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.


Jejoen Bontinck’s interrogations about Foley and Cantlie: some details that never were told

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.