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.


Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi, the Dutch imprisoner of James Foley & co — His true identity revealed — His death detailed — His French successor named

It went largely unnoticed when the Dutch Minister of Security and Justice designated Moroccan citizen Mohamed Amine Boutahar as an unwanted foreigner in July 2015. The official announcement did not mention a reason, but that reason became clear when Boutahar’s accounts were frozen the following month. Born in the Moroccan capital Rabat on the 4th of April 1983, Boutahar was added to the growing list of Dutch terror suspects, and local media quickly pointed out that his alias ‘Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi’ meant that Boutahar is the infamous heavyweight of the Islamic State serving as the head of security in Aleppo under whose command several Western hostages were imprisoned there.

Official announcement of sanctions against Dutch terror suspect Mohamed Amine Boutahar, a.k.a. Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi

Official announcement of sanctions against Dutch terror suspect Mohamed Amine Boutahar

Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi was first identified in that role by Jejoen Bontinck, a Belgian foreign fighter who returned from Syria in October 2013. Interrogated by Belgian police, he told how he had joined his former friends of Shariah4Belgium — the country’s most important recruitment organization — in the ranks of Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, a local Islamist militia that soon became a keystone of the newly established ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Sham’. Bontinck was imprisoned by his own militia on suspicion of being a spy, and during that imprisonment he briefly shared a cell with the American hostage James Foley, Briton John Cantlie and German Toni Neukirch. He described the man responsible for the prison as a Dutchman of Moroccan descent, who was in his twenties at the time and had graduated as an engineer. “He is tall, slender and tanned, speaks Arabic perfectly, and has two wives and three children, of whom the oldest is about seven years old.”

Abu Ubaida/Boutahar is often described as the “prison chief” of Foley and co, but that is not entirely accurate. As head of security, his powers reached far beyond the supervision of the prison system of Islamic State at the time. According to James Harkin’s elaborate research into the Western hostages, he even had a deputy who was solely responsible for the prisons — a Syrian from near the border with Iraq named ‘Abu Maryam’ — and every separate prison had its own chief too. While the Westerners were held in Sheikh Najjar near Aleppo for instance, the prison chief there was a French-Tunisian going by the name of ‘Abu Mohamed al-Faransi’. “He was more French than Tunisian”, Harkin wrote, “and didn’t seem to know any Arabic.”

Even while he likely is identified now, nothing is known with certainty about Abu Ubaida/Boutahar’s past. But his death is fairly documented now. Two years ago already, there were rumours about him being executed by Islamic State. According to some sources he was beheaded, while others told that he was shot. But most accounts agreed about the reason, being the suspicion that he had passed secret information to a foreign intelligence service — possibly during negotiations about the fate of Western hostages he held. A recent German court document not only confirms that Abu Ubaida/Boutahar was executed by his own group, but also provides details. The information is contained in the judgment of a German foreign fighter named Nils Donath, who was sentenced to four years and six months in jail on 4 March 2016 in Düsseldorf. Donath served a while in one of the prisons that were led by Abu Ubaida/Boutahar while he was in Syria between October 2013 and November 2014.

According to the judgment, Abu Ubaida/Boutahar was arrested mid-April 2014 on the orders of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, who had succeeded Abu Athir al-Absi as Islamic State’s Aleppo governor shortly before. The reason for that arrest was a suicide attack ordered by Abu Ubaida/Boutahar in that same month, in which Jabhat an-Nusra commander Abu Muhammad al-Ansari was killed with his wife and his daughter in the Idlib governorate. The German defendant Nils Donath declared that in his opinion, that attack was wrongly aimed. The man who had to be killed, Donath told his interrogators, was Jabhat an-Nusra’s number one — the Syrian Ahmed Hussein al-Shar’a, better known as Abu Mohammad al-Julani. At the end of April 2014, Abu Ubaida/Boutahar was executed by gunshot in the presence of several members of Islamic State’s security department, after which his body was thrown in a well. The judgment doesn’t state explicitly whether Donath witnessed the execution himself.

Still according to the German judgment — and thus the declarations of defendant Nils Donath — Abu Ubaida/Boutahar was succeeded as security chief in Aleppo by a man identified as ‘Abu Mohamed Franzi’. This Frenchman, Donath told, had served as bodyguard for Umar as-Shishani, the former leader of ‘Katibat al-Muhajireen’ who soon became the overall military commander of Islamic State in Syria. In his confessions, Donath spoke about a large gathering in March 2014 on a military airport near the city of al-Bab, where hundreds of fighters pledged their oath of allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They did so in the hands of a Saudi judge who had arrived there with as-Shishani, and for whom the Frenchman ‘Abu Mohamed Franzi’ seemed to serve as bodyguard too. It is very likely that this ‘Abu Mohamed Franzi’ was the very same person as the ‘Abu Mohamed al-Faransi’ mentioned above as the one-time prison chief in Sheikh Najjar.

This French successor of Abu Ubaida/Boutahar must have been Salim Benghalem, one of the most notorious Frenchmen within Islamic State. He has a profile that matches the function and is known as ‘Abu Mohamed al-Faransi’. Together with Mehdi Nemmouche (the perpetrator of the terrorist attack against the Jewish Museum in Brussels on 24 May 2014), Benghalem served as a warder for the four French hostages (Didier François, Edouard Elias, Nicolas Hénin and Pierre Torres) in a prison in Aleppo between July and December 2013. He was described as “Nemmouche’s superior” and “a professional veteran of the Jihad who had patiently climbed the ladder of Islamic State”. According to a memo from the French internal security service DGSI, quoted by Le Monde, Benghalem has also belonged to the religious police and acted as an executioner at an Islamic court in al-Bara near Aleppo.

When the United States Treasury Department added the above-mentioned Umar as-Shishani to its list of ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorists’ in September 2014, it did so simultaneously with Benghalem — Shishani’s one time bodyguard, if it’s him who has indeed replaced Abu Ubaida/Boutahar.