The rivalry between Al Qaeda and Islamic State also creates a deep division among the foreign fighters from Belgium. Guys who marched together in the ranks of Shariah4Belgium, now threaten each other to chop off the head. Except for war and religion, they even quarrel about women.
When the first foreign fighters departed from Belgium, most of the Syrian muslim militias still fought side by side. The Belgians were spread across different groups, but remained friends. Nowadays, a bitter rivalry is raging between Jabhat al-Nusra — the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda — and its breakaway Islamic State. That causes heated debates between Belgian fighters who have ended up at different sides, but still find each other on social media.
Two of the biggest adversaries there are ‘Abu Haniefa’ and ‘Shaam Al-Mubarak’. The first is the alias of Hicham Chaib (33), a man from Antwerp once known as the bodyguard of Shariah4Belgium leader Fouad Belkacem. He was reportedly appointed chief of the religious al-Hisba police in ar-Raqqah, the Syrian capital of the Islamice State. The British ‘Daily Mirror’ portrayed him last week as the “killer cop” of IS. The second is presented as a collective account of several ex-Shariah4Belgium members fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra.
“IS conspires with dictator Assad. Or is it a coincidence that he attacked us at the same time as you have done?” they accused their former comrades within IS during a recent Facebook discussion. “You are fighting for America and you don’t apply the sharia in the regions you control. Drinking, music, prostitution… It is all allowed”, Chaib striked back, before threatening: “We stand on your doorstep and before you know it, your head will roll. It is time for revenge for what you’ve done to our brothers and our sisters.”
According to Chaib, one of the Belgians within Jabhat al-Nusra has already killed compatriots who were fighting for IS. He identified the man only by his alias ‘Abu Dawud’, while stressing that the Belgian is on the “black list” of IS. “Brothers of Jabhat al-Nusra who defected to us, all did tell the same story: that he came back one day with blood on his shirt after he had killed our brothers attacking them in the back.”
That the rivalry also extends to women, is proven by a lament of Chaib about “ex-wives of the true lions who are married now with apostates”. He didn’t mention names, but apparently he was speaking about widows of Belgians killed in the ranks of IS. “By Allah! Your previous men, who are martyrs now, have done everything for you to live in an islamic state. But you married apostates who in Belgium already sought the company of hypocrites, always critized the ones who were on the path of truth, and were playing 007 muslims instead of distributing the faith.”
Chaib himself was already married when he went to Syria, and his wife Kaoutar Bioui (28) tries to lure other women to Syria too. When asked on Facebook by a woman from Antwerp whether it’s permissible to leave against the will of her husband, she replied: “How can a muslim woman be satisfied by a man who loves the land of the infidels more than jihad? We see many sisters arriving after they have left their husbands. Recently, even one of 48 years old, who gave up nearly 30 years of marriage for the sake of Allah.”
NOTE: A first version of this article stated that ‘Shaam Al-Mubarak’ is the alias of Redouan Akdim, a former member of Shariah4Belgium who has joined Jabhat al-Nusra. That assumption was based on information gathered in former Shariah4Belgium circles some time ago. After publication though, several sources denied that there is an actual link between ‘Shaam Al-Mubarak’ and Akdim.
The Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ had a look into the transcripts of the interrogations of Jejoen Bontinck after he came back from Syria. They learn a lot about the western hostages with whom he was imprisoned by the Islamic State last year — the now beheaded James Foley, the actual hostage John Cantlie and a German citizen that wasn’t mentioned before.
The background of Bontinck’s story can be found here. Below are some highlights of what he told to the Belgian police. Quotes sometimes are bundled from different interrogations about the same topics and can only serve to get a picture of the situation, not for legal means whatsoever
• ABOUT THE ORGANIZATIONS IMPLICATED:
When Bontinck arrived in Syria in February of last year, there were three organizations active near Aleppo, where he teamed up with the other Belgians he knew. He was part of Majlis Shura Mujahideen, while Jabhat al-Nusra and “the group of Omar Shishani”, as Bontinck described it, also kept a presence there. While he was already imprisoned on suspicion of being a spy, both his own group and that of Omar Shishani became part of the newly founded ISIS — “the State”, as he says. But several members of Majlis Shura Mujahideen left to Jabhat Al-Nusra at that point. It isn’t clear which organization held him captive directly after that split, since he kept seeing people of both groups.
• HOW BONTINCK BECAME A PRISONER OF IS HIMSELF:
That happened after being kept as a prisoner by his own comrades for several months. “It was completely unexpected that they relocated me the day after Eid al-Fitr. I was told that I had to appear in a court, and would be freed afterwards. They tied my hands and blindfolded me. I don’t know exactly where they brought me. But it was in Aleppo, about half an hour driving from Kafr Hamra. The court belonged to the State. It was lead by a Dutchman, Abu Ubaida. During the first days of my imprisonment there, he once came to my cell — just to have a look. At that time, I didn’t know who he was. I shared a room with a Jordanian man and two Syrian boys.” Bontinck says he heard people being tortured all the time, but wasn’t tortured there himself.
• ABOUT HIS FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH FOLEY & CO:
“After four days, they put me in another room. There were people looking like Westerners. Three men. James Foley, the American journalist who was already missing for more than a year, and John Cantlie who worked with him. They were caught about ten months before and spent the first five months with Jabhat Al-Nusra. They were tortured then. They were very thin, they didn’t get any food. There was also a German with them, Toni Neukirch. They told me their stories, and I told them mine. We exchanged our contact details and promised each other to meet again, once we would be free. I wrote the numbers of James’ mother and John’s wife in a booklet, but unfortunately I don’t have that anymore. We were together in that room for about three weeks.” The German Bontinck mentions, disappeared in June of last year, but was freed a few months ago.
• HOW THE THREE WESTERNERS WERE CAUGHT:
“John and James were captured together and moved to another location three or four times. One of the places where they were held, is Idlib. But I don’t know whether they were apprehended there. They were caught after visiting an internet cafe. They stood out as foreigners and always used the same taxi driver. When they left the internet cafe, masked men overpowered them. They told me it was a local brigade of Jabhat al-Nusra that acted without orders from the top.” About the capture of the German, Bontinck doesn’t tell that much. “At first, he had some kind of house arrest. He had access to internet at that time and even managed to inform his family about his fate.”
• ABOUT THE HOSTAGES’ CONVERSION TO ISLAM:
“I talked a lot with them about that”, Bontinck says. “They told me that they weren’t living really good lives before. That they didn’t respect their mothers enought, for instance. It was their conversion that made them see that. When I first met them, they were converted already five months.” It can be doubted that the conversion of the three Westerners was completely sincere. Probably they only obeyed to the demand of their captors, hoping it would save their lives. Prison director Abu Ubaida told Bontinck he should do ‘dawah’ — the preaching to non-muslims — when he sent him to the cell of Foley & co, so he wasn’t that convinced about the conversion of the Westerners himself.
• ABOUT THE CELL THAT THEY SHARED:
“It was an ordinary room with pale brown walls, a pale brown floor in stone and a ceiling of the same colour. There were mattresses and reed mats and we had some books. I think it was about four meters long and eight meters wide. There was electricity and light. It was half underground and the sash-window was overlooking a huge dead wall. We had to eat in our cell. Apart from going to the toilet, we had to stay there all day. But still I think of all the prisoners, we were treated the best.”
• ABOUT THE DUTCH-MOROCCAN PRISON CHIEF:
“Abu Ubaida is a tall, slender and tanned. He must be in his twenties. He graduated as an engineer, so I think he’s at least 22 years old. He is of Moroccan descent and I do not know his real name. I can’t tell how he came to Syria or how he has got his important position. But he speaks Arabic perfectly, that was surprising for me. He has two wives and three children, of which the oldest is about seven years old. They are also in Syria and his second wife was born there.” Bontincks description seems to match with the Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi named by other sources as the highest ranking security chief of IS near Aleppo. More about the possibility that we are speaking about the same person, can be read here.
James Foley, the American reporter beheaded last week, shared a prison cell with former Belgian fighter Jejoen Bontinck for at least three weeks. Reportedly, they were held at that time by Bontinck’s former comrades from Shariah4Belgium, who brandished Jejoen as a traitor because he wanted to go home.
It was CEO Philip Balboni of GlobalPost, the American news site for which Foley was working in Syria, who broke the news about his deplored journalist and Jejoen Bontinck knowing each other. “In September 2013, a young Belgian who had travelled to fight in Syria had befriended Foley and, once that jihadist went back to Belgium, offered excellent information on roughly where Jim was held and by whom”, he was quoted by NBC News. “It was the first time we knew that Jim was alive. It was a wonderful, wonderful moment.” Balboni didn’t mention the name of the Belgian — but that wasn’t hard to find for anyone familiar with the phenomenon of Belgian fighters in Syria.
Jejoen Bontinck (19) went to Syria in February, 2013. He converted to islam a few years before and joined the radical organization ‘Shariah4Belgium’. He says he didn’t want to fight, but provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. Disgusted by the violence of war, he wanted to go home already in March of that year. But his comrades from Shariah4Belgium with whom he teamed together, considered him as a traitor or even a spy, and imprisoned him for several months. He was held in Aleppo, the northern Syrian city which was the main stronghold of the radical islamic resistance at that time.
Bontinck was never a prisoner of the Islamic State, his lawyer Kris Luyckx explained to the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’. Although most of his Belgian comrades now have joined the extremely brutal group, at that time they were still active under the banner of ‘Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen’ or ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’. That Bontinck was held together with Islamic State victim Foley — as confirmed by Luyckx — is consistent with the claim that Foley’s abduction was carried out by of one of those groups. When the American got caught in November 2012, the Islamic State didn’t exist yet in Syria. It was founded in April 2013 as ISIS — the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Sham’.
“Bontinck and Foley shared a cell for at least three weeks around August of last year”, says Luyckx. “And they weren’t the only Westerners — there was a European journalist too. Apparently, the two reporters were later transfered to ar-Raqqah, and it must have been there Foley was held by the British fighters that are known now as ‘The Beatles’. Jejoen has never met the guy who killed Foley or one of his accomplices. He always stayed in the hands of his former comrades of Shariah4Belgium.” If that is true, it means that Foley too was held by the Belgians for some time.
It isn’t clear whether they were also involved in Foley’s abduction — and an important question that also remains, is whether it were Bontinck’s former brothers in arms who have delivered Foley directly to those who’ve killed him now. The Belgian judiciary has indicted thirteen people for taking Bontinck hostage — based on the names he reportedly mentioned himself — and at least some of those people can be suspected in Foley’s case too. All belong to a group of 46 that has to stand trial this fall — although for most of them it will be a trial in absentia, since they are still fighting in Syria or were killed in action there.
Of the thirteen former Shariah4Belgium members that are indicted for imprisoning Bontinck, at least four have died already: Houssien Elouassaki from Vilvoorde, Nabil Azahaf from Brussels, Noureddine Abouallal from Antwerp and Yassine El Karouni — a Dutchman that apparently has spent most of his last years in Antwerp. Of those who are considered still alive, the highest ranking is Hicham Chaïb, alias ‘Abu Haniefa’. He became one of the leaders of Shariah4Belgium after the imprisonment of it’s founder Fouad Belkacem. Chaïb is living in ar-Raqqah now, where he was seen already in the company of senior Islamic State commander Abu Waheed.
The remaining eight names are Azeddine Kbir Bounekoub, Said M’Nari, Brahim El Mimouni and Fouad Akrich from Antwerp — Zakaria Asbai and Magomed Saralapov from Vilvoorde — Rachid Iba from Maaseik — and Redouan Akdim from Naarden in the Netherlands. Noteworthy is that Iba was already convicted as a member of the terrorist ‘Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain’ back in 2006, that Kbir Bounekoub has appeared in a gruesome video with dead bodies in Syria, and that Akrich is one of the exceptions who stayed in the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra — a fact that has ignited already vicious debates on Facebook, where he’s still a ‘friend’ of his former comrades who went to the Islamic State.
Jejoen was freed in September 2013 and after his return in Belgium, he was intensively interrogated by security services of several countries. According to his lawyer, the information he provided about the location where he and Foley were held, has been the motor behind the rescue operation undertaken for Foley by American elite soldiers. But the details Bontinck gave about his prison — “near a courthouse and a hospital”, for instance — were about the place where he was held in Aleppo. And apparently the raid took place at a time Foley was moved to ar-Raqqah already.
Belgium’s largest daily newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ reported today about the writings of a Belgian jihadi recently killed while fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria — showing his poetic side.
“How beautiful are the characteristics of the mujahid. If he is bleeding, he says: Allahuma, take more. With his blood and his iman , he defies every danger. And his deepest wish is: Allahuma, let me be a martyr.” That’s one of the verses translated from Dutch, published this week by ‘De Basis‘ — a Facebook community of Dutch speaking members of Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. They found the poetry on the laptop of Abou Handalah, killed on May 3 while he kept watch during the fighting in Sheikh Najjar, near the northern city of Aleppo.
The true identity of Abou Handalah isn’t known yet, although his brothers in arms already distributed a recognizable picture of him. Their conversations on Facebook do learn his first name must be Mohamed, and most of his friends and his acquaintances seem to come from the Belgian city of Antwerp. What his poems certainly are showing, is that Abou Handalah was fluent in Dutch. They contain numerous misspellings — but apart from that, he mastered the language clearly much better than the average Belgian fighter in Syria.
“Every single attack is as a marriage proposal for me”, he also wrote. “Waiting for your answer to my request. Wondering when the noble martyrdom will reach me and I will enter the hearts of green birds. When the houri will descend from heaven and remove the dust from my face. Oh my Lord, decorate me with the beauty of purity. All I’m asking from you, my beloved, is your satisfaction.” The poetry of Abou Handalah is always religious and rather combative, yet a lot more sophisticated than the blunt cries about fights and beheadings to which most of his peers seem to limit themselves.
As already mentioned on Twitter by the well informed Pieter Van Ostaeyen, another Belgian fighter has been killed in Syria. And on the same day, a new one arrived
The dead Belgian apparently belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra and he was slain last friday while manning a lookout in Sheikh Najjar near Aleppo. His true identity remains unknown, but in the meantime a picture has surfaced on Facebook.
According to original poster ‘De Basis’ — a collective of Dutch and Belgian jihadis in Syria — the picture was taken the day before the fighter’s death. “He agreed to be filmed and photographed for a dawah project, and soon a video will be published showing more from him.”
Several comrades who knew him personally, already paid their respects. “A truly beautiful brother”, Abu Muhammad stated. “You should take a look at his mobile phone, because he wrote marvellous poems”, the Aleppo based fighter from the Dutch city of Den Haag elaborated.
His Belgian compatriot Abou Fudayl Shami yesterday wrote that the slain fighter was using the alias ‘Abou Handalah’ and will be deeply missed. “I can testify about your nobility and your commitment to jihad. I’ve seen how you proved that. May the mighty God give us more lions like you.”
According to Van Ostaeyen’s research, this fighter is the 27th Belgian who has died in Syria. There may be some double countings, but the list of the Belgian fighters who are/have been in Syria contains already 396 names.
The case of ‘Abou Sabir Al Belgiki’ proves that there are still new departures. That 24 year old from the Antwerp neighborhood of Borgerhout announced last friday on his Facebook account that he had reached his goal.
“Mother, I’m in Syria now. I can’t come back after all the efforts I’ve made. Allah would not forgive me and I hope you can accept that”, he wrote. Yesterday, he also posted some pictures on which he’s posing with a weapon.
Conversations with his comrades learn that his real first name is Fahd and an older picture on his Facebook account is showing his face. He seems to be of Moroccan descent and clearly is a supporter of the disbanded radical organization ‘Shariah4Belgium’.
In Spain and Morocco, authorities announced today the arrest of seven members of a recruiting network for jihad. The man considered to be the leader appears to be a Belgian born gypsy who converted from christianity to islam and boasted of his activities all over the internet.
Mustafá Maya Amaya (51) was arrested in Melilla, one of the Spanish exclaves on the coast of Morocco. There he lived in an appartment in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods of the city, La Cañada de Hidum. He tried to rally his neighbors for the improvement of their living conditions with one of more than a dozen blogs that he managed — this one being a rare exception not dedicated to radical islam.
His Spanish identity card shows that he was born in the Belgian capital Brussels. Apparently, he has been living there for quite a while. On Facebook, where he’s using the alias ‘Abou Soufian Boussire‘, he mentioned ‘Pierre Boon’ as one of his former employers. A name that seems to refer to a well known Belgian firm active in event logistics such as the rental of tents. The company has been an official purveyor to the Belgian royal household.
According to another blog, his father Rafael was a Spanish gypsy and his mother Emilia of Castilian/Andalucian Spanish descent. He converted to islam more than sixteen years ago and being paralysed on the right side of his body, he’s confined to a wheelchair already for a decade. His parents were christians and before he converted to islam, his name reportedly was José Domínguez.
His radical religious views are known since 2001, when he was thrown out of a mosque in the southern Spanish city of Málaga for defending the Afghan taliban and attacking a fellow muslim who told him that Jews too have the right to exist. At that moment, Maya reportedly also admitted that he had served eight years in a Spanish jail for robbery and drug trafficking.
Those former encounters with the police didn’t teach him discretion though. He openly boasted of his activities as a recruiter for the jihad in countries such as Syria and Mali, giving detailed instructions for people wanting to fight and publishing entire conversations with his recruits on his blog ‘Ansar Tawhid‘ and his Google+ account with the user name ‘Abou Soufian Motamed’.
“I’ll show you a conversation with a young brother who I’ve helped to depart”, he wrote last month. The brother is using the alias ‘Ihƌb’ and appears to be a seventeen year old muslim living in the French capital Paris. At the start of their conversation in December 2013, apparently conducted via private messages on Facebook, he isn’t in Syria yet.
“There’s a little boy of fifteen years old that I know from Facebook but never have met”, the recruit is telling Maya. “He wants to join and asks me to pay for his flight to Turkey. Do you think it’s better to travel alone?” Maya confirms with a short “YES”, written in capitals. “Okay”, the French teenager replies, “In that case I’ll leave him home.”
At the end of January 2014, Frenchman ‘Ihƌb’ is in Syria. “I’m with Dawla for a month now”, he writes, meaning the extremist group ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Sham’ (ISIS). “Should I stay with them or switch to Jabhat Al-Nusra?” he asks . “If you have passed the training already, it’s better to stay”, Maya advises. “Then I have to go to Iraq with them”, the recruit replies.
‘Ihƌb’ explains he is part of a group with ten people from Strassbourg in France. “I probably know some of them”, Maya writes. “I did help people from there.” Then, they discuss the infighting between ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra — the official branch of Al Qaeda in Syria. Maya admits that he is sending fighters to both. “But it’s confusing now”, he says.
Two Belgian brothers of Chechen origin currently fighting in Syria are planning to come home and murder the recruiters who bring minors to war. “We will chop off their heads”, they promised their father — according to a nephew in Belgium.
Arbi and Imran are two brothers of Chechen origin who were living in Belgium before they went to Syria. Apparently they got some kind of military training in Chechnya, since their nephew posted a picture on his Facebook of them with other fighters, wearing camouflage suits in a snowy forest landscape. According to the nephew, the picture was taken several months before they started their jihad.
In Syria, they joined the militia of Sayfullakh Shishani, a Chechen commander who pledged allegiance to Jabhat Al-Nusra, the official branch of Al Qaeda in Syria. “Emir Sayfullakh was martyred by a stray bullet or shrapnel after retreating during the storming of Aleppo Central Prison earlier this month”, the nephew reported on his Facebook page. “Now the militia is led by a Chechen native named Mohammed Khorasani.”
The nephew is living near the Belgian city of Ghent and studying at the Karel De Grote Hogeschool in Antwerp. He started talking about the plans of the brothers after their father was arrested last week during a week long police operation against Syria recruiters in Belgium, mainly in the capital Brussels.
“My uncle is completely innocent”, he states. “The kafir will pay a high price for this injustice. We Chechens do not need to be recruited. If we can, we decide to go to Syria ourselves. And my nephews have promised their father to chop off the heads of those who are recruiting people under twenty years old. They wouldn’t say so if their father was one of them.”
“They saw quite a few of 16, 17 and 18 years old Belgian and Dutch shaheed die in front of their eyes. And they will avenge them, especially the Afghan, Turkish and Moroccan recruiters will see their heads separated from the rest of their bodies sooner than they can ever imagine — that is what they promised their father. Youngsters should not be brainwashed to go and fight there as they are not mature enough to understand the brutality of their enemies.”
Arbi and Imran asked their commander permission to leave the Syrian front for a few months in order to visit their father in jail. “He agreed, and my nephews will travel home through Turkey at the end of March”, it sounds. “May they keep their sacred Chechen word, Inch’Allah. In Syria, they already demonstrated the courage of the Chechen people by catching two Hizbullah fighters and killing one of them who tried to escape.”
At this point, we do not know the full identity of Arbi and Imran. But some cross-posting of messages and images on a number of related Facebook accounts seems to learn that the Belgian Syria fighter ‘Tchetchen Noxchi’ must be one of them. With all due reserve, we do publish two of the pictures certainly showing jihadi’s in Syria — and possibly both Arbi and Imran.