A car theft in the Netherlands, a seemingly insignificant note that was found in Molenbeek, and a shop for swimming pool equipment in the North of France. These are the three ingredients of the best clue there ever has been to thwart the Paris and Brussels attacks — a new investigation by the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws reveals.
A lot has been written already about the clues that security services missed in the run-up to the Paris and Brussels attacks — clues that could have prevented the bloodshed by Islamic State. Could have. In hindsight, it is easy to list the mistakes. Yes, it was known to the police that Salah Abdeslam had started to radicalize. But at that time, it was the case with tens, if not hundreds of Belgian Muslims like him. And yes, only 22 days before the Paris attacks, a search took place in the house of Khalid El Bakraoui because he tried to obtain kalashnikov chargers. But he was known as a gangster and in the end no weapons were found.
Bayroshock without chlorine
About one clue, however, nothing has been published yet — and that clue is likely the very best chance authorities missed to detect the terrorist cell. It started with the theft of a car in a small village between the Dutch rivers Maas and Waal. It was a silver colored Audi S4 built in 2003 that disappeared in the night from August 10 to 11, 2015 at a parking lot in Rijswijk — part of the municipality of Woudrichem and not to be confused with the much bigger town of Rijswijk near The Hague. “Klerelijers”, a friend of the owner reacted at a notice on Facebook, using an equivalent for “assholes” that is endemic for the Netherlands — while another one hurled: “Your country will be proud of you”, easily assuming that the thief was of foreign origin.
The rightful owner got his car back after it was found in the Brussels municipality of Molenbeek, and during a subsequent house search a handwritten note was found. It seemed of little importance: “Bayroshock without chlorine”, it mentioned, followed by the addresses of two shops for swimming pool equipment in the North of France. Bayroshock is a product against algae that consists of hydrogen peroxide at a concentration of 34%. Apart from being recommended for the treatment of pools, that same substance is also a main ingredient of TATP. Triacetone triperoxide is the explosive often called ‘the Mother of Satan’ and known as a terrorist’s favorite since the failed attempt by ‘shoe bomber‘ Richard Reid to blow up a plane between Paris and Miami in December 2001.
The man in whose house the note was found, is Ahmed Dahmani — a naturalized Belgian citizen of Moroccan descent. He was born in 1989 in Al Hoceima, a town between the Rif mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. In 2015, he was living in a fourteen-storied building in the Molenbeek ‘Zone du Canal’ — not the kind of address where a swimming pool owner can be expected. He was mainly known to the judiciary as a multi-recidivist criminal, who was caught for theft already at the age of twelve. The latest of the 51 cases in which his name appeared, was about a massive traffic in hard drugs between Belgium, France and Luxembourg. But there were signs of radicalization too, much stronger signs in fact than those present at that time with his childhood friend Salah Abdeslam.
Blessing the expansion of Shariah4Belgium
With Abdeslam, he underwent an identity check on board of a ferry between Patras in Greece and Bari in Italy only a week before the car theft in the Netherlands. Now, we know that they conducted one of many travels along the refugee route that was used by the Islamic State to smuggle terrorists to the West, but then it understandingly did not raise a particular suspicion yet. Ten days after the search that uncovered the note, however, Dahmani was named in a report about radicalism. Written by a motorized patrol of the Brussels police that had apprehended a suspected candidate for the Syrian jihad. Friends of the suspect had tried rather brutally to prevent that arrest, and Dahmani was one of them.
At Facebook, Dahmani did not hide his beliefs. There, he complained in 2014 already that the word extremism was “invented by enemies of the Islam”, while posting a quote that the Islamic State often uses to recruit criminals like him for the jihad — the one in which the second caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab declared: “Sometimes the people with the worst past create the best future”. Dahmani also posted Islamic State videos, and three days before a terrorist attack was foiled in Verviers — in January 2015 — he threatened: “One day everything will be paid.” He did all of that under the cover of a pseudonym, but his contacts with a suspect in the Verviers case could have lead to his identification back then already.
In Dahmani’s family tree, radicalism became obvious almost a decade ago. His older brother Mohamed — who basically raised him instead of their always absent father and their chronically ill mother — was named in a terrorist case as early as 2009. He was investigated for his contacts with the suspects of a bomb attack in Cairo that killed a French teenager — the same suspects behind the earliest plot against the Bataclan in Paris. Mohamed Dahmani was never charged, but by the time his brother Ahmed entered the scene, at least three of Mohamed’s friends had left for Syria. One of them departed from Brussels in the company of the later terrorist commander Abdelhamid Abaaoud. And in 2012 already, Mohamed himself was known as a patron of Shariah4Belgium, asked explicitly for his blessings when leader Fouad Belkacem wanted to expand his recruitment from Antwerp to Brussels.
“Talking like youngsters, but not impolite”
Altogether, there were plenty reasons to raise the alarm when Ahmed Dahmani showed his interest in an ingredient for bombs. But that did not happen, and at the 8th of October 2015 — a month after the note of Dahmani was found — a BMW left Molenbeek towards the North of France. At 4h04 that afternoon, the car was caught by a speed camera at the A2 highway in Neuville-sur-Escaut. The license plate would later learn that the vehice was rented by Salah Abdeslam, and the GPS revealed two stops: at 5h02 in the rue Maurice Thorez in Saint-Sauveur, and at 5h44 in the rue Ferdinand de Lesseps in Beauvais — the two shops mentioned on Dahmani’s note.
Both are branches of Irri Jardin, a chain “for your swimming pool, irrigation and spa”. The shop in Saint-Sauveur had ran out of Bayroshock, it seems. But the Beauvais manager recounted to the police how he sold his entire stock that day. “I had three jerrycans of five liters each, and they asked for more. When I told that half a jerrycan is sufficient for one pool, they claimed that they did the maintenance of several pools in the Paris area. Then they asked for a similar product, which I couldn’t offer. ‘Let’s buy these three then, we have to leave’, one of them said. They paid with cash and didn’t look tense, only a bit in a hurry.”
The manager described the two men as North-Africans between 25 and 30 years old. Both were of average build, had short hair and a short shaved beard. One of them was wearing a jacket over his sweater, the other one a bodywarmer. They spoke French — also when they talked to each other — without a particular accent. “They expressed themselves like youngsters do, but they weren’t impolite”, the manager said. Confronted with the pictures of known suspects, he thought to recognize Salah Abdeslam. But he wasn’t sure. Altogether, the two men spent no more than seven minutes in his shop, after which they made a fuel stop at the Total station of Hardivillers and returned to Molenbeek.
Forbidden in Belgium now, but not in France
French investigators are fairly confident that their purchase has served to fabricate the bombs that were used for the attacks in Paris on the night of 13 November 2015. There were eight explosive belts, of which two have failed to detonate. Each of them contained between one and two kilograms of TATP, and according to explosives experts of the French police, the terrorists could make ten kilograms with fifteen liters Bayroshock. In Belgium, the EU directive banning the sale of hydrogen peroxide in concentrations above 12% to private customers was passed into law in July 2016. But in France, a softened version entered into force last year, just requiring registration for private purchases.
Ahmed Dahmani is in Turkish custody now. He took a flight in Amsterdam on the morning after the Paris attacks, with a ticket that was bought a few hours prior to the bloodbath — indicating that he knew what was going to happen. When he was arrested near Antalya on the 16th of November 2015, he was still in the possession of his Belgian documents, including membership cards of the Christian trade union CSC and the Grand Casino in Brussels. In the meantime, however, he had also bought a false Syrian passport with the name Mazen Mohamad Ali, and the WhatsApp conversations on his phone revealed that he had planned to reach the territory of Islamic State. In December 2016, a Turkish court convicted him to ten years and nine months in jail for membership of a terrorist organization. After he has served that sentence, Belgian and French extradition requests are awaiting him.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
A confidant of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the Paris terrorists killed by French police, has made a new threat. He posted a picture of Abaaoud’s brother Younes, insinuating that the 15 year old boy is on his way to Europe for revenge.
The author of the Facebook message that was posted on Tuesday and reported by the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’, presents the younger Abaaoud as “my dear Abu Mansour”. That is an alias already used by Younes himself, after his brother took him to Syria in January of last year.
“Abu Omar al-Soussi may have been martyred”, the message continues, refering to the police operation in Saint-Denis on the 18th of November in which Abdelhamid died. “But his brother is alive. And we are coming to the worshippers of the cross.”
The picture showing Younes as a soldier isn’t new. It was posted in December of last year already by another IS fighter linked to the Molenbeek brothers. So it isn’t clear whether the author is really in touch with the teenager, and can speak about his plans. From Younes himself nothing was heard on social media recently, although his latest Facebook account still exists.
Other pictures on the author’s Facebook account suggest that he also is in Syria, however. And late last year, the same ‘Abou Soufiane Belgikimohajir’ was connected to Abaaoud’s sister Yasmina, not an extremist herself. A clear sign of his close relationship to Abaaoud.
Nowadays, he is connected both to members of Katibat al-Battar — the elite militia within IS to which Abaaoud belonged — and extremists all over Europe. An example of the latter is Michael ‘Younnes’ Delefortrie, a former Shariah4Belgium member who came back from Syria, was convicted but is free again.