The swimming pool clue: how Islamic State’s worst bloodshed in Europe could have been avoided

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.

Bayroshock, a product against algae used in swimming pools

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.

Ahmed Dahmani, a naturalized Belgian citizen born in Al Hoceima, Morocco

Ahmed Dahmani, a naturalized Belgian citizen born in Al Hoceima, Morocco

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.

Mohamed Dahmani, Ahmed’s older brother, known as a patron of Shariah4Belgium since 2012

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.

Speed camera image of the car rented by Salah Abdeslam on its way to Beauvais

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.”

Receipt for 15 liters Bayroshock purchased in Beauvais on October 8, 2015

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.

The Belgian passport of Ahmed Dahmani that was seized during his arrest in Turkey

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.


Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi, the Dutch imprisoner of James Foley & co — His true identity revealed — His death detailed — His French successor named

It went largely unnoticed when the Dutch Minister of Security and Justice designated Moroccan citizen Mohamed Amine Boutahar as an unwanted foreigner in July 2015. The official announcement did not mention a reason, but that reason became clear when Boutahar’s accounts were frozen the following month. Born in the Moroccan capital Rabat on the 4th of April 1983, Boutahar was added to the growing list of Dutch terror suspects, and local media quickly pointed out that his alias ‘Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi’ meant that Boutahar is the infamous heavyweight of the Islamic State serving as the head of security in Aleppo under whose command several Western hostages were imprisoned there.

Official announcement of sanctions against Dutch terror suspect Mohamed Amine Boutahar, a.k.a. Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi

Official announcement of sanctions against Dutch terror suspect Mohamed Amine Boutahar

Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi was first identified in that role by Jejoen Bontinck, a Belgian foreign fighter who returned from Syria in October 2013. Interrogated by Belgian police, he told how he had joined his former friends of Shariah4Belgium — the country’s most important recruitment organization — in the ranks of Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, a local Islamist militia that soon became a keystone of the newly established ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Sham’. Bontinck was imprisoned by his own militia on suspicion of being a spy, and during that imprisonment he briefly shared a cell with the American hostage James Foley, Briton John Cantlie and German Toni Neukirch. He described the man responsible for the prison as a Dutchman of Moroccan descent, who was in his twenties at the time and had graduated as an engineer. “He is tall, slender and tanned, speaks Arabic perfectly, and has two wives and three children, of whom the oldest is about seven years old.”

Abu Ubaida/Boutahar is often described as the “prison chief” of Foley and co, but that is not entirely accurate. As head of security, his powers reached far beyond the supervision of the prison system of Islamic State at the time. According to James Harkin’s elaborate research into the Western hostages, he even had a deputy who was solely responsible for the prisons — a Syrian from near the border with Iraq named ‘Abu Maryam’ — and every separate prison had its own chief too. While the Westerners were held in Sheikh Najjar near Aleppo for instance, the prison chief there was a French-Tunisian going by the name of ‘Abu Mohamed al-Faransi’. “He was more French than Tunisian”, Harkin wrote, “and didn’t seem to know any Arabic.”

Even while he likely is identified now, nothing is known with certainty about Abu Ubaida/Boutahar’s past. But his death is fairly documented now. Two years ago already, there were rumours about him being executed by Islamic State. According to some sources he was beheaded, while others told that he was shot. But most accounts agreed about the reason, being the suspicion that he had passed secret information to a foreign intelligence service — possibly during negotiations about the fate of Western hostages he held. A recent German court document not only confirms that Abu Ubaida/Boutahar was executed by his own group, but also provides details. The information is contained in the judgment of a German foreign fighter named Nils Donath, who was sentenced to four years and six months in jail on 4 March 2016 in Düsseldorf. Donath served a while in one of the prisons that were led by Abu Ubaida/Boutahar while he was in Syria between October 2013 and November 2014.

According to the judgment, Abu Ubaida/Boutahar was arrested mid-April 2014 on the orders of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, who had succeeded Abu Athir al-Absi as Islamic State’s Aleppo governor shortly before. The reason for that arrest was a suicide attack ordered by Abu Ubaida/Boutahar in that same month, in which Jabhat an-Nusra commander Abu Muhammad al-Ansari was killed with his wife and his daughter in the Idlib governorate. The German defendant Nils Donath declared that in his opinion, that attack was wrongly aimed. The man who had to be killed, Donath told his interrogators, was Jabhat an-Nusra’s number one — the Syrian Ahmed Hussein al-Shar’a, better known as Abu Mohammad al-Julani. At the end of April 2014, Abu Ubaida/Boutahar was executed by gunshot in the presence of several members of Islamic State’s security department, after which his body was thrown in a well. The judgment doesn’t state explicitly whether Donath witnessed the execution himself.

Still according to the German judgment — and thus the declarations of defendant Nils Donath — Abu Ubaida/Boutahar was succeeded as security chief in Aleppo by a man identified as ‘Abu Mohamed Franzi’. This Frenchman, Donath told, had served as bodyguard for Umar as-Shishani, the former leader of ‘Katibat al-Muhajireen’ who soon became the overall military commander of Islamic State in Syria. In his confessions, Donath spoke about a large gathering in March 2014 on a military airport near the city of al-Bab, where hundreds of fighters pledged their oath of allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They did so in the hands of a Saudi judge who had arrived there with as-Shishani, and for whom the Frenchman ‘Abu Mohamed Franzi’ seemed to serve as bodyguard too. It is very likely that this ‘Abu Mohamed Franzi’ was the very same person as the ‘Abu Mohamed al-Faransi’ mentioned above as the one-time prison chief in Sheikh Najjar.

This French successor of Abu Ubaida/Boutahar must have been Salim Benghalem, one of the most notorious Frenchmen within Islamic State. He has a profile that matches the function and is known as ‘Abu Mohamed al-Faransi’. Together with Mehdi Nemmouche (the perpetrator of the terrorist attack against the Jewish Museum in Brussels on 24 May 2014), Benghalem served as a warder for the four French hostages (Didier François, Edouard Elias, Nicolas Hénin and Pierre Torres) in a prison in Aleppo between July and December 2013. He was described as “Nemmouche’s superior” and “a professional veteran of the Jihad who had patiently climbed the ladder of Islamic State”. According to a memo from the French internal security service DGSI, quoted by Le Monde, Benghalem has also belonged to the religious police and acted as an executioner at an Islamic court in al-Bara near Aleppo.

When the United States Treasury Department added the above-mentioned Umar as-Shishani to its list of ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorists’ in September 2014, it did so simultaneously with Benghalem — Shishani’s one time bodyguard, if it’s him who has indeed replaced Abu Ubaida/Boutahar.


Terrorist who admitted beheading set free by Brussels court

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.


Son of Belgian-Burundese soccer star thought to be killed in Syrian war

Fear exists that a 16 year old Belgian boy has died in Syria. Junior, the son of a former soccer star with roots in Burundi, disappeared eight months ago. His family has indications that he was taken to the war by his separated mother, together with his 10 year old brother.

Juma Junior, the 16 y/o son of a Belgian-Burundese soccer star, thought to be killed in Syria

Junior, the 16 y/o son of a Belgian-Burundese soccer star, thought to be killed in Syria

Since the divorce of his parents, Junior and his younger brother lived with their mother. But they stayed close with their father and two unrelated children with whom they were raised. In an exclusive for the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, 21 year old Annaa disclosed what has happened with them.

“We had signs some time already, that the biological mother of my two little brothers was radicalizing”, she told. “But we never thought that it could take this dramatical turn. We are not certain, but there are reasons to believe that she took her children to the Syrian war. Including two from a later relationship, the youngest only four.”

Junior and his siblings were raised as Muslims, but in a very moderate way. “We do fast during the month of Ramadan”, Annaa says. “But I was never pushed to wear a headscarf, for instance. And we do not pray five times a day.” On Junior’s Facebook page, that wasn’t updated after April of last year — at least not publicly — there is not the slightest sign of interest in religious matters.

After Junior’s disappearance, he still contacted Annaa a few times via Facebook. “He always asked how we were doing, but brushed off all questions on his whereabouts”, she says. “He told me that wasn’t allowed to say anything. I think he even wasn’t supposed to get in touch with me, but did it secretly. The last time I have heard from him, was about two months ago.”

On July the 3rd, the ill-fated message arrived. “My father got a phone call from a person we don’t know, telling that Junior had died. After that, he immediately hung up. At first, my father didn’t believe it. But shortly after that, he got a second call — again anonymous and without details. We do suppose now that it’s true however, that Junior is dead.”

It is harrowing for Junior’s relatives to have no certainty. “Don’t ask me where in Syria he was, who convinced his mother to go there, and which group they’ve joined”, Annaa says. “We simply do not know. It is a terrible idea that Junior might be forced into the fighting and was killed in combat. I am sure that he never would have wanted to become a part of that.”

If Junior effectively was killed in Syria, he would be the youngest Belgian victim of that war. According to the independent Belgian researcher Pieter Van Ostaeyen, at least 60 Belgian fighters already have died. Prior to Junior, the youngest of them was former Shariah4Belgium member Khalid Bali. He died near Deir ez-Zor in July of last year, fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State.

Junior Juma pictured at his former school, Institut de l'Assomption in Watermael-Boitsfort near Brussels

Junior pictured at his former school, Institut de l’Assomption in Watermael-Boitsfort near Brussels

Junior Juma on his sister Annaa's favorite picture, taken about five years ago

Junior on his sister Annaa’s favorite picture, taken about five years ago


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.


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.


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.

PLEASE SEE UPDATE BELOW.

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.


Belgian fighter recognized in Kassig beheading video

One of the perpetrators of the mass beheading that was shown in the latest video of Islamic State (IS) allegedly is Belgian. Sources within the security services are quite confident they recognized a member of Shariah4Belgium who is currently on trial in absentia.

PLEASE READ IMPORTANT UPDATE BELOW.

Abdelmajid Gharmaoui near Aleppo in July, 2013 (left) and supposedly in the Kassig beheading video (right)

Abdelmajid Gharmaoui near Aleppo in July, 2013 (left) and supposedly in the Kassig beheading video (right)

The most gruesome part of the video message in which IS confirmed last weekend that it has killed Peter Kassig, wasn’t the murder of the American aid worker himself. That act wasn’t shown. But the movie did contain chilling footage of about 20 Syrian soldiers beheaded by IS terrorists. One of them was the notorious Briton ‘Jihadi John’. He was masked and dressed in black, similar to the previous videos. His accomplices however, wearing camouflage suits, did show their face.

French authorities confirmed already that Maxime Hauchard (22), a muslim convert from Normandy known within IS as ‘Abou Abdallah Al-Faransi’, is one of them. And British media identified another one as Nasser Muthana (20), a medical student from Cardiff in Wales. While those names were coming out, the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ was looking into rumours that a third one comes from Belgium.

We didn’t get complete certainty, but a source within Belgian security services told about his confidence that Abdelmajid Gharmaoui (28) — a.k.a. ‘Abu Dujana Al-Muhajir’ — is one of the executioners indeed. Another senior official confirmed that the presence of the former Shariah4Belgium member is investigated since Sunday already, and the highly respected independent IS specialist Pieter Van Ostaeyen also thinks is it him.

Apart from the striking physical resemblance, there are some other facts that make it a probable case. Gharmaoui indicated already that he is active within the propaganda department of IS and his Facebook account mentions Dabiq as current place of residence. That Syrian town north of Aleppo is rarely mentioned as such by European fighters, but it is there that the Kassig video was filmed — according to its own caption and independent Syrian media activists who pinpointed the exact location on satellite images.

Gharmaoui was one of the most active Shariah4Belgium members from of the town of Vilvoorde, frequently accompanying his local leader Houssien Elouassaki at gatherings in Antwerp, the main base of the radical organization those days. He left for Syria in October 2012 with Elouassaki’s brother Hakim and fought in the ranks of Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen, an Aleppo based militia that was led by the Syrian brothers Firas and Amr al-Absi before becoming part of ISIS during the first half of 2013.

At the trial that is currently held against 46 members of Shariah4Belgium, the public prosecutor has demanded ten years of imprisonment against Gharmaoui for membership of a terrorist organization. Like most of the defendants, he is tried in absentia. Lately, we mentioned his name when we reported about allegations of murder against a Belgian fighter who has returned and is free on conditions, Elias Taketloune. It was Gharmaoui who spread those rumours, probably as an act of revenge because Taketloune had cooperated with the police.

If Gharmaoui’s implication in the recent mass beheading sufficiently can be proven, the possibility exists he will be tried for that seperately at a later stage. There are already six defendants facing such a second trial, since the most serious complaints — abduction and murder — were left out of the current case. Those complaints are still investigated and of course they can result in far more severe punishment.

UPDATE (November 18, 2014 – 11u30 PM Brussels time) – In reaction to the story above as it was published in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ this morning, the mayor of Gharmaoui’s hometown of Vilvoorde stated that it certainly isn’t him who can be seen in the video.

“People within the security services initially thought so indeed, but in the meantime they are telling me it was a mistake”, politician Hans Bonte told. Asked for their assessment again, several sources — including a specialist in the matter within a Belgian security service — denied that their meaning has changed. So, the only conclusion is that even authorities do not agree yet on the question whether it is Gharmaoui or not.

The federal prosecutor’s office confirmed it is investigating the case, but declined any further comment. And in circles of radical muslims different meanings also occur. The brother of another well known IS fighter from Vilvoorde wrote on Facebook: “That isn’t Majid”, while acquaintances from Brussels anonymously told the opposite.

UPDATE (November 19, 2014 – 1u30 PM Brussels time) – According to the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office, the man in the Kassig video isn’t Abdelmajid Gharmaoui. “The physical resemblance made us think so”, spokesman Eric Van Der Sypt just told us, “but technology is pointing to the contrary. For us, the investigation is closed.”


Belgian fighters in Syria plotting revenge on former comrades who talked to police

Shariah4Belgium fighters in Syria have started retaliation against former brothers in arms who went home and cooperated with the police, the Belgian daily ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ reports today. The extremists published an incriminating video about such a ‘traitor’ and even say he beheaded several people.

Belgian fighter Elias Taketloune in a recently distributed video from Syria

Belgian fighter Elias Taketloune in a recently distributed video from Syria

23 years old Elias Taketloune was in Syria from November 2012 until May 2013. He came back after his wife had given birth to their first child at home — a son named Shaheed. Shortly after his arrival, he turned himself in to the police. In the first interrogations, he declared that he only had been active as a humanitarian worker in Syria. The certificate from the Syrian Red Crescent that he submitted as evidence however, turned out to be false. As a result of that, he’s not only indicted for leadership of a terrorist organization at the current trial against Shariah4Belgium in Antwerp, but for forgery too.

During his later interrogations, Taketloune admitted that he did participate in the armed struggle in Syria. “But only twice”, he said. “The first time, I was positioned in the back line, responsible for receiving the wounded. The second time, my job was to reload an anti-aircraft gun if needed. But it wasn’t used that day.” So, according to his own declarations, Taketloune has never fired a gun. “I even didn’t carry a kalashnikov”, he told. “I couldn’t afford it. I only had a hand gun.”

But the short video some of Taketloune’s former comrades brought out, proves that he was much more of a fighter than that. It shows Taketloune behind the wheel of a car, with a kalashnikov visible between his body and the driver’s door — clearly indicating that the weapon was his. Moreover, he tells to the camera: “We are fighting for the cause of Allah. We’re all here because there is no other God than he. And inch’allah, it will be all over the world. I swear, you hypocrites, we’re on our way to start with you!”

The video appeared a few days ago on the Facebook page of Houdaifa Ammi, a fighter in the ranks of the Islamic State coming from Taketloune’s hometown Vilvoorde, near the Belgian capital Brussels. He calls his former comrade by his fighter’s name ‘Abu Shaheed’ and seems to pay him great respect. “How many battlefields we’ve done together”, Ammi writes. “A lion in the front line.” Taketloune’s lawyer flatly denied the guy in the video is his client when asked for a reaction, but several other sources confirmed it certainly is Elias Taketloune.

In the meantime, heavier charges were added to the video. “Abu Shaheed was a good shooter”, another Belgian fighter in Syria — Abdelmajid Gharmaoui, also indicted at the trial in Antwerp — reacted shortly after the movie was posted. “It has always been his dream to perform a martyr’s operation and I do remember his first decapitation in Sheikh Soleyman, after he drew the long straw.” Whether this last allegation is true, it is difficult to say. As far as we know, the Belgian judiciary hasn’t any evidence that Taketloune committed crimes like that. His name isn’t mentioned on the list of Shariah4Belgium people that can be tried for murders at a later stage, and he’s awaiting his sentence as a free man.

The fact that sympathizers of the Syria fighters from Vilvoorde already have tried to sell the video of Taketloune to several Belgian media — an offer ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ refused — indicates an orchestrated campaign. Those sympathizers consider Taketloune as a traitor because he talked to the police. By bringing out the video, they hope to contribute to a heavier sentence for him. Recently, a similar thing has happened to Jejoen Bontinck, another returnee from Syria who cooperated with the police. He was accused of having executed a Syrian soldier in a Facebook post coming from the extremist circles he once belonged to himself.


“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.