At last week’s terrorism trial in Brussels, a man who has admitted a beheading in Syria was sentenced to five years in jail. But the judge didn’t listen to the plea of the public prosecutor to arrest him on the spot. So the man could freely walk out.
Iliass Khayari is a 25 year old Muslim born in Brussels. In December 2012, he left for Syria, apparently sent by Jean-Louis Denis. Denis is a notorious recruiter initially siding with Shariah4Belgium, but later also active in the network of Khalid Zerkani, the man who has recruited three of the perpetrators of the Paris and Brussels attacks. Khayari stayed only half a year in Syria. He returned to Belgium in June 2013 after being hit by a bullet, causing him a pneumothorax and a fractured upper arm.
But his stay in Syria was long enough to commit a cruelty there. In a phone call to a friend at home, which was tapped by the police, he told on the 3rd of May 2013 how he had beheaded a man. “I swear I did”, he said, according to a transcript obtained by the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’. “We ripped his head off!” When asked which crime the victim had committed to deserve a treatment like that, Khayari responded: “He was a taghut, my friend. An enemy of Allah.”
That his confession was overheard by Belgian police, did not land him in jail for long time after he had returned. He was tried for membership of a terrorist organization, but when the verdict was read exactly three years after the call, he appeared in court as a conditionally free man. Khayari got five years in jail, but half of that sentence was suspended — with as one of the conditions that he cannot go to war anymore — and the judge did not honour the plea of the public prosecutor to arrest him on the spot.
So the self-declared beheader remains free until his conviction is definitive — meaning several months in case of appeal. A separate investigation was opened into the beheading, but it isn’t sure yet whether that will lead to further prosecution. In the meantime, Khayari insists that he was misinterpreted. Although he clearly stated in the phone call that he performed the beheading himself, now he says that he only witnessed it on some public place.
There is little reason to believe that he speaks the truth, however. Until now, he also insists that he never participated in any fight. But in another tapped call, he told in detail about such a battle, describing how his unit surrounded the enemy and how a comrade died. In his own version, he quickly left his fighting comrades to start working in a hospital himself. But his phone details reveal that he still was with his friends months after that.
He also says that he is not radicalized, while on his phone loads of extremist content was found. That, he says, must be saved by the Syrian man from whom he bought the device. “I’ve never noticed myself that those things were on my phone.” One of the documents however, is a text in French, titled “Why I support Fouad Belkacem” — a reference to the imprisoned Shariah4Belgium founder. Chances are slim that a Syrian man kept a document like that on his phone.
There are even tapped conversations in which Khayari makes clear how he prepared to delude the Belgian authorities after an eventual return. “I will not be sent to jail as long as everyone testifies that I only have joined the Free Syrian Army”, he once told a friend. Clinging to his lies until the end of the trial, Khayari did not show the slightest sense of guilt or remorse — which could have been an argument for the judge for being that mild.
The suspect of the Paris attacks identified on Monday as the mysterious ‘Soufiane Kayal’ is a Belgian citizen for whom an international arrest warrant was issued already in 2014. That did not prevent him to return from Syria and supposedly serve as bomb maker for the terrorist plot.
Najim Laachraoui, a Belgian citizen born on the 18th of May 1991 in the Moroccan town of Ajdir, but raised in the Brussels municipality of Schaerbeek. That’s the true identity of Paris suspect Soufiane Kayal, according to a public statement of the Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s Office.1
Early in December of last year, a wanted notice was distributed for Kayal and his companion Samir Bouzid2, stating that their names were false, but that both men were present in the car of Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam during a control at the Hungarian-Austrian border on September 9, 2015.
On the 5th of October, the passport of Kayal was used to rent a house in Auvelais, in the southern Belgian province of Namur. A house that was subsequently used by several of the Paris suspects. Apparently it was meant to store explosives, since a perfectly dry basement was asked.
It was thought for quite some time that Kayal and Bouzid only have had a limited role in the logistics of the attacks. But a reconstruction of the telecommunication between all different actors learned that they coordinated the attacks in real time from somewhere in Brussels.
According to a detailed account that CNN has compiled, Kayal and Bouzid were even the ones who directed Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s niece to his initial hiding place. Compared with the man who long was named as mastermind of the Paris attacks, investigators stated about Kayal and Bouzid: “They outranked Abaaoud”.3
In hindsight it seems odd that it took so long to identify Kayal, since Laachraoui is one of 30 defendants at a terrorist trial that started in Brussels a month ago. All the accused belong to the network of Khalid Zerkani, the very same jihad recruiter who has sent Abaaoud to Syria.
Laachraoui left for Syria himself in February, 2013. Investigators say that he became responsible for the reception of new recruits, and for that significant role within the terrorist group Islamic State, the maximum of 15 years in jail was asked against him. The verdict is expected in May.
It is in the official complaint for the so-called case ‘Zerkani-bis’ (the first trial concluded last summer and convicted Abaaoud to 20 years in jail) that the two year old international arrest warrant against Laachraoui was revealed. More precisely, it was issued on March 18, 2014.
For Laachraoui — who is also known as ‘Abou Idriss’ — that wasn’t an obstacle for his return. Chances are high that he has served as the bomb maker for the terrorist plot. Apart from the house in Auvelais, his DNA was also found on two of the explosives belts that were used in the Paris attacks.4
His DNA was also found in the Schaerbeek apartment where the bombs reportedly were made, and Laachraoui was skilled for the job. When he finished secondary education at the ‘Institut de le Sainte Famille d’Helmet’ in Schaerbeek, he went on to study electromechanics.5
1An updated wanted notice was published here: http://www.police.be/fed/fr/avis-de-recherche/recherches/suspects-connus/1203497-najim-laachraoui
2Samir Bouzid was recently identified as Mohamed Aziz Belkaid, an Algerian with residence in Sweden. He was killed during a counter-terrorist operation in the Brussels municipality of Vorst on March 15, 2016
5See on page 12 of this school magazine: http://www.sainte-famille.be/telechargements/maillon116.pdf
Belgian authorities knew as early as 2012 that terrorists linked to the bloodshed in Paris were plotting attacks in the West. But little was done to disrupt the build-up of a network that subsequently became a cornerstone of the worst violence since decades in France.
The revelation, published by the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’, is based on court documents mentioning a secret memo that the State Security addressed to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office on April 11, 2012. It contained a warning about suspicious meetings in an apartment in the now notorious Brussels municipality of Molenbeek. Conversations overheard there were about the need for armed attacks against the “principal adversary of Islam”: Western democracy. Apparently, plans were made already to obtain heavy weapons and explosives to carry them out.
The apartment in the rue de Ribaucourt belonged to Gelel Attar, the 26 year old Belgian of Moroccan descent who was arrested near Casablanca on January 15 in connection with the November Paris attacks. It isn’t clear yet whether he has played a direct role in that plot. But in January 2013, he traveled to Syria together with Chakib Akrouh (25), recently identified as one of the Paris attackers. Akrouh is the one who blew himself up in an apartment in Saint-Denis five days later, also causing the death of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, long considered to be the mastermind behind the Paris attacks.
While Attar was hosting those early terrorist meetings, Abaaoud still had to radicalize. According to his own father, that happened in the second half of 2012, when he was in jail for an attempted burglary. Soon after he was liberated in September of that year, Abaaoud became a member of Khalid Zerkani’s entourage. Zerkani (42) was convicted in summer last year as the head of a recruitment cell for the Syrian jihad. He was also present at the meetings in Attar’s apartment, and the fact that Attar was known to be his lieutenant, underlined back then already that Zerkani had much more in mind than recruiting fighters for a struggle far from home.
However they knew that, Belgian security services did little to disrupt the build-up of Zerkani’s network. His recruits not only traveled freely to Syria, they also came back as they liked. One of them, Soufiane Alilou (22), even managed to do so five times before he was caught. Traveling back and forth often seemed to serve the transfer of new recruits, the transport of cash and all of kind of materials, such as computer equipment. In 2014 however, one of Zerkani’s fighters returned with far more dangerous plans.
Ilias Mohammadi (24) — in official documents said to be close both to Attar and Akrouh — re-entered in Belgium using false identity papers on the 25th of May, one day after the Jewish Museum in Brussels had been hit by a terrorist attack. State Security distributed a warning only two weeks later, stating that Mohammadi was “armed and nervous”, and it took another two weeks before he was apprehended. At that time, weapons weren’t found anymore. But a significant amount of ammunition was uncovered, so chances are high that Belgium — or one of its neighboring countries — closely escaped another attack.
It is highly improbable that ringleader Zerkani has played a role in the practical organization of the Paris attacks, since he was imprisoned in February, 2014. It also has to be stressed that not all of the Paris attackers were recruited within his network, and that the true plotting likely has happened at a much higher level in Syria, not in Molenbeek. But with three of his recruits figuring already on the list of Paris suspects, Zerkani’s contribution clearly is significant. Which also means that the Belgian security services could have done much more against the plot.
That the fate of the Syrian people and their oppression by a dictator never has been the biggest concern of Zerkani, is also echoed by the trajectory of his recruit Youssef Bouyabarem. He also was present at the 2012 Molenbeek meetings, but left shortly afterwards trying to reach al-Shabaab in Somalia. His brother Moustapha was fighting already in the ranks of that Al Qaeda orientated terrorist group. It was only after he failed in his attempt to get into Africa, that Youssef Bouyabarem set his sights on Syria — another arena of the jihadist movement that he never did reach, by the way.
The identification of Chakib Akrouh as one of the Paris attackers makes clear that the very same Islamic State cell was actively plotting terror in Europe as early as May, 2014.
A close friend of Chakib Akrouh, who was sent to the Syrian jihad by the same recruiter as Akrouh and the well known Paris attacker Abdelhamid Abaaoud, arrived back in Belgium on the 25th of May, 2014. According to an alert that the Belgian State Security sent out two weeks later, Ilias Mohammadi was “armed and nervous” at the time.
It took the Belgian police another two weeks to locate Mohammadi. He was arrested in Brussels on June 25, 2014. In the house where he had stayed, no weapons were found. But a significant amount of ammunition was discovered there. This was first reported by the Belgian newspaper ‘De Morgen’ and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s ‘CTC Sentinel‘.
All the information comes from Belgian court documents — more precisely from the trial that was held last summer in Brussels against jihad recruiter Khalid Zerkani and members of his cell. Abdelhamid Abaaoud was convicted there to 20 years, and Akrouh to 5 years in jail — both in absentia. Mohammadi was present and sentenced to 7 years in jail.
In the judgment of the trial, it is stated that Mohammadi left for Syria on the 7th of January, 2014. He had booked a flight to Turkey together with Souleymane Abrini, whose brother Mohammed is sought now as a suspected accomplice of the Paris attackers.