy. But in our research, we could only find a dozen examples of that. The list contains a Belgian citizen of Chechen descent, A.T. (21), about whom is stated that he radicalized “under the influence of his father”, while his mother’s family “seemed willing to facilitate his travel to Syria”. The parents of T.T. (21) were divided, since “he was encouraged by his father to get a military training as a preparation for jihad”, while his mother “took away his passport” to be sure he couldn’t leave. There is also an occasion in which a father was put on the list as a suspected recruiter while his son — an important member of Shariah4Belgium — had died in Syria.
• 25% WERE FLAGGED BY FOREIGN AUTHORITIES
For 112 suspects, the crucial information came from abroad. Most often from authorities in Turkey, where many would-be foreign fighters were stopped and sent back to Belgium. Morocco is another country sometimes more aware about the radicalization of Belgian residents than Belgian authorities themselves. While the latter were still struggling with vague indications about the Brussels-based Italian citizen Silvio Terranova (25), Rabat suspected him already of a terrorist plot against its royal family. It was on Moroccan soil that Terranova finally could be arrested and convicted to three years in jail. About the Belgian citizen of Serbian descent V.S. (30) it were Iraqi security services who raised the alarm. He was arrested in Iraq in 2014, while even his family seemed unaware of his conversion to Islam, and turned out to be a youth friend of a Belgian foreign fighter who had died in the Syrian conflict already.
• 13% GAVE AWAY TOO MUCH ON SOCIAL MEDIA
60 individuals are on the list after exposing themselves on social media. M.N. (20) from Brussels for instance, who tweeted three years ago that he would leave for Syria once he was eightteen years old. He named his account ‘Killer2chiites’, a clear indication of his will to commit atrocities there. T.D. (28), a convert to Islam from the Campine region, exposed his plans to travel to Syria on his Facebook account. There, he publicly asked to get in touch with someone speaking Turkish in order to communicate with a facilitator in Turkey. A.K. (54) from Brussels wasn’t known to Belgian security services until he posted a picture showing himself in military fatigues and carrying a kalashnikov rifle on his Facebook account — a picture that clearly was taken in Syria.
• 5% WERE EXPOSED BY PUBLIC SOURCES
21 names were put on the list after being exposed by public sources, such as mainstream media. “Residing in Syria according to Het Laatste Nieuws”, it is mentioned about Johan Castillo Boens (38), the son of a professor at Leuven University. Apparently, security services didn’t know about his departure when we revealed his whereabouts in October 2014. Boens had been captured by Turkish authorities while trying to sneak into Syria, but subsequently became a part of the infamous prisoner swap in which tens of Islamic State adepts were traded for Turkish diplomats taken hostage by the terrorist organization. Sometimes, public sources are the work of jihadists themselves. In the case of Arben Imishti (38) from Schoten near Antwerp, it was his appearance as an executioner in an Islamic State beheading video that confirmed his presence in Syria.
• 4% SPILLED THE BEANS THEMSELVES
18 people have to blame themselves for being on the list because they talked too much. Often, it happened in a fury unrelated to their extremist beliefs. Samir Chafik (45) from Charleroi shouted that he would leave for Syria and return to kill the “Belgian disbelievers” during a brawl in his Thai boxing club. He was arrested the following month, appeared to be linked with a man from Charleroi who had committed a suicide attack in Iraq, and he was sentenced to five years in jail. M.C. (65) from Huy went asking the police whether her criminal record would prevent her from obtaining a visa for Syria — and M.G. (31), an imprisoned Tunisian citizen, revealed his plan to wage jihad in “a rancorous letter” to the Belgian king Philippe.
• 2% WERE DETECTED AT SCHOOLS
Seven times at least it was from within a school that the alarm was raised. In the case of I.H. (20) from Brussels, that happened 3,5 years ago after he had glorified Islamic State in a student class paper. Z.A. (23) from the eastern province of Limburg was caught during lessons while searching the internet for weapons — and S.A. (27) was denounced by fellow university students suspecting that he had left for Syria because of his absence and previous signs of radicalization on his Facebook page.
• 1% REPORTED BY EMPLOYERS OR CO-WORKERS
Three people on the list were detected at their workplace. In the case of R.B. (30) from Brussels, it was virtually impossible to overlook his radicalism. He distributed Islamic State propaganda material among his co-workers, openly told that he wanted to leave or commit an attack at home, and reportedly uttered death threats against superiors who tried to stop his proselytism. Two of the individuals were working for companies at Brussels Airport — and luggage handler A.H. (41) even asked his colleagues for money in order to support the “struggle of Islamic State”.
We based our research on a list of 811 suspected foreign terrorist fighters, people willing to leave for jihad, and recruiters — compiled by the Belgian federal government’s Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA, also known as OCAD in Dutch and OCAM in French). Since the allegations often haven’t been proven in court, we don’t mention full identities unless an individual was publicly named and/or convicted already for a terrorist offense. It is crucial to add that a single allegation like the ones we mention, never was enough to be put on the list. That happened only after further investigations resulted in additional evidence. Finally, it has to be stressed that the percentages do not refer to the total number of suspects, but only to the 450 cases for which the list explicitly mentions an external tip-off as first indication or decisive confirmation of the suspected radicalism.
They look like students taking a gap year. Traveling through Europe to get a sense of its culture, to party, and to catch a holiday romance. But they are in prison now as suspected scouts of the Islamic State. The Belgian daily newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws delved deep into their Facebook accounts, and unearthed an alarming strategy.
Mourad Taleb* left his home in Casablanca on September 14, 2014. He had eagerly looked forward to his journey. Eight days earlier, he had posted a picture on his Facebook page which showed him looking through a half-open door. “Soon”, he wrote below it. On that photograph, he still wore the neatly ironed shirt of his job in the classy business hotel Le Palace d’Anfa. Once arrived in Istanbul, he had changed it for a groovy jeans and a hipster shoulder bag. Yes, he is a Muslim from Morocco. But no, he wasn’t on his way to Syria.
During the following months, Taleb did travel through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland. His journey can be reconstructed step by step thanks to the check-ins on his Facebook account, where he is alternately posing with historical monuments and in fancy discotheques. He shows how he went swimming, bowling, pooling, and attended a match of the soccer team Rapid Wien. In Poland, he picked up a girlfriend with whom he even posed while having a bath — and with whom he even has married, it seems.
She wasn’t an Islamic girl, and there are very few signs of religion on his Facebook page too. Very rarely, he posted something in Arabic like the “we all belong to Allah and to Him we shall return” that is recited when a relative has passed away. But anyway, on the 5th of September 2016, he was arrested in the Polish town of Rybnik for belonging to the terrorist group Islamic State. During his time in Turkey, he reportedly had met Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the notorious coordinator of Islamic State attacks from Molenbeek in Belgium.
According to the complaint, that was cited by the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, they met in Edirne near the border with Greece. On his Facebook page, Taleb was pictured in Edirne on the 2nd of October 2014 waving a flag of ‘Raja Club Athletic’, his favorite Moroccan soccer team. Apart from Abaaoud, he is said to have met two other Belgians there: Khalid Ben Larbi and Soufiane Amghar. Both were killed a few months later in the Belgian town of Verviers, during a police operation that foiled a bloody attack.
The journey of Taleb reportedly was nothing less than a reconnaissance operation. Commissioned by Abaaoud, who was already planning several Islamic State attacks in Europe by then. For that, he used several scouts. Most of them were traveling through Europe under the disguise of Syrian refugees, reporting back to Abaaoud about their means of transportation, places to stay, and most important: how they passed borders and other controls.
Abaaoud had a special Facebook account to keep in touch with them. According to Le Monde, Bilal Chatra — a scout arrested in the German town of Aachen in April 2016 — had 429 messenger conversations with that account in one month time. While Abaaoud was killed shortly after the Paris Attacks of November 2015, his account is still online. It is called Protocole Walodiwalo (with ‘walodiwalo’ meaning ‘nothing for nothing’ in Moroccan Arabic) and doesn’t show anything of a religious nature. The profile picture is that of a black African man laughingly exposing his ruined teeth, with a protracted “hahaha” written in Arabic over it. Still on the friends list of the account is Mourad Taleb, while we found out that Taleb has also been in touch with Chatra using social media.
Talking about friends: apparently Taleb was acquainted with Redouane Sebbar in 2011 already. A rather unsuspicious time, but Sebbar — who also hailed from Casablanca — became a scout of Abaaoud too. He was arrested in a refugee center near the German city of Hamburg in December 2016 and in October of last year turned over to France. French investigators think Sebbar was implicated in the botched attack on a Thalys high speed train in August 2015. He traveled back and forth with that same Thalys between Brussels and Paris five days earlier, supposedly on the orders of Abaaoud.
The Facebook account of Redouane Sebbar is revealing that he left for Istanbul on December 16, 2014. He crossed the border with Greece on January 4, 2015 — three days after Taleb — and traveled through Serbia, Hungary and Austria to end up in Germany in May 2015. He wasn’t posing that much, but he also looked as a tourist. He too made friends everywhere along his way — not only Muslims — and his check-ins include fitness centers, shopping malls, ice cream parlors and a well-known gay bar in the Greek city Thessaloniki.
The cover that the scouts were using, is so convincing that it’s obvious to think: they can’t have been aware of what they were contributing to. Maybe they were fortune hunters, paid by Abaaoud without knowing what he was planning. They must have sensed that it wasn’t completely right, but the worst they could imagine may be that Abaaoud was trafficking drugs or something like that. If they knew the full extent of his intentions, how on earth they were able to keep up appearances while lying in their Western lover’s arms?
But if Polish investigators are right, at least Taleb knew very well that he was working for the bloodlust of the Caliphate. On his mobile phone, instructions for making explosive devices and pictures of potential targets were found —as the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita reported. On top of that, Taleb called Muslims who were grieving for the victims of the Paris attacks “bastards” and “dogs” in intercepted text messages.
It is highly disturbing that the scouts of Abaaoud have been able to conceal their true intentions so well, since Facebook is loaded with similar looking profiles. Browsing through the friends list of Sebbar for instance, we found P.L. — a young man from Casablanca who was in Greece in March 2015. One month later, he traveled through Hungary, in May 2016 he stayed in a German refugee center, and just one month ago he settled in Paris. He’s not only on the friends list of Sebbar, but also on that of a Moroccan living in München and linked to Abaaoud’s account.
There’s no evidence whatsoever that he too is implicated in terrorist activities. Most likely he’s a genuine fortune hunter, who may have left Morocco as a friend of Sebbar, but without being radicalized himself halfway. But because the scouts of Abaaoud were that efficient in building a cover, all similar migrants are becoming a bit suspicious again. Shortly before he died, Abaaoud declared that 90 terrorists had entered Europe already. Was he only bragging? Possibly. But there’s still a lot of investigations to do, that’s for sure.
*Update: Mourad Taleb was convicted to 4 years in jail by a Polish court in March 2019 (see for instance https://www.france24.com/en/20190322-accomplice-paris-attacks-mastermind-sentenced-poland). In June 2020, however, it was brought to our attention that he had been acquitted on appeal in April 2020. See https://www.profil.at/oesterreich/justizopfer-mourad-taleb-sie-wollen-es-vor-der-ganzen-welt-verheimlichen/400956248
The Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ has gained exclusive access to the interrogation reports of Tarik Jadaoun. Better known as ‘Abu Hamza al-Belgiki’, he is a Belgian member of Islamic State detained in Iraq. Here’s a resume of what we have in published in Dutch — with some additional notes about people Jadaoun confessed that he has met.
Belgium has very good reasons to hope that Tarik Jadaoun (29) never will reappear in the country. According to his own confessions in Iraq, the Islamic State operative was extensively involved in terrorist plotting against the West. He even volunteered to return for an attack himself.
“Journalist’s talk.” That was Jadaoun’s reaction to reports about his involvement in terrorist plots when he was interviewed last month by Belgian state television. “It’s not my fault that there were attacks in Belgium and France”, he said. “I didn’t give the orders for that.” He tried to picture himself as a follower, whose only mistake was his choice for IS — full of regret and very much willing to cooperate with Belgian security services, if they help him to escape an almost certain death sentence in Iraq.
Interrogated by Americans however, Jadaoun told a different story. He admitted his involvement in several terrorist plots — two of which have lead to deaths on European soil — and he even confessed that he had volunteered for an attack in Belgium or France himself. According to the interrogation reports, Jadaoun was apprehended on the 12th of July 2017 at 6 AM in al-Farooq, a neighborhood in the west of Mosul liberated from IS a fortnight earlier. He was arrested without weapons, equipment or documents – suggesting that he had gone into hiding. But he hadn’t suffered hardship yet, since his weight of 135 pounds is healthy for a man of 68 inches tall.
Jadaoun declared that he had worked as a medic in a makeshift hospital in the Hayy al-Maydan neighborhood from early June until two days before his arrest. On the 10th of July, that hospital was hit by a coalition air strike, causing the death of his pregnant wife and their one year old daughter. He had two spouses at that time – the one who died was a Belgian citizen of Algerian descent. The other is an Iraqi who had fled Mosul with her parents early last year, but was still in touch with Jadaoun via social media about ten days before his arrest.
If he is telling the truth, Jadaoun has worked as a medic for most of his time with IS. That was also the case in Kobanê, he said, the Kurdish town in Syria captured by IS in September 2014. At that time however, Jadaoun posted a picture on Facebook showing the mutilated corpse of a YPG fighter, commenting that it was his very first victim. “I could approach him while he kept the watch and shot the dog from within ten meters”, he boasted — not exactly what a medic typically does. What he told his interrogators about the hospital in Mosul, is confirmed by other sources however. He mentioned that it was lead by an Indian doctor known as Abu Hamza al-Hindi — while shortly afterwards an audio message by another Indian IS member eulogized an Abu Hamza al-Hindi who reportedly had died while the hospital the managed was bombed.
Jadaoun is clever. When he told his father, back in May 2014, about his plans to leave for Syria, the father threatened to inform the police. To make sure it had not happened, Jadaoun went a few days to Morocco first. Only after he experienced no scrutiny, he booked a flight to Bucharest, Romania, and from there to Istanbul. Another security measure, he explained during interrogations. “If I had booked a direct flight, I would have been arrested at the airport already.”
The Belgian has met at least one of the people suspected of directing the Brussels and Paris attacks: Abdelilah Himich, a former French soldier thought to be the ‘Abu Suleyman’ calling with the terrorists during the Bataclan siege. Jadaoun knew Himich by his nickname ‘Nescafé’ — “because he was hyperactive and consumed large quantities of caffeine” — but he did not confirm Himich’s involvement in the attacks. “Nescafé came to Mosul as the military emir of the Tariq ibn Zayid battalion mid-to-late 2016”, he only recalled. “He participated in the defense of Fallujah and after IS was defeated there, he was exhausted from fighting. He did not return to Mosul, but went to Syria instead without approval of IS” – which would mean that one of the most wanted European IS operatives became a deserter.
Jadaoun badly wanted to become a terrorist himself. In 2015, he heard that Abdelhamid Abaaoud – the Belgian field commander of the Paris attacks – was searching perpetrators for attacks on European soil. While Jadaoun insists that he has never met Abaaoud, he did submit his candidacy to Abu Abd al-Hamid al-Shishani, whom he identified as the emir of the Abu Mutaz al-Qurashi division, the entity in control of all IS foreign fighters. But his offer was refused. Apparently, Jadaoun was meant to become a coordinator instead. “He is groomed to be the next Abaaoud”, a former IS member told us in 2016. Jadaoun did not confirm that during his interrogations, but he told extensively about his use of social media to recruit attackers in the West.
He ran at least fifty different Facebook accounts and was active too on Telegram, where he was cautious enough to set the self-destruction tool for what he wrote at 30 seconds. At a certain point, he sent a detailed manual for the production of explosives to an IS supporter in Europe who told him that he had recruited a suicide bomber already. “I don’t know how that plot ended”, Jadaoun said. He also admitted that he was in touch with the two perpetrators of the July 2016 Normandy church attack, the murderer of a French police man (likely the June 2016 Magnanville attack) and with two of the women behind the September 2016 Notre Dame Cathedral bombing attempt. All these plots were previously attributed to the French ‘remote-controller’ Rachid Kassim, who also operated from Mosul — but Jadaoun didn’t mention Kassim and failed to confirm that these remote-controlled attacks have been a full-fledged part of the ‘external operations division’ within IS for which he closely worked together with Kassim.
In his interview with Belgian state television, Jadaoun proposed to cooperate with security services in order to avoid new attacks, because IS “still has people hidden in Europe”. The Belgian prime minister Charles Michel refused the offer immediately. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists”, he said. The interrogation reports suggest that Jadaoun has little to offer. Explicitly asked in November of last year, he denied any knowledge about future attacks or people still busy with that. But it is possible of course that Jadaoun wanted to keep his most valuable knowledge as a leverage.
It is suspicious at least how he remembered tiny details about individuals who are dead or defected already, while he couldn’t recall elementary facts about other, often more important people. His description of the Egyptian emir who gave him a job in the Education department for instance, makes it fairly easy to identify the man as a well-known veteran of the jihad – the German citizen Reda Seyam. But Jadaoun pretended to know almost nothing about him. He flatly denied that he ever has heard about Ahmed Dahmani or Ahmad Alkhald, two suspects for the Paris attacks who are still alive — and the same goes for Abu Fudayl al-Maghribi, likely his compatriot Bilal El Marchohi, with whom he appeared on the same wanted notice that lead to the evacation of a Paris train station in May 2017.
From Grozny to Raqqah with stopover Brussels – The ‘Eastern Contingent’ of Belgian foreign terrorist fightersPosted: 2017/08/29
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, 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.” 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”. 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.
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.
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 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.
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. The so-called Zerkani network apparently has none.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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. That same Akhmad Chatayev was identified in 2015 as the commander of the Yarmouk Battalion, a Chechen faction of Islamic State, and in 2016 he was named as mastermind of the Istanbul airport attack in which 44 people died.
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 — 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.
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, 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 – a move he could reportedly avoid thanks to interference by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
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. In August 2016, the man with dual Belgian and Russian nationality was convicted to four years in jail. But again, we haven’t found any detail about how he would have been radicalized while living in Belgium.
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.
List of Belgian foreign fighters reportedly killed in the current Syrian-Iraqi conflict
- 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
- Hamdi Mahmoud Saad, a Syrian living in Brussels who joined the Free Syrian Army and was killed in Latakia governorate in August 2012
- Rustam Gelayev, son of Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev who lived a while in Belgium, killed in Aleppo governorate in August 2012
- 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
- Bilal Zinati, recruit of the Denis network who left in December 2012, joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed at an unknown date
- 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
- Sean Pidgeon, a convert from Brussels recruited by the Denis & Zerkani networks, killed in Aleppo governorate in March 2013
- Anonymous fighterfrom Mechelen, killed before April 2013 according to an imam who assisted his family
- 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
- Ahmed Stevenberg, the alias of an unidentified fighter of Jabhat an-Nusra, killed by the Syrian army in the Latakia governorate in April 2013
- Raphaël Gendron, aka Abdurauf Abu Marwa, a Frenchman raised in Brussels, killed in the ranks of Suqur as-Sham in April 2013
- Tarik Taketloune, aka Abu Khattab, figher from Vilvoorde who was recruited by Shariah4Belgium and joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, killed in May 2013
- Saïd Amrani, Denis recruit from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg who was killed in May 2013
- Ismail Amgroud, a fighter from Maaseik who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in June 2013
- Noureddine Abouallal, aka Abu Mujahid, a leader of Shariah4Belgium who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in July 2013
- Younis Asad Rahman, the alias of a fighter also known as Asad ar-Rahman al-Belgiki, killed in August 2013 in Latakia governorate
- Abu Salma al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter killed in August 2013 in Deir ez-Zor governorate
- Youness Kharbache, Denis recruit from Brussels and brother of Hamza Kharbache. Joined Islamic State and was killed in August 2013 in Damascus governorate
- 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
- 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
- Abdelgabar Hamdaoui, a Shariah4Belgium recruit fighting for Jabhat an-Nusra, killed in September 2013
- 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
- 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
- Mohamed Bali, aka Abu Hudayfa, Shariah4Belgium recruit coming from Antwerp, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in September 2013
- Abdelmonhim R’ha, Sunni Islamist fighter from Antwerp, reportedly a relative of former Belgian Guantánamo detainee Moussa Zemmouri. Killed in September 2013
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Ouafae Sarrar, aka Umm Djarrah, wife of Shariah4Belgium recruit and Islamic State fighter Ilyass Boughalab. Reportedly killed around January 2014
- 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
- Feisal Yamoun, aka Abu Faris, a leader of Shariah4Belgium who left with wife and three young kids, killed in February 2014
- 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
- 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
- Nabil Ajraoui, Denis recruit who left as a minor in November 2013 and was killed in February 2014
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Abdelilah Jab-Allah, aka Abu Omar, Brussels recruit of Denis & Zerkani networks. Joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in March 2014
- Karim Mahrach, aka Abu Azzam, recruit of Jean-Louis Denis from Brussels, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in April 2014
- Mohamed Said Haddad, Zerkani recruit from Brussels and brother of the Verviers terrorist plot member Abdelmounaim Haddad. Killed in April 2014
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Abu Handalah, anonymous Jabhat an-Nusra fighter who appeared in the video ‘Turning Point’ and was killed in May 2014 near Aleppo
- 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
- 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
- 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
- AnonymousBelgian fighter killed in July 2014 in al-Keshkeyyi, Deir ez-Zor governorate
- 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
- Souleymane Abrini, Zerkani recruit and brother of Paris & Brussels attacks accomplice Mohamed Abrini. Joined the Islamic State and was killed in August 2014
- Abu Jihad al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in battle for airport in Deir ez-Zor governorate on August 31, 2014
- Zakaria El Bouzaidi, best friend of Sean Pidgeon, who was recruited together with him by the Denis & Zerkani networks. Killed in September 2014
- 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
- 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
- Abu Mohamed al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter killed in October 2014 in Deir ez-Zor governorate
- Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter of Saudi descent, killed in the ranks of Jabhat an-Nusra in October 2014 in Latakia governorate
- 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
- Abu Sulayman al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter of Maghribian descent, killed in Kobanê in November 2014
- Bilal Barrani, aka Abu Said, Zerkani recruit of French origin who was living in Brussels, joined Islamic State and was killed in December 2014
- 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
- Khongr Pavlovitch Matsakov, Sunni Islamist fighter from Ostend with roots in the Russian republic of Kalmykia, killed in January 2015
- Abu Taymiyya al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter killed in Kobanê in January 2015
- 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
- Soufiane Amghar, aka Abu Khalid, Islamic State fighter from Brussels who was killed during a police operation in Verviers (Belgium) on January 15, 2015
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Abu Bakr al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter from Brussels who committed suicide attack in Ramadi (Iraq) on March 11, 2015
- 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
- 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
- Abu Tourab al-Belgiki, anonymous Sunni Islamist fighter from Brussels killed in May 2015 in Damascus governorate
- Abu Handala al-Belgiki, anonymous Sunni Islamist fighter killed in May 2015
- 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
- Abu Muslim al-Belgiki. Anonymous Islamic State fighter from Antwerp. His death was announced in June 2015, but reportedly happened around a year earlier
- 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
- Fayssal Oussaih, aka Abu Shaheed, Islamic State fighter from Maaseik, killed in July 2015
- Abu Iliace al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter whose death was announced by an Islamic State source in ar-Raqqah in July 2015
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Abu Ayman al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed by British drone strike in ar-Raqqah in August 2015
- 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
- Mohammed Hajji, Islamic State fighter from Antwerp, killed by an air strike in ar-Raqqah in October 2015
- Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State figher, killed in October 2015 by a French air strike on a training camp near ar-Raqqah
- Abdelmalek Boutalliss, aka Abu Nusaybah, Islamic State fighter from Kortrijk who committed suicide attack near Haditha (Iraq) on November 11, 2015
- Andy Bizala Lubanza, Zerkani recruit from Brussels with Congolese & Rwandese roots, joined Islamic State and was killed in November 2015
- Anonymous, Belgian wife of Islamic State emir ‘Abu Khabab’ from Saudi Arabia, killed with her husband in November 2015 in Deir ez-Zor
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Mohammed Jattari, Sunni Islamist fighter from Tienen, killed at unknown date in 2015
- 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
- Younes Ahllal, aka Abu Taymiyah al-Belgiki. Zerkani recruit from Brussels, killed in the ranks of IS according to court documents dating from 2016
- AnonymousBelgian fighter killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor governorate on January 20, 2016
- Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in al-Hawiqa near Deir ez-Zor on January 30, 2016
- Umm Shérazade al-Belgiki, anonymous woman from Brussels who joined the Islamic State and was reportedly executed for witchcraft in February 2016
- AnonymousBelgian fighter in the ranks of the Islamic State, reportedly executed for treason in Deir ez-Zor in February 2016
- Salahuddin al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, who was killed as an important battle commander in Deir ez-Zor governorate in March 2016
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Abu Anas al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed near Mosul (Iraq) on April 8 or 9, 2016
- 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
- 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
- AnonymousBelgian fighter, killed as Islamic State commander in a battle near Deir ez-Zor in July 2016
- 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
- Nasser Azzouzi, fighter from the city of Verviers who left in August 2014, killed at unknown date according to information gathered in August 2016
- Zakaria Asbai, aka Abu Zubair, Islamic State fighter from Vilvoorde whose death at undisclosed time and location was reported in August 2016
- Abu Miqdad al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in battle near Deir ez-Zor in August 2016
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Abu Omar al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter reportedly killed in the ranks of Jabhat Fath as-Sham , the former Jabhat an-Nusra, in November 2016
- Hicham Naji, aka Abu Mehdi, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Antwerp who was reportedly killed in Islamic State ranks in November 2016
- 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
- Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter reportedly killed on January 15, 2017 in al-Andalus neighborhood of Mosul
- 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
- Zacharia Iddoub, aka Abu Yahya Beljiki, Islamic State fighter from Vilvoorde reportedly killed by air strike on January 17, 2017 at undisclosed location
- 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
- Anonymous Belgian fighter reportedly killed in the ranks of IS during clashes with the Syrian army near Deir ez-Zor around May 10, 2017
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
 The names were published in seven separate Royal Decrees, which can be found here:
 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
 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
 All statements about Chalil Man are taken from the court documents mentioned in the preceding two footnotes
 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/
 According to a French investigation document in the possession of the authors
 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
 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/
 Kristof Pieters & Guy Van Vlierden, Uit Syrië teruggekeerde Romazigeuner gevat, Het Laatste Nieuws, 7 December 2016
 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
 Kristof Aerts & José Masschelin, Van vrijspraak naar 8 jaar cel, Het Laatste Nieuws, 9 January 2014
 Per Gudmundson, Efterlyses: enarmade tjetjener, gudmundson.blogspot.be, 2 March 2009. Available online at http://gudmundson.blogspot.be/2009/03/efterlyses-enarmade-tjetjener.html
 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
 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
 Thea Swierstra, OCMW Antwerpen stelt leefloners tewerk in tuinbouw, De Morgen, 20 April 2007
 Inge Ghijs, Erkend politiek vluchteling door Griekenland uitgeleverd, De Standaard, 27 March 2013
 Inge Ghijs, Belgische politieke vluchteling weer thuis, De Standaard, 18 May 2013
 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
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.
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.
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.
 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
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.
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.”
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.