IS fighters from the Belgian town of Maaseik: A rare connection between actual networks and old school terrorists

Recently, a new Belgian fighter has surfaced within the ranks of the Islamic State (IS). The fourth already from Maaseik. The radical islamist community in that little border town is bridging the gap between the actual networks and old school terrorists — a rather rare phenomenon in Belgium.

IS fighter 'Abou Shaheed' from the Belgian town of Maaseik, shortly after his arrival in Syria in December 2014.

IS fighter ‘Abou Shaheed’ from the Belgian town of Maaseik, shortly after his arrival in Syria in December, 2014

He posted his picture a few days ago on his Facebook account, the Belgian fighter who’s using the alias ‘Abou Shaheed’. Standing beside the seemingly obligate pick-up truck and holding an impressive rifle. Little is told about the location, the date of his arrival and his true identity. But apparently he went to Syria somewhere last month, his friends at home are calling him ‘Fasil from Maaseik’ and his actual Facebook account previously has carried the name of Fayssal Oussaih.

The name Oussaih rings a bell for anyone familiar with the extremist scene of Maaseik. Back in 2006, several inhabitants of the town were convicted at a trial in Brussels for their membership of the ‘Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain’ (GICM), a terrorist organization held responsible for the bloody attacks of Casablanca (45 deaths at May 16, 2003) and Madrid (191 deaths at March 11, 2004). Later, it became a part of ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ (AQIM), the North African branch of Osama bin Laden’s network. More on its background can be read here.

One of the defendants was tried in absentia because he was imprisoned in Syria already. At that time, the country was known as main gate to the jihad against the US military presence in Iraq. Apparently, GICM was active in the recruitment of fighters for that struggle, and Khalid Oussaih — a man from Maaseik who was in his early twenties then — had lent his passport to a higher ranking GICM member in order to let the latter escape during one of their travels. While he was sentenced to four years in jail by the Belgian court, Syria responded to an extradition request of Morocco, leading to another sentence of three years there.

After being freed in Morocco, Khalid Oussaih spent some time in France. But in 2013, he decided to settle again in Maaseik. In November of that year, he was arrested in Belgium because he never had served his prison time here. But he appealed against the initial verdict — a case that is lingering on — and in the meantime, he’s free. The exact relation between Khalid and Fayssal Oussaih isn’t clear yet, but since they share their name and their rather tiny hometown, chances are high that they are relatives.

Fact is that Fayssal Oussaih has connections with at least two other convicts of the trial in 2006. On Facebook, he is friends with Khalid Bouloudo and Abdallah Ouabour — who were both sentenced to five years in jail for being members of GICM. The same is true for Jamal Elkoua, one of the other fighters in Syria with roots in Maaseik. And a third one, Rachid Iba, was convicted himself to three years in jail back in 2006.

So in Maaseik, there exists some kind of continuity between the ‘old school’ terrorists of GICM and the current networks recruiting for IS. That is quite exceptional in the Belgian context. The country has seen a very wide range of islamic extremism in the past decades, but nowadays everything seems to be centered around completely new organizations — of which Shariah4Belgium certainly has been the most important one.

Interestingly, there is a connection between the fighters from Maaseik and Shariah4Belgium too — since Rachid Iba has married the sister of Brahim El Mimouni, an important lieutenant of Shariah4Belgium founder Fouad Belkacem. El Mimouni was the webmaster of the organization until he left for Syria himself. Nowadays he seems to serve IS both in its propaganda department and in its foreign relations — more specifically by strengthening the ties between Syrian an Libyan cells. Apparently, El Mimouni grew that important that comrades now are calling him ‘sheikh’.

Finally, we’ve mentioned already another figure with roots in the ‘old school’ Belgian jihad, who currently is forging ties with the new generation of extremists. In April of last year, Abdelkader Hakimi posted pictures taken in Aleppo on his Facebook account — an apparent sign of being in Syria — while he too had friends already within the regiment of Belgian fighters recruited by Shariah4Belgium. Hakimi was considered as the European leader of GICM and sentenced to eight years in prison at the trial in 2006.

All those links may be results of merely personal acquaintances and coincidence, but it would be interesting to know whether there are similar patterns in other European countries too. We are very keen to learn about connections between the actual jihad in Syria and Iraq — not only IS — and former operatives of GICM.


“James Foley was held by Belgian fighters last year”

James Foley, the American reporter beheaded last week, shared a prison cell with former Belgian fighter Jejoen Bontinck for at least three weeks. Reportedly, they were held at that time by Bontinck’s former comrades from Shariah4Belgium, who brandished Jejoen as a traitor because he wanted to go home.

Belgian ID card of Jejoen Bontinck, shown as a trophy by a former fellow fighter after Bontinck had left Syria last year

Belgian ID card of Jejoen Bontinck, shown by former fellow fighter after Bontinck had left Syria already last year

It was CEO Philip Balboni of GlobalPost, the American news site for which Foley was working in Syria, who broke the news about his deplored journalist and Jejoen Bontinck knowing each other. “In September 2013, a young Belgian who had travelled to fight in Syria had befriended Foley and, once that jihadist went back to Belgium, offered excellent information on roughly where Jim was held and by whom”, he was quoted by NBC News. “It was the first time we knew that Jim was alive. It was a wonderful, wonderful moment.” Balboni didn’t mention the name of the Belgian — but that wasn’t hard to find for anyone familiar with the phenomenon of Belgian fighters in Syria.

Jejoen Bontinck (19) went to Syria in February, 2013. He converted to islam a few years before and joined the radical organization ‘Shariah4Belgium’. He says he didn’t want to fight, but provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. Disgusted by the violence of war, he wanted to go home already in March of that year. But his comrades from Shariah4Belgium with whom he teamed together, considered him as a traitor or even a spy, and imprisoned him for several months. He was held in Aleppo, the northern Syrian city which was the main stronghold of the radical islamic resistance at that time.

Bontinck was never a prisoner of the Islamic State, his lawyer Kris Luyckx explained to the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’. Although most of his Belgian comrades now have joined the extremely brutal group, at that time they were still active under the banner of ‘Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen’ or ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’. That Bontinck was held together with Islamic State victim Foley — as confirmed by Luyckx — is consistent with the claim that Foley’s abduction was carried out by of one of those groups. When the American got caught in November 2012, the Islamic State didn’t exist yet in Syria. It was founded in April 2013 as ISIS — the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Sham’.

“Bontinck and Foley shared a cell for at least three weeks around August of last year”, says Luyckx. “And they weren’t the only Westerners — there was a European journalist too. Apparently, the two reporters were later transfered to ar-Raqqah, and it must have been there Foley was held by the British fighters that are known now as ‘The Beatles’. Jejoen has never met the guy who killed Foley or one of his accomplices. He always stayed in the hands of his former comrades of Shariah4Belgium.” If that is true, it means that Foley too was held by the Belgians for some time.

It isn’t clear whether they were also involved in Foley’s abduction — and an important question that also remains, is whether it were Bontinck’s former brothers in arms who have delivered Foley directly to those who’ve killed him now. The Belgian judiciary has indicted thirteen people for taking Bontinck hostage — based on the names he reportedly mentioned himself — and at least some of those people can be suspected in Foley’s case too. All belong to a group of 46 that has to stand trial this fall — although for most of them it will be a trial in absentia, since they are still fighting in Syria or were killed in action there.

Of the thirteen former Shariah4Belgium members that are indicted for imprisoning Bontinck, at least four have died already: Houssien Elouassaki from Vilvoorde, Nabil Azahaf from Brussels, Noureddine Abouallal from Antwerp and Yassine El Karouni — a Dutchman that apparently has spent most of his last years in Antwerp. Of those who are considered still alive, the highest ranking is Hicham Chaïb, alias ‘Abu Haniefa’. He became one of the leaders of Shariah4Belgium after the imprisonment of it’s founder Fouad Belkacem. Chaïb is living in ar-Raqqah now, where he was seen already in the company of senior Islamic State commander Abu Waheed.

The remaining eight names are Azeddine Kbir Bounekoub, Said M’Nari, Brahim El Mimouni and Fouad Akrich from Antwerp — Zakaria Asbai and Magomed Saralapov from Vilvoorde — Rachid Iba from Maaseik — and Redouan Akdim from Naarden in the Netherlands. Noteworthy is that Iba was already convicted as a member of the terrorist ‘Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain’ back in 2006, that Kbir Bounekoub has appeared in a gruesome video with dead bodies in Syria, and that Akrich is one of the exceptions who stayed in the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra — a fact that has ignited already vicious debates on Facebook, where he’s still a ‘friend’ of his former comrades who went to the Islamic State.

Jejoen was freed in September 2013 and after his return in Belgium, he was intensively interrogated by security services of several countries. According to his lawyer, the information he provided about the location where he and Foley were held, has been the motor behind the rescue operation undertaken for Foley by American elite soldiers. But the details Bontinck gave about his prison — “near a courthouse and a hospital”, for instance — were about the place where he was held in Aleppo. And apparently the raid took place at a time Foley was moved to ar-Raqqah already.


Convicted European top terrorist Abdelkader Hakimi has traveled to Syria

One of the most notorious terrorists ever known in Belgium, has surfaced on the Syrian front. Abdelkader Hakimi (48) — once supposed to be the European leader of the ‘Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain’ and named as one of the brains behind the deadly bombing in Madrid of March 11, 2004 — is befriending young recruits of Shariah4Belgium now.

Screenshot of Hakimi's actual Facebook page.

Screenshot of Hakimi’s actual Facebook page.

The flood of Belgian fighters going to Syria until now consisted mainly of young and unexperienced recruits. People who came never into contact with real terrorism yet and were still children when the west was hit by bloody attacks like those of 9/11 in the United States. The remnants of the underground cells that formed the operational core of Al Qaeda those days — and often had ramifications into Belgium — didn’t seem to join the Syrian jihad. But that is changing now.

In April of last year already, Belgian media reported that Rachid Iba (34) had left his town Maaseik to fight in Syria. In 2006, Iba was convicted as a member of the ‘Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain’ (GICM), a terrorist organization that later would become part of ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ (AQIM). At that time, it was already named as perpetrator of the bombings at Atocha railway station in the Spanish capital Madrid, were 191 people were killed in 2004. At the proces against the Belgian cell of GICM, Iba wasn’t considered a heavyweight. He got three years of which two suspended and was free again soon afterwards.

That wasn’t the case for Abdelkader Hakimi, who was seen as the European leader within GICM and whose contacts reached as far as the inmate population of Guantánamo Bay. In the eighties already, he was sentenced to death in his native Morocco, and being on the run for many years, he lived in Algeria, Libya, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Botswana using several false identities. According to intelligence services, he has fought on the side of muslim extremists in the Bosnian war, and reportedly he also got a terrorist training in Afghanistan.

In Morocco, he’s suspected of complicity in the Casablanca bombings that killed 45 people on May 16, 2003. He is also considered as one of the architects of the bloody attack by GICM in Madrid, that reportedly was partly planned during a meeting with French and Spanish GICM members in the quiet Belgian town of Maaseik. With that resume, Hakimi certainly ranks as one of the most dangerous islamic terrorists that ever appeared in a Belgian court. He got eight years and had to stay behind the bars until the end of 2011.

After he got out of jail, he settled in Brussels with his wife, according to media reports. At that time his lawyer said Hakimi had become “a completely different person”. But his Facebook account that the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ discovered recently — and that is linked to genuine former comrades — shows little proof of that. It contains a picture of the late Osama bin Laden, surrounded by heavy weapons of war. His profile picture is showing him at the time of his trial, blindfolded and surrounded by cops during the transport from his cell to the court — as if he’s proud of being convicted.

The most intriguing detail however, are the snapshots that he posted in April this year — made out of a car in the war torn suburbs of Aleppo, the northern Syrian city that has long been under control of extremist groups. It is not clear how long Hakimi has been in Aleppo, nor whether he still is in Syria. The Facebook page doesn’t give any detail about his activities there, but his friends list may be a reason to worry. It clearly shows that he is forging ties with young western fighters on the Syrian front.

One of his actual friends is the Belgian ISIS fighter Azeddine Kbir Bounekoub (21, a.k.a. ‘Abu Gastbijshaam’), the guy that only last week has called for more attacks in Belgium, explicitly referring to the brutal murder of four people in the Brussels Jewish Museum. Belgian security services are rightly concerned about an extremist like Bounekoub returning home, and their fear should grow now that his links with a seasoned Al Qaeda operative are established. People like Hakimi can pass decades of experience in the world wide terrorism to the young foreign fighters, learn them all the tricks needed to commit an attack and introduce them in a network that has proved it’s bloody clout already several times.

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