Drones, draft dodgers, and much more about Islamic State

Again, we have obtained some interrogation reports from a Belgian foreign terrorist fighter apprehended in the Syrian-Iraqi conflict zone. His name is Bilal El Marchohi and he was caught by Kurdish forces near ar-Raqqah (Syria) on the 29th of August 2017. Two articles based on what he told the US military were published already in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’.[1] What follows is a factual account of the most relevant details.

Belgian IS operative Bilal El Marchohi after his capture in Syria in August 2017

Background information

Bilal El Marchohi (22) is a Belgian citizen of Moroccan descent, raised in the Antwerp neighborhood of Borgerhout. The earliest trace of militant activity we found, was his participation in a protest against the Israeli army in November 2012 — as can be seen in a picture report that the Belgian daily Het Nieuwsblad published at the time.[2]

He left for Syria with his wife — Ilham Borjani from Gouda in the Netherlands — in October 2013, apparently recruited by Shariah4Belgium. First they joined the then al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat an-Nusra, but very soon they switched sides to the Islamic State. El Marchohi’s IS entry file[3] mentions that he entered in November 2013, recommended by Abu Hamza al-Belgiki. That is likely Nabil Kasmi, one of the very first European fighters in Syria, who was also part of Shariah4Belgium.[4]

El Marchohi used the kunya ‘Abu Fudayl al-Belgiki’ and was an avid social media user. In September 2014, he posted a picture on his Facebook account, showing his foot on the logo of a Free Syrian Army faction with the words: “You are overrun, trampled like a cockroach.” In November 2014, he threatened Belgium and the Netherlands with a sort of poem on his Twitter account. “Oh Belgium, sweet and tender’, it went. “The moment of pleasure. The blade nicely blunt. Oops, head off. Fear in your heart. Keep your hands off from our brothers. Oh Netherlands, know that your people will end up in our hands. Blood will flow to compensate. Necks will be cut.”

El Marchohi was one of the Belgians for whom the Paris ‘Gare du Nord’ was completely cleared in May 2017. His picture had been circulating jointly with that of Belgian IS operative Tarik Jadaoun and an Afghan IS suspect, after which a counter clerck thought having recognized them on a Paris bound train.[5] After Jadaoun was caught in Mosul (Iraq) in July 2017, he stated that he doesn’t know El Marchohi, according to US interrogation reports we earlier obtained.[6]


Kaoutar Bioui, one of three European women trained to return for an attack

European women trained for an attack in the West

El Marchohi told his interrogators that IS intended to deploy three European women for terrorist attacks in the West. They received a training in the handling of explosives, and were prepared for a journey back to Europe over Turkish soil. Without indicating when exactly all of this happened, he identified the women as Umm Hanifa al-Belgiki, Umm Ibrahim al-Hollandi (aka Hafida) and Umm Nusaybah al-Belgiki (aka Rahmah). To his latest knowledge, the first two resided in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, while the latter lived in ar-Raqqah — the Syrian capital of IS.

Umm Hanifa al-Belgiki almost certainly is Kaoutar Bioui (30), the spouse of Belgian IS operative Hicham Chaïb. Bioui uses that same kunya and she perfectly fits the description in which El Marchohi told that the three women “are not popular because they openly carry weapons and speak of Jihad”. After she had left for Syria in April 2013, Bioui was highly active at Facebook and in June 2014 she posted a picture of a disassembled assault rifle, stating in a mix of French and Dutch: “My baby has had a good cleaning.”

Umm Nusaybah al-Belgiki may be the widow of Abdelmalek Boutalliss, a Belgian foreign terrorist fighter killed in November 2015 committing a suicide attack in Iraq. He was known as Abu Nusaybah, but wasn’t married when he left in June 2014. At the time of Umm Nusaybah’s terrorist training, she was married with a certain Abu Harun, according to El Marchohi, while he later also named the Belgian IS operative Moustafa Ahjit (aka Abu Younes al-Belgiki) as husband of the same Umm Nusaybah.


Hicham Chaïb, the Hisbah officer from Antwerp who was too cruel for IS

A Belgian Hisbah officer too cruel for IS

El Marchohi did confirm a long-heard rumor about Hicham Chaïb: that he was a Hisbah officer in ar-Raqqah — although not the highest one. “But he was fired because he was too extreme and abusive”, the interrogation states — after which Chaïb started working as a logistician for the Purchasing Department. Al Marchohi admitted that he himself has also worked for the Islamic police. He served as the Hisbah emir for Mansurah, a town between ar-Raqqah and at-Tabqah, and he was subordinated to Abu Jafar al-Jazrawi, the Hisbah emir for at-Tabqah.


A Chechen IS emir sold weapons in Belgium

Highly interesting are El Marchohi’s revelations about a certain Abu Khalid as-Shishani. “He smuggled weapons into Belgium from Chechnya in order to sell them and send the money to extremists located in Eastern Europe”, he stated during the interrogations. He also mentioned that this Abu Khalid, who apparently was missing his right leg when El Marchohi knew him, later became the ‘Emir of Borders’ within IS.

Although not sure, Abu Khalid may be Aslan Sigauri, an ethnic Chechen from the Pankisi region in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, who is also known as Salman Variev. He was designated as one of the 54 most dangerous Caucasian terrorists by Russia in 2011 already, but still managed to settle in France the following year.[7] Belgian authorities, who refer to him as Aslan Sigaouri, have indications that he operated in their country indeed — while the judgment of a trial against Chechen jihadist recruiters in Belgium mentions that Sigauri used the safehouse that the Ostend based ringleader Chalil Man had established in Turkey.[8] Pleading against this identification is Al Marchohi’s statement that Abu Khalid was still alive last year, while Russian authorities declared Sigauri dead in May 2016.[9] But that was the second time he was said to be killed — leaving room for reasonable doubt.


A Belgian bought weapons for IS from the Free Syrian Army

Regarding the purchase of arms, El Marchohi also told about a fellow Belgian who “bought weapons with personal money from the FSA and sold those weapons to IS”. It isn’t clear however which faction within the Free Syrian Army was involved, nor whether they knew the destination of what they sold. But while it looks like Abu Hafs — the Belgian subsequently identifed by El Marchohi as Mohamed Mezroui from Antwerp — started dealing weapons on his own initiative, he later did it on demand. “IS gave him money in order to continue buying weapons”, the interrogations state. And while no further information is given about the suppliers, it is mentioned that Abu Hafs started to focus on “large weapons, to include tanks”.


A Dutchman trying to develop a heat-seeking missile

“IS has been attempting to build rockets that are capable of shooting down aircraft”, Al Marchohi revealed. Those rockets had to use “a heat sensor mechanism” and members of the project claimed a certain point that they were close to accomplishing their task. Al Marchohi knew two people in the team who have worked on it for approximately one year: a certain Abu Layth al-Jazrawi and a man that he alternatively named as Abu Bashir al-Belgiki and Muhammad Talby. The latter doesn’t match any of the Belgian fighters however, and it is more than likely that he meant the Dutchman Mohamed Talbi, who left for Syria in 2013 from Zoetermeer — a location from where other Dutch foreign fighters have landed in the very same Islamic State circles as El Marchohi. The detainee did not provide any detail about the location where the rocket research was done, but in another context he mentioned “the Research and Development Department in Mayadin” (Syria) as the place where rockets and mortars were made.


Ali El Morabit from Antwerp, emir of the drone department in Deir ez-Zor

Profound paranoia within the drone squad of IS

El Marchohi seems to have a fairly detailed knowledge of the drone activity by IS, thanks to at least four fellow Belgians involved in that. They all were part of the ar-Raqqah based ‘Observation Unit’, an entity that counted around fifteen members and was led by Abu Ramadan ad-Dagestani. “Most members of the Observation Unit are foreign fighters from Europe”, Al Marchohi told. “The unit has approximately thirty drones that are currently in operation. In addition to the quad-copters used for reconnaissance and attacks, IS has at least one large fixed-wing drone used to parachute supplies into ar-Raqqah from Mayadin.”

That this information must be fairly up to date, can be deduced from the trajectories of Observation Unit members El Marchohi knows. One of them is Azeddine Kbir Bounekoub, a Shariah4Belgium recruit who was best friends with the well-known Jejoen Bontinck before both left for Syria. Bounekoub was stationed as a fighter in Mosul (Iraq), but sent back to Deir ez-Zor (Syria) shortly before the siege of Mosul began. He went on to ar-Raqqah and became “the leader of a small UAS unit approximately three and a half months prior to detainee’s date of capture”, it is stated in one of the interrogation reports.

Another Belgian who made it into a leading position in the IS drone department is Ali El Morabit. Also a Shariah4Belgium recruit from the city of Antwerp, El Marchohi named him as the “emir of the drone department in Deir ez-Zor”. Lower level drone operators he knew, are Taieb Oubahid and Ismaïl Iddoub, both from the Belgian town of Vilvoorde. El Marchohi also described the security measures drone operators had to observe. “They will launch a drone and then walk to another location before performing operations”, he told. “And they will land the drone and wait for some time before going to retrieve it. They are paranoid about airstrikes while doing their job.”


A French draft dodger in the ‘Second Chance Battalion’

Asked about other very specific entities within IS, El Marchohi explained that the ‘Saad Ibn Abi Waqqas’ unit consisted of highly skilled snipers. “The training is approximately six months long and very difficult”. Entering is far from easy and he doesn’t know a lot of members. “Abu Yahya al-Hollandi is one, while Abu Ibrahim al-Hollandi attempted to become a member, but failed the training course.” He has heard, but isn’t sure, that the commander is an Australian. Originally, it was located in at-Tabqah. “But in January 2017 approximately it was moved to ar-Raqqah, and two months later it was broken up to divide the members between the various fighting units there.”

El Marchohi also told about the ‘Second Chance Battalion’. Officially, it is called the ‘Khaybar Battalion’, and it is meant for IS members who have run away from the front. “Abu Muhammad al-Adnani created it in order to maintain retention among IS members in prison. Many times, they will be given the option to join the ‘Khaybar Battalion’ to get out of prison early.” El Marchohi said he knows only one former member: Abu Maryam al-Faransi — possibly meaning Kévin Chassin, a convert from Toulouse who has died in May 2015 committing a suicide attack in Iraq. “Abu Maryam became a member after being discovered sitting at home and collecting a paycheck without belonging to any unit.”


Nabil Kasmi from Antwerp, supposed member of external operations unit ‘Amin al-Askari’

New names involved in plotting terrorism abroad

Last but not least, two Islamic State entities supposedly involved in terrorist operations abroad were mentioned during the interrogations — with names not previously disclosed, as far as we know. The first one is identified as ‘Fawj al-Qaqa’, of which El Marchohi knew two members. The first of them was a Belgian foreign fighter called Abu Musab. That matches the kunya of Sammy Djedou, a guy from Brussels of partly Ivorian descent who was killed by an American drone in December 2016. At that time, the Pentagon stated that he had been involved in plotting the November 2015 Paris attacks.[10]

The second ‘Fawj al-Qaqa’ member El Marchohi named — and supposed to be still alive — is a certain Abu Mahmud al-Kurdi. According to his knowledge, ‘Fawj al-Qaqa’ is “a completely independent unit, which has no ties to other elements of IS”. He stressed that its sole mission is “to conduct attacks outside Iraq and Syria”, and mentioned that each “front and major city” has a ‘Fawj al-Qaqa’ representative, who acts as a recruiter.

A second entity possibly involved in terrorism abroad, is the ‘Amin al-Askari’ unit. El Marchohi indicated that he knew one member, a certain Abu Basir al-Gazawi, but could not say for sure whether the unit indeed was responsible for “external operations”. He did elaborate that this Abu Basir al-Gazawi had been the leader of his own acquaintance Nabil Kasmi — mentioned above — while they were based in Aleppo in 2014. But when asked explicitly whether Kasmi also belongs to the ‘Amin al-Askari’ unit, El Marchohi answered that he doesn’t know.

The suspicion that Belgium’s very first terrorist fighter in the current Syrian-Iraqi conflict may have entered the IS external operations department, is likely reinforced by El Marchohi’s knowledge about Kasmi’s latest job. He started making bombs for IS after he had joined the terrorist group in early 2013, but asked for something else “because Nabil thought the chemicals were keeping him from impregnating his wife”. So Kasmi became an intelligence officer in ar-Raqqah in 2015 already, a position fairly close to the plotters of foreign attacks in the Islamic State organigram.


[1] See https://www.hln.be/de-krant/-is-stuurt-belgische-vrouwen-terug-voor-terreur~acd282ce and https://www.hln.be/de-krant/belgen-hielden-drones-van-is-in-de-lucht~a6ff27a6

[2] El Marchohi can be recognized on the left at this picture: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nieuwsblad/8196721451/

[3] https://www.instagram.com/p/BFUgJUYvG_9/

[4] http://europeandemocracy.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Belgian_fighters-DRAFT8-webversion.pdf

[5] https://news.sky.com/story/manhunt-in-paris-following-gare-du-nord-evacuation-10870288

[6] https://emmejihad.wordpress.com/2018/01/05/confessions-of-belgian-is-terrorist-tarik-jadaoun-in-iraq/

[7] https://jamestown.org/program/hundreds-of-north-caucasians-have-joined-the-ranks-of-syrias-rebels/

[8] https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2017/08/29/grozny-raqqah-stopover-brussels-eastern-contingent-belgian-foreign-terrorist-fighters/

[9] https://tr.sputniknews.com/ortadogu/201505221015608920/

[10] http://edition.cnn.com/2016/12/13/politics/isis-leaders-killed-airstrikes/index.html

For Belgian fighters, rivalry between Nusra and IS even revolves around women

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.

Belgian fighter admits that Islamic State is lacking manpower

The Islamic State is in dire need of fighters, a prominent Belgian member admits. Listing the sixteen best reasons to join the jihad, he puts the lack of manpower at the second place.


Belgian IS fighter Hicham Chaïb in a picture from Syria published in October

Belgian IS fighter Hicham Chaïb in a picture from Syria published in October

According to recent reports in western media, the Islamic State (IS) is so in need of additional manpower after weeks of hammering airstrikes, that it dropped most of its vetting of foreign recruits. In the past, new volunteers had to present recommendations of three established fighters before they were allowed to cross the Turkish border and enter Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate. “Almost any muslim who wants to travel now can”, a man responsible for a safehouse of IS in the Turkish town of Urfa told ‘The Daily Telegraph‘ last week.

Writing on his Facebook page, a prominent Belgian fighter within IS now explicitly confirms that the group is in shortage of fighters. Hicham Chaïb, a former leader of the extremist organization Shariah4Belgium, listed sixteen arguments to join the army of IS. “We call upon the muslims to fight for so much reasons”, he wrote, “with the following as the most obvious.” The first one he mentioned was “to prevent the infidels to dominate”, while the second already spoke about the “lack of manpower” his group is facing now.

The entire list reads as follows — as literally as possible translated out of Dutch:

1. To prevent the infidels to dominate

2. Because of the lack of manpower

3. Out of fear for the fire in hell

4. To fulfill the duty of Jihad and heed the call of the Lord

5. To follow the pious predecessors (the exemplary generations)

6. To build a solid base for Islam

7. To protect those who are suppressed in the countries

8. To hope for martyrdom and a high position in the Paradise

9. Because Jihad truly is a shield for the honor of the Ummah and a means to avoid humiliation

10. To protect the honor of the Ummah and to break the conspiracy of its enemies

11. To guarantee the earth and protect against depravity

12. To safeguard the islamic places of worship

13. To protect the Ummah against punishment, depravation and replacement

14. For the prosperity of the Ummah and the expansion of its means

15. Because Jihad is the culmination of Islam

16. Because Jihad is the most outstanding way of worship and the Muslim can obtain the highest degrees with it.

Before he went to Syria on the 19th of March 2013, Chaïb was known as bodyguard of Shariah4Belgium’s founder and leader Fouad Belkacem. But the role of ‘Abu Haniefa’ — as he was called in the organization — was much more important than flexing his muscles. That became clear when he took over the organization after Belkacem’s imprisonment in June 2012 together with two other core members, Feisal Yamoun and Noureddine Abouallal. They are both killed in Syria since. All four the mentioned men are currently on trial in Belgium for leadership of a terrorist organization — in absentia of course, apart from Belkacem.

In Syria, Chaïb apparently is trying to become the new public face of his group. He did appear already in several promotional videos describing the prosperous life in the caliphate, and frequently is launching new appeals to join IS in Facebook posts. His wife Kaoutar Bioui, also known as ‘Umm Haniefa Al Belgikiya’, has followed her husband to Syria and is as radical as he. In May of this year, she even called upon the muslims in Belgium to assassinate the far right politician Filip De Winter. “May Allah enlighten our eyes with the slaughter of this pig”, she wrote.

UPDATE: Chaïb’s list of arguments to join Islamic State comes literally from Al Qaida’s co-founder Abdullah Yusuf Azzam’s years old pamphlet ‘Join the Caravan‘, as Timothy Holman informed us today. So, it may be wrong to relate it to the current state of IS.