For months already, Oussama Atar (33) is named as mastermind behind the Brussels and Paris attacks. The Belgian jihadist of Moroccan descent is said to be identified as the mysterious ‘Abu Ahmad’, who organized the bloodshed from Syria. But in today’s edition of Het Laatste Nieuws, Belgium’s largest daily newspaper, we reveal how questionable that identification is. Documents that we’ve obtained, clearly show that the investigators desperately want to frame Atar as Abu Ahmad, but lack any evidence.
The Abu Ahmad alias entered the investigation in two different ways. One of them was the laptop found shortly after the Brussels attacks on the 22nd of March 2016 in a trash can near the terrorist’s safe house at rue Max Roos in Schaerbeek. That computer contained some audio messages of the perpetrators to their chief in Syria. A man they called Abu Ahmad — as we could verify in transcripts — and to whom they explicitly told: “ You’re the one who decides. You’re the amir.”
The second mention of Abu Ahmad came up during the interrogations of Adel Haddadi and Muhammad Usman. They are two Islamic State terrorists who were caught in Austria after being sent from Syria to commit attacks in the West. They both have stated that it was Abu Ahmad who gave them the orders. That has happened in person, so Haddadi and Usman are the only ones in custody certainly able to tell more about him.
It is the interrogation of Adel Haddadi that has supplied the most important evidence against Oussama Atar. Haddadi is said to have recognized him as Abu Ahmad. The transcript of that interrogation however, which we could read, tells a somewhat different story. On the 20th of October 2016, a French judge investigating the Paris attacks confronted Haddadi with pictures of ten different men, asking explicitly whether one of them was Abu Ahmad.
Haddadi pointed to the picture of Atar indeed — but he was not sure and also raised a second possibility. “Number one resembles Abu Ahmad”, he said. “But there are some differences. Abu Ahmad has a leaner face, he is older, his head seems smaller and his beard is not that thick. But the picture looks like him. There is also similarity between picture number ten and Abu Ahmad, but it is the man in picture number one that most closely resembles him.”
The differences that he raised, may be explained by the picture being somewhat outdated. Similarly, that he described Abu Ahmad as a man who has surpassed the age of forthy already and speaking Arabic with a Syrian or Iraqi accent, may be a consequence of Oussama Atar’s past. He spent seven years in an Iraqi jail, which may have had an impact on his accent, while the harsh imprisonment can have made him looking older than he really is.
That said, it would be rather biased to declare that Haddadi offered a solid identification — but it was exactly that what investigators did. The next day already, when the same French judge showed the same ten pictures to Muhammad Usman. He declared that he did not recognize any of them. “I am sure”, he said. The French judge insisted, saying that Haddadi had been “almost sure” of picture number one. “That’s not Abu Ahmad”, Usman replied. “I am sure of myself.”
Normally, the sum of a doubtful “yes” and a “no” is not considered as a confirmation. But when a international arrest warrant for Atar was issued on the 17th of November 2016 by a Belgian judge, it stated explicitly that Haddadi had recognized him “with near certainty” as Abu Ahmad. Usman’s contradicting view wasn’t mentioned at all.
It is very well possible that Oussama Atar indeed is Abu Ahmad. He has lots of indications pleading against him. It seems rather sure by now that his brother Yassine Atar had a role in the terrorist plot, and according to the documents that we could see, at least one witness says that it has been under the influence of Oussama Atar that Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui were radicalized.
The Bakraoui brothers were protagonists of the Paris and Brussels attacks. First they arranged at lot of the logistics, and ultimately they blew up themselves. They are nephews of Atar, and it must have sounded like music to the investigator’s ears when Osama Krayem — the terrorist who had refrained from an attack at Maelbeek metro station in Brussels — declared that Abu Ahmed must have been related to them. “Otherwise, he never would have trusted them that much.”
Krayem didn’t say so because he knew, it can be learned from interrogation transcripts that we have seen. “I don’t know Abu Ahmad”, he assured. “But police has showed me a picture already recognized by others as Abu Ahmad. And I learned from media reports that it was Oussama Atar.” While Krayem thus explicitly stated that he had only second hand information about Abu Ahmad — and also that he knew perfectly well what the interrogators liked to hear — a great deal of weight was given to his assumption.
At least three times he was pushed again to confirm that Abu Ahmad was a relative of the Bakraoui brothers. And the more he was asked, the more affirmative he became. So at the end, his assumption about Abu Ahmed being a family member of the Bakraoui brothers appeared as a fact in the arrest warrant for Atar.
Many myths are told already about Oussama Atar. That he has been imprisoned with Islamic State’s caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for instance — while the latter was already free again when Atar was arrested near Ramadi on the 24th of February 2005. Recently, it was reported that Atar has visited his family in Brussels last summer, at a time he was sought world wide already. But that rumour was never confirmed.
On the other hand, we are able to refute that the young Atar went to Iraq for humanitarian reasons, as often is told. In an e-mail we received from the press desk of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq when inquiring about Atar in 2007 already, sergeant Matthew Roe wrote: “The defendant admitted that he had entered Iraq illegally to wage war against Americans and had attended anti-Multi-National Forces sermons. The defendant repeated these statements to Multi-National Forces while in MNF custody.”
The terrorist cell behind the Paris and Brussels attacks apparently has kept its weapons and explosives for a while in a Belgian school. That can be concluded from a map on a laptop used by Salah Abdeslam — as we reported today in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’.
It was after the shooting during which Salah Abdeslam was able to escape on the 15th of March 2016, that a laptop was found in his safe house at rue Dries in the Brussels municipality of Forest. That HP EliteBook 8440p contained videos of extremist preachers, pictures of possible targets, information about weapons and military gear, but also a map that was titled ‘Salah’ — indicating that it was used by Abdeslam. Many files were erased, but computer specialists of the Belgian federal police were able to retrieve them, and by doing so they also discovered a rather remarkable map.
The hand-drawn map mentioned two street names: Saviostraat en Elzenstraat. A combination that only exists in Meulenberg, a neighborhood of Houthalen-Helchteren in the east of Flanders, infamous for its security issues and cases of radicalism. The buildings on the map turned out to be the local kindergarten and elementary school. Curious about what Islamic State terrorists were looking for at such a location, about twenty police officers went to Meulenberg on Saturday the 11th of June 2016.
They were armed with search warrants and in the company of Gorro, an explosives dog. The instructions written in French on the map led them along a first building, the regional center for student coaching, to the kindergarten’s playground. There, they found a hole cut in the fence, exactly at the place where was mentioned at the map: “Here you have to jump over”. The hole provided access to an overgrown piece of garden in which they found a ramshackle shed and a garage.
One of the doors in the garage showed traces of a burglary. But besides old school furniture, there was nothing found inside. The investigators left without any answers, but they did inform the State Security — Belgium’s intelligence service. That resulted in a confidential note on the 28th of July 2016 — a document that we have obtained. State Security found out that a former concierge of the sports hall next to the school was killed in Syria fighting for Islamic State. Younes Laabadi, 43 years old at that time, was linked by marriage to the family of Mohamed Abrini — the ‘man with the hat’ who had escaped alive during the Brussels attacks on the 22nd of March 2016.
Putting all the pieces together, the investigators concluded that the school domain has likely served as a weapon storage place. It is known that the terrorist cell possessed an arsenal of which at least four kalashnikov-type rifles, a riot gun, two pistols, two hand grenades and an amount of explosives were left after the massacre in Paris on the 13th of November 2015. Those weapons weren’t used for the Brussels attacks, and a intercepted conversation made clear that they had planned to hide the stash for later attacks.
That was reason enough for the investigators to conduct a second search on Wednesday the 10th of July 2016. Done by ten officers, with the explosives dog Jessy, and also in the sports hall this time. But again it was in vain. The assumption that the weapons have been hidden at the school remains however. “Considering the burglary traces, the possibilit exists that the weapons were retrieved and stored elsewhere just before the Brussels attacks”, the State Security document reads.
In the meantime, there are even strong suspicions of who has carried the weapons away to hide at another place — a location, by the way, that still isn’t found. According to the intercepted conversation, that assignment was given to a certain ‘Abu Imran’, described as “a brother who has been in Syria already”. That fits perfectly well with the profile of Bilal El Makhoukhi (28), a terrorist from Brussels already known as Abu Imran, who lost a leg while fighting for Islamic State. He already admitted having been in touch with the Brussels terrorist cell in the week before the attacks, while arrested terrorist Osama Krayem declared during one of his interrogations that he met El Makhoukhi in a safe house in Laeken.
It isn’t known how long the weapons possibly were hidden at the school domain. But it is a certainty that they posed a terrible risk. The suspicious garage is situated only twenty meters from the kindergarten, and even closer to the student coaching center. It is thought that the stash contained explosives of the types C4 and TATP. The first is both extremely powerful and hard to detonate, but the latter so unstable that it can explode by heat, friction or shock. That could easily have led to a devastating chain reaction causing lots of casualties.
The two men who are in a Belgian jail because they brought Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam back to Brussels, made suspicious journeys before. Hamza Attou went to the UK with a man of Iraqi descent only three days before the attacks, while Mohamed Amri visited Turkey at least seven times during the past two years.
Mohamed Amri (26) and Hamza Attou (21) belonged to the very first suspects who were caught after the Paris attacks. They quickly confessed that they had brought the only surviving perpetrator back to Brussels that night. On the phone, Salah Abdeslam reportedly said that he had suffered a car accident. It was only when they met him in Paris, that he told them about his role in the bloodbath. According to their declarations, he threatened to blow up Amri’s Volkswagen Golf if they refused to give him a lift.
Amri and Attou are still behind bars, but no details have surfaced yet about a further implication in the terrorist plot. When Molenbeek mayor Françoise Schepmans named the Paris suspects who were on a list of radicalized inhabitants prior to the attacks, she did not mention these two. In the 55 pages long report that the Paris police has written about the attacks for the French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve however, it is stated that the Belgian authorities knew Amri already as “being close to the movement of the extremist Islam”.
That same report also reveals how both Amri and Attou undertook suspicious journeys in the days and years before the Paris attacks. Airline registers learned that Amri went to Istanbul at least seven times between May 2013 and May 2014. When returning, he often flew to other destinations than his home town Brussels — such as Paris, Marseille, and Copenhagen. The report contains no proof that his travel was related to terrorist activities, but they happened at a time when Turkey served as the main gate to Syria for tens of members of the network behind the Paris and Brussels attacks.
Hamza Attou left Belgium on the 10th of November 2015 for a journey to the UK. He did so in the company of a man from Brussels with roots in Iraq, and a Dutchman of Somali descent. It was the latter who drove the Ford Focus with Dutch license plate when they boarded the ferry from Dunkerque to Dover. Their tickets were booked by an autochtonous Dutchman we could reach and who provided some background about the trip.
He told us that the Dutchman of Somali descent is a youth friend who wanted to visit relatives in the UK. “On the internet, he searched for people who would join him in order to share some of the costs. That’s how he came into contact with the men from Brussels. He did not know them at all prior to that England trip.” Reportedly, the trio was stopped in the UK because something was wrong with the identity papers of one of the Brussels men. But what exactly was the problem, is not known — and neither is how long they were held.
The men from Brussels did not travel back together with the Dutchman, but if they did so with their initial reservation, they came back the very same day as the Paris attacks. Again, the French police report does not allege that their stay in the UK was somehow linked to terrorism. The Brussels man of Iraqi descent, 43 year old A.J.I.H. seems to have relatives living in London, which can mean there is a completely innocent reason for visiting the UK. We do not know whether he was interrogated about the trip, but the Dutchman of Somali descent certainly was.
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.
The Belgian top terrorist Abdelhamid Abaaoud may be dead, but that doesn’t stop the threats from within his entourage. The latest one is aimed at a cop in Verviers — the Belgian town where two Islamic State terrorists were killed last year — and coming from a man who was in touch with Fabien Clain, possibly one of the true architects behind the Paris attacks.
“If I see a head like yours, I would like to grab my kalashnikov.” That’s how Islamic State terrorist Tarik Jadaoun commented on the picture of a uniformed policeman that he posted on his Facebook account early this week. The officer — whom we do not name for security reasons — has several things in common with the jihadi who left for Syria in the spring of 2014.
Both are from Verviers, the town in eastern Belgium where early last year a major terrorist plot was foiled by a police raid that left two terrorists dead. Both have their roots in Morocco, while the Facebook image of the policeman that Jadaoun posted, mentions four mutual friends. It has to be stressed that most of Jadaoun’s connections looked like old friends from Verviers without any semblance of extremist views.
When asked, the policeman stated that he knew about the threat and that relevant authorities were dealing with it. He denied any personal acquaintance with Jadaoun. He also asked not to publish anything about the threat — a request we have honored until the Belgian newspaper L’Avenir broke the news in its Thursday’s edition. It mentioned that the policeman gets special protection as a result of the threat.
Tarik Jadaoun — also known as ‘Abou Hamza al-Belgiki’ and ‘Abou Abbas al-Belgiki’ — is a notorious Belgian within IS. After the raid in Verviers, he was named as one of the dead by several sources, including a prominent Twitter supporter of the terrorist group. The news that he had died, turned out to be false. Until today, it even isn’t clear whether Jadaoun had anything to do with the plot. But he is certainly connected to the entourage of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the well-known protagonist.
On Facebook, he befriended the Frenchman Fabien Clain, a veteran of jihadist activity who left for Syria himself and could be heard in the audio message with which IS has claimed the Paris attacks. Several sources have pointed already to Clain as one of the possible masterminds. Jadaoun was also mentioned in a recent article of the French daily Le Monde as one of the very first extremist friends of Reda Hame, a French recruit of Abaaoud sent back to Europe last summer already in order to commit a terrorist attack.
Jadaoun himself has repeatedly made clear that he is willing to shed blood in the West. “If I ever come back to Belgium, it will be armed”, he wrote on Facebook in the fall of 2014 already. “I will get even with the devil’s worshippers in the name of Allah.” In March of last year, he vowed that IS will destroy his former home country. “We have brothers anywhere, only waiting for an order to attack”, he told a French journalist.
In a video that appeared on Jadaoun’s Facebook page shortly before it was suspended this week, he named Mosul as his current place of residence.