Since the latest update in December of last year1, 28 individuals were added to our database of Belgian fighters in the current Syrian-Iraqi conflict. That brings our estimate to 591 people, including relatives who did not leave to fight themselves. 40 of these Belgian foreign fighters are converts to Islam, with a remarkably high share of autochthonous women.
Pieter Van Ostaeyen & Guy Van Vlierden
On a total number of 591 people from Belgium who at least have tried to join an armed group in Syria/Iraq during the current conflict (including Belgians, people who resided in Belgium and/or were recruited by Belgian networks), 40 are certainly or very likely converts. That’s almost 7%.
This share is significantly lower than in some of the surrounding countries. In Germany, converts represent 12% of all foreign terrorist fighters, while in France their share amounts to 23%.2 We don’t have a solid explanation for the lower Belgian number, but the importance of the Zerkani network in the Belgian recruitment may be at play. That network consisted almost exclusively of people from North African descent, and thereby had very few converts in its ranks.
18 of the 40 Belgian converts have a fully European background — of whom 11 fully Belgian. 10 are children of a mixed marriage between a European and a non-European parent, 5 have fully non-European backgrounds, and 2 were adopted. For the remaining 5, we do not know. Foreign backgrounds include Italy (6), France (5), Congo (5), Algeria (1), Brazil (1), Haiti (1), Ivory Coast (1), Lebanon (1), Mali (1), Nigeria (1), the Philippines (1), Rwanda (1) and South Africa (1). Please note that one individual can have multiple foreign backgrounds.
26 of the converts are male, and 14 female. With 35% of the converts, the share of women is remarkably high. On the total number of Belgian foreign fighters, they only represent 15%. That may be at least partly caused by a higher number of females converting to Islam overall in Belgium. But while that overrepresentation of women is often cited, the exact proportions are not known apparently.3
Moreover, there appears to be a significant difference between both sexes in terms of ethnic background. While 75% of the males has some kind of non-European roots (due to mixed marriages or adoption), that is the case for only 8% of the females — and while females only count for 35% of our total number of converts, they do represent 82% of all those with a fully Belgian background.
Our sample may be too small for solid conclusions, but the impression exists that identity issues resulting from a multi-ethnic background (that doesn’t necessarily includes Islam already) are less important as a driver of conversion and radicalization for women than for men. It is noteworthy that a study of converted foreign fighters from Belgium and the Netherlands found that almost all the women were driven by very personal problems — i.e. not related to an ethnic, cultural or religious background — while the situation of the men was much more diverse.4
Definition of Belgian fighters
Altogether, we do estimate the number of Belgian foreign fighters in the current Syrian-Iraqi conflict at 591 now, defining them as follows:
1) every person of Belgian origin, foreign origin but living in Belgium for a significant time, or clearly recruited by an entity operating from Belgium and departed to the conflict zone via Belgian soil;
2) having at least physically tried to reach the war zone of the Syrian-Iraqi conflict that started in March 2011;
3) with a clear intention to join a local fighting party there, be it as a fighter themselves or in any other role.
While it has to be stressed that this definition is broader than Sunni Islamists, actually 582 (or 98% of all our records) can be considered as such.5
Highlights of our current estimates
First of all we have to emphasize that adding individuals to our database doesn’t say anything about the phenomenon’s evolution in time. Such additions are rarely people who have recently left, but much more often older cases newly known to us.
That said, our current estimate includes 259 people in the ranks of the Islamic State — 69.4% of all 373 records for which an exact affiliation is known. The Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate formerly known as Jabhat an-Nusra, remains the second most important group with 50 people or 13.4%.
531 people have reached the battle zone — a rate of 89.8%. 42 or 7.1% were stopped abroad and 18 or 3% in Belgium. We do have information about 158 people who returned, including those who left but never reached their goal.
118 people were reportedly killed — 109 in the war zone and 9 others after their to Europe to commit a terrorist attack. It has to be stressed that most of the deaths could not be verified, and examples are known of fighters faking their death to lure security services.
That could for instance be the case with Redwane Hajaoui, considered dead last year by the mayor of his hometown Verviers.6 Very recently, a wanted notice allegedly issued by France started circulating on the internet, indicating that Hajaoui is alive and may be plotting an attack. But as long as the authenticity of that notice isn’t established, we keep him on our list.
List of Belgian foreign fighters reportedly killed
1. Julian André Harinton, aka Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki, convert from Antwerp who most likely joined the Free Syrian Army and was killed in April 2012
2. Hamdi Mahmoud Saad, a Syrian living in Brussels who joined the Free Syrian Army and was killed in Latakia governorate in August 2012
3. Rustam Gelayev, son of Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev who lived a while in Belgium, killed in Aleppo governorate in August 2012
4. Soufiane Chioua, Brussels recruit of Denis & Zerkani networks who left in October 2012, joinedMajlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed at an unkown date
5. Bilal Zinati, recruit of the Denis network who left in December 2012, joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed at an unknown date
6. Sean Pidgeon, a convert from Brussels recruited by the Denis & Zerkani networks, killed in Aleppo governorate in March 2013
7. Anonymous fighter from Mechelen, killed before April 2013 according to an imam who assisted his family
8. Anonymous fighter from Vilvoorde whose death was announced in April 2013. He was barely eightteen years old and got killed by a sniper two weeks after his arrival in Syria
9. Ahmed Stevenberg, the alias of an unidentified fighter of Jabhat an-Nusra, killed by the Syrian army in the Latakia governorate in April 2013
10. Raphaël Gendron, aka Abdurauf Abu Marwa, a Frenchman raised in Brussels, killed in the ranks of Suqur as-Sham in April 2013
11. Tarik Taketloune, aka Abu Khattab, figher from Vilvoorde who was recruited by Shariah4Belgium and joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, killed in May 2013
12. Saïd Amrani, Denis recruit from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg who was killed in May 2013
13. Ismail Amgroud, a fighter from Maaseik who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in June 2013
14. Noureddine Abouallal, aka Abu Mujahid, a leader of Shariah4Belgium who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in July 2013
15. Younis Asad Rahman, the alias of a fighter also known as Asad ar-Rahman al-Belgiki, killed in August 2013 in Latakia governorate
16. Abu Salma al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter killed in August 2013 in Deir ez-Zor governorate
17. Younes Kharbache, Denis recruit from Brussels and brother of Hamza Kharbache. Joined Islamic State and was killed in August 2013 in Damascus governorate
18. Ahmed Daoudi, aka Abu Mochsin, Shariah4Belgium recruit who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, but reportedly soon switched to a hospital job. Was active as a medical worker during the Al Ghouta chemical attack in August 2013, went missing shortly afterwards and was reported dead
19. Abdel Rahman Ayachi, aka Abu Hajjar, son of the Brussels-Syrian cheikh Bassam Ayachi, killed in the ranks of Suqur as-Sham in September 2013
20. Abdelgabar Hamdaoui, a Shariah4Belgium recruit fighting for Jabhat an-Nusra, killed in September 2013
21. Ahmed Dihaj, aka Abu Ateeq, a leading figure within Shariah4Belgium, who left early in 2013 to join Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in September 2013
22. Houssien Elouassaki, aka Abu Fallujah, Shariah4Belgium recruit who became the emir of the foreign chapter within Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen. Switched side to Jabhat an-Nusra and was killed in September 2013
23. Mohamed Bali, aka Abu Hudayfa, Shariah4Belgium recruit coming from Antwerp, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in September 2013
24. Abdelmonhim R’ha, Sunni Islamist fighter from Antwerp, reportedly a relative of former Belgian Guantánamo detainee Moussa Zemmouri. Killed in September 2013
25. Ibrahim El Harchi, aka Abu Ali, a recruit of Jean-Louis Denis fighting for Islamic State, killed in mid December 2013 during clashes with Ahrar as-Sham in Idlib governorate
26. Sabri Refla, aka Abu Tourab, Denis recruit from Vilvoorde, who subsequently joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and the Islamic State. Committed suicide attack in Iraq in December 2013
27. Abu al-Baraa al-Belgiki, an anonymous fighter of Algerian descent, who served as emir for Islamic State in the Syrian town of Saraqib and was killed there in January 2014
28. Ouafae Sarrar, aka Umm Djarrah, wife of Shariah4Belgium recruit and Islamic State fighter Ilyass Boughalab. Reportedly killed around January 2014
29. Abdelmonaïm Lachiri, aka Abu Sara, recruit of the Zerkani network and a son of its ‘pasionaria’ Fatima Aberkan, killed in the ranks of Jabhat an-Nusra in February 2014
30. Feisal Yamoun, aka Abu Faris, a leader of Shariah4Belgium who left with wife and three young kids, killed in February 2014
31. Hamza Kharbache, Denis recruit from Brussels and brother of Younes Kharbache, who joined the Islamic State and was killed in February 2014 in Aleppo governorate
32. Brahim Labrak, Denis recruit from Brussels with French roots, who joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, switched to Islamic State and was killed in February 2014
33. Nabil Ajraoui, Denis recruit who left as a minor in November 2013 and was killed in February 2014
34. Ilyass Boughalab, aka Abu Djarrah, Shariah4Belgium recruit killed in March 2014 and mentioned afterwards as a member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar
35. Yoni Mayne, aka Abu Dujana al-Mali, Zerkani recruit from Brussels with Belgian father and Malinese mother, killed near ar-Raqqah in March 2014 and mentioned afterwards as member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar
36. Saïd El Morabit, aka Abu Muthanna, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Antwerp, killed between ar-Raqqah and Hasakah in March 2014 and mentioned afterwards as member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar
37. Abdelilah Jab-Allah, aka Abu Omar, Brussels recruit of Denis & Zerkani networks. Joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in March 2014
38. Karim Mahrach, aka Abu Azzam, recruit of Jean-Louis Denis from Brussels, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in April 2014
39. Mohamed Said Haddad, Zerkani recruit from Brussels and brother of the Verviers terrorist plot member Abdelmounaim Haddad. Killed in April 2014
40. Khalid Bali, aka Abu Hamza, brother of Mohamed Bali, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in May 2014 at the age of seventeen
41. Khalid Hachti Bernan, aka Abu Mehdi/Abu Qa’qa, member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar, originally from Virton, who was killed in May 2014
42. Nabil Azahaf, aka Abu Sayyaf, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Vilvoorde who became a member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar and was killed in May 2014
43. Abu Handalah, anonymous Jabhat an-Nusra fighter who appeared in the video ‘Turning Point’ and was killed in May 2014 near Aleppo
44. Yassine El Karouni, aka Abu Osama, Shariah4Belgium recruit coming from the Netherlands, but living in Antwerp. Joined Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and was killed in May 2014
45. Kiéran Luce, aka Abu al-Qada al-Faransi, recruit of Denis network coming from the French-Caribbean island of Martinique. Joined Islamic State and committed suicide attack in northern Iraq in May 2014
46. Iliass Azaouaj, an imam from Brussels who left to get Belgian fighters back home, then joined Islamic State himself, but was executed on suspicion of being a spy around July 2014
47. Anonymous Belgian fighter killed in July 2014 in al-Keshkeyyi, Deir ez-Zor governorate
48. Adem Ben Amro, aka Abu Obayda at-Tunisi, Tunisian who lived as refugee in Antwerp, joined the Islamic State in July 2014 and committed a suicide attack in Kobanê at an unknown date
49. Souleymane Abrini, Zerkani recruit and brother of Paris & Brussels attacks accomplice Mohamed Abrini. Joined the Islamic State and was killed in August 2014
50. Abu Jihad al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in battle for airport in Deir ez-Zor governorate in August 2014
51. Zakaria El Bouzaidi, best friend of Sean Pidgeon, who was recruited together with him by the Denis & Zerkani networks. Killed in September 2014
52. Abu Mohsen at-Tunisi, anonymous Belgian fighter of Tunisian descent, fighting for Islamic State and killed in September 2014 during a battle near the airport of Deir ez-Zor
53. Abu Adnan al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter of Algerian descent who switched from Jabhat an-Nusra to Islamic State at the end of 2013 and was killed in September 2014
54. Abu Mohamed al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter killed in October 2014 in Deir ez-Zor governorate
55. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter of Saudi descent, killed in the ranks of Jabhat an-Nusra in October 2014 in Latakia governorate
56. Abu Yahya al-Belgiki, anonymous member of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar, killed in October 2014
57. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter mentioned on a list of deaths of Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar, published in October 20147. It was later confirmed that this kunya doesn’t refer to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who faked his own death around the same time
58. Abu Sulayman al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter of Maghribian descent, killed in Kobanê in November 2014
59. Bilal Barrani, aka Abu Said, Zerkani recruit of French origin who was living in Brussels, joined Islamic State and was killed in December 2014
60. Khongr Pavlovitch Matsakov, Sunni Islamist fighter from Ostend with roots in the Russian republic of Kalmykia, killed in January 2015
61. Abu Taymiyya al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter killed in Kobanê in January 2015
62. Khalid Ben Larbi, aka Abu Zoubeyr, Islamic State fighter from Brussels who was killed during a police operation in Verviers (Belgium) on January 15, 2015
63. Soufiane Amghar, aka Abu Khalid, Islamic State fighter from Brussels who was killed during a police operation in Verviers (Belgium) on January 15, 2015
64. Anis Bouzzaouit, aka Abu Ibrahim, a Zerkani recruit who entered the Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar and was killed in February 2015 in Deir ez-Zor governorate
65. Fahd Asamghi, aka Abu Sabir, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Antwerp who subsequently fought for Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa’l Ansar and Jabhat Ansar al-Din. Killed in March 2015
66. Younes Bakkouy, aka Abu Aziz, Islamic State fighter from Genk who left with two brothers, one of whom (and most likely him) was reportedly killed in March 2015 near Tikrit in Iraq
67. Abu Bakr al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter from Brussels who committed suicide attack in Ramadi (Iraq) on March 11, 2015
68. Mesut Cankurtaran, aka Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki. Islamic State fighter from Vilvoorde, recruited by Shariah4Belgium and the Denis network. Killed in March 2015 in battle for airport in Deir ez-Zor governorate
69. Karim Kadir, aka Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki. Islamic State fighter from Charleroi, who committed suicide attack at the Iraqi-Jordan border on April 24, 2015
70. Abu Tourab al-Belgiki, anonymous Sunni Islamist fighter from Brussels killed in May 2015 in Damascus governorate
71. Abu Handala al-Belgiki, anonymous Sunni Islamist fighter killed in May 2015
72. Abu Muhammad Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter with roots in France and Cameroon. Military instructor within elite brigade of IS in Damascus & Homs governorates and reportedly killed in battle of Sokhna in May 2015
73. Abu Muslim al-Belgiki. Anonymous Islamic State fighter from Antwerp. His death was announced in June 2015, but reportedly happened around a year earlier
74. Sami Ladri, aka Abu Waliya, Zerkani recruit from Brussels who joined the Islamic State and committed suicide attack near an-Nukhayba (Iraq) on June 22, 2015
75. Fayssal Oussaih, aka Abu Shaheed, Islamic State fighter from Maaseik, killed in July 2015
76. Abu Iliace al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter whose death was announced by an Islamic State source in ar-Raqqah in July 2015
77. Mossi Junior Juma, teenager from Brussels with roots in Burundi, said to be taken to Syria by his mother and killed in July 2015 at the age of sixteen
78. Lucas Van Hessche, aka Abu Ibrahim, convert from Menen with roots in Haiti, joined Islamic State and was killed in August 2015 in Hasakah governorate
79. Sahil Ahmed, aka Abu Mariyya al-Belgiki, fighter from Ghent, apparently of Indian descent. Joined Islamic State and was reportedly killed during his very first battle in August 2015
80. Abu Ayman al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed by British drone strike in ar-Raqqah in August 2015
81. Brian De Mulder, aka Abu Qasim al-Brazili, convert from Antwerp with Belgian father and Brazilian mother, recruited by Shariah4Belgium. Died in October 2015 of wounds sustained by an air strike three weeks earlier
82. Mohammed Hajji, Islamic State fighter from Antwerp, killed by an air strike in ar-Raqqah in October 2015
83. Abu Abdullah al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State figher, killed in October 2015 by a French air strike on a training camp near ar-Raqqah
84. Abdelmalek Boutalliss, aka Abu Nusaybah, Islamic State fighter from Kortrijk who committed suicide attack near Haditha (Iraq) on November 11, 2015
85. Andy Bizala Lubanza, Zerkani recruit from Brussels with Congolese & Rwandese roots, joined Islamic State and was killed in November 2015
86. Anonymous, Belgian wife of Islamic State emir ‘Abu Khabab’ from Saudi Arabia, killed with her husband in November 2015 in Deir ez-Zor
87. Bilal Hadfi, aka Abu Mujahid al-Faransi, Islamic State fighter of French origin living in Brussels, who committed suicide attack in Paris (France) on November 13, 2015
88. Ibrahim Abdeslam, aka Abu Qa’qa al-Belgiki, Islamic State fighter of French origin living Brussels, who committed a suicide attack in Paris (France) on November 13, 2015
89. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, aka Abu Omar al-Belgiki, Zerkani recruit from Brussels, who joined Islamic State’s elite brigade Katibat al-Battar and was killed on November 18, 2015 during a police operation in Saint-Denis (France) linked to the Paris attacks
90. Chakib Akrouh, aka Dhul-Qarnayn al-Belgiki, Zerkani recruit from Brussels, who joined the Islamic State and was killed on November 18, 2015 during police operation in Saint-Denis (France) linked to the Paris attacks
91. Mohammed Jattari, Sunni Islamist fighter from Tienen, killed at unknown date in 2015
92. Younes Ahllal, aka Abu Taymiyah al-Belgiki. Zerkani recruit from Brussels, killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in January 2016
93. Anonymous Belgian fighter killed in the ranks of the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor governorate on January 20, 2016
94. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in al-Hawiqa near Deir ez-Zor on January 30, 2016
95. Umm Shérazade al-Belgiki, anonymous woman from Brussels who joined the Islamic State and was reportedly executed for witchcraft in February 2016
96. Anonymous Belgian fighter in the ranks of the Islamic State, reportedly executed for treason in Deir ez-Zor in February 2016
97. Salahuddin al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, who was killed as an important battle commander in Deir ez-Zor governorate in March 2016
98. Mohamed Aziz Belkaïd, aka Abu Abdulaziz al-Jazairi, Islamic State fighter of Swedish/Algerian descent who was killed on March 15, 2016 during a police operation in Forest (Belgium) linked to the Paris attacks
99. Najim Laachraoui, aka Abu Idriss, Brussels recruit of the Denis & Zerkani networks, who joined the Islamic State and committed a suicide attack at Brussels Airport (Belgium) on March 22, 2016
100. Ibrahim El Bakraoui, Islamic State fighter from Brussels who was stopped on his way to Syria, but committed suicide attack at Brussels Airport (Belgium) on March 22, 2016 (Belgium)
101. Abou Souleyman Belgiki, anonymous fighter from Brussels, who switched side from the Islamic State to Jabhat an-Nusra and was killed near Idlib in April 2016, reportedly by an American drone
102. Abu Anas al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed near Mosul (Iraq) in April 2016
103. Abu Dawoud al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter with Jabhat an-Nusra, identified as deputy emir of its foreign fighters in August 2013. Killed by an air strike in May 2016, targeting a meeting of Jabhat an-Nusra leadership at Abu Adh Dhuhur air base in Idlib governorate
104. Abu Abdilah al-Belgiki, anonymous Jabhat an-Nusra fighter of Maghribian origin, killed in June 2016 by a tank attack of the Syrian army near Aleppo
105. Anonymous Belgian fighter, killed as Islamic State commander in a battle near Deir ez-Zor in July 2016
106. Redwane Hajaoui, aka Abu Khalid Al Maghrib, fighter from Verviers who appeared in Islamic State video threatening Belgium and France and 2015, reported death in August 2016
107. Anonymous Belgian fighter from the city of Verviers, killed at unknown date according to a declaration of the Verviers mayor in August 2016
108. Zakaria Asbai, aka Abu Zubair, Islamic State fighter from Vilvoorde whose death at undisclosed time and location was reported in August 2016
109. Abu Miqdad al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter, killed in battle near Deir ez-Zor in August 2016
110. Lotfi Aoumeur, aka Abu Noor al-Jazairi/Abdullah al-Belgiki/Abu Anwar al-Belgiki. Fighter from Verviers who appeared in IS video threatening Belgium and France in 2015. Committed suicide attack in Qarrayah (Iraq) on August 9, 2016
111. Anonymous Belgian fighter, said to be a leading figure in the media department of IS and killed on August 24, 2016 by an air strike in Qaim according to local media
112. Abu Abdallah al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter reportedly killed in the ranks of Jabhat Fath as-Sham, the former Jabhat an-Nusra, near Hama on September 29, 2016
113. Abu Omar al-Belgiki, anonymous fighter reportedly killed in the ranks of Jabhat Fath as-Sham , the former Jabhat an-Nusra, in November 2016
114. Hicham Naji, aka Abu Mehdi, Shariah4Belgium recruit from Antwerp who was reportedly killed in Islamic State ranks in November 2016
115. Sammy Djedou, aka Abu Musab al-Baljiki, an early Zerkani recruit who was reportedly involved in the planning of the 2015 Paris attacks. Killed by coalition drone strike in ar-Raqqah at December 4, 2016
116. Abu Umar al-Belgiki, anonymous Islamic State fighter reportedly killed on January 15, 2017 in al-Andalus neighborhood of Mosul
117. Zacharia Iddoub, aka Abu Yahya Beljiki, Islamic State fighter from Vilvoorde reportedly killed by air strike on January 17, 2017 at undisclosed location
118. Mohamed Abdel Rahman, aka Abu Hashim. Belgian of Algerian descent killed by coalition air strike in al-Tanak near Mosul on March 28, 2017 according to the Iraqi Ministery of Defense. Reportedly a senior leader overseeing the recruitment of fighters for IS
1Guy Van Vlierden & Pieter Van Ostaeyen, Belgian Fighters in Syria and Iraq – An Update of Our Data, pietervanostaeyen.com, 7 December 2016, https://pietervanostaeyen.com/2016/12/07/belgian-fighters-in-syria-iraq-december-2016/
2Bibi van Ginkel and Eva Entenmann (Eds.), The Foreign Fighters Phenomenon in the European Union. Profiles, Threats & Policies, The Hague, The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2016, http://icct.nl/publication/report-the-foreign-fighters-phenomenon-in-the-eu-profiles-threats-policies/
3Ann Peuteman & Ewald Pironet, “In het begin ben je tot over je oren verliefd op de islam”, Knack, 27 January 2016, http://www.knack.be/nieuws/belgie/bekeerd-tot-de-islam-waarom-vlaamse-vrouwen-moslim-worden/article-longread-650859.html
4Marion van San, Lost Souls Searching for Answers? Belgian and Dutch Converts Joining the Islamic State, Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 9, N°5 (2015), http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/460
5For more details about our methods and data, please see the most recent update mentioned above and the previous one at https://pietervanostaeyen.com/2016/08/03/belgian-fighters-in-syria-and-iraq-an-important-review-of-our-data/
6Trois djihadistes verviétois tués au Moyen Orient, La Meuse, 12 August 2016, http://www.lameuse.be/1643707/article/2016-08-11/trois-vervietois-sont-presumes-morts-en-combattant-pour-l-etat-islamique
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.
Based on recently updated figures of foreign fighters in the current Syrian-Iraqi conflict, this is the per capita ranking for 84 countries of origin. Given is the number of fighters per one million inhabitants, calculated at the high end estimates of people who at least have tried to reach the battle zone. For the complete set of figures and some important notes, please visit thecountofemmejihad.wordpress.com.
1. Tunisia 543.61
2. Maldives 508.58
3. Jordan 257.34
4. Kosovo 160.34
5. Lebanon 145.52
6. Saudi Arabia 108.10
7. Libya 93.58
8. Bosnia and Herzegovina 87.92
9. Turkmenistan 68.81
10. Belgium 52.01
11. Albania 48.86
12. Montenegro 46.36
13. Morocco 45.01
14. Trinidad and Tobago 40.90
15. Georgia 40.56
16. Macedonia 33.40
17. United Kingdom 31.21
18. Azerbaijan 30.67
19. Sweden 30.61
20. Austria 30.00
21. Turkey 29.05
22. France 28.20
23. Denmark 26.87
24. Kuwait 25.46
25. Palestine 24.49
26. Tajikistan 24.41
27. Germany 22.26
28. Netherlands 20.65
29. Kazakhstan 19.28
30. Finland 18.26
31. Kyrgyzstan 17.65
32. Uzbekistan 17.12
33. Norway 13.44
34. Russia 11.94
35. Australia 10.99
36. Luxembourg 10.52
37. Serbia 9.75
38. Bahrain 8.91
39. Switzerland 7.26
40. Qatar 6.83
41. Somalia 6.59
42. Algeria 6.32
43. Ireland 6.13
44. Yemen 4.11
45. Egypt 4.07
46. Malaysia 3.28
47. Indonesia 3.13
48. Spain 2.89
49. Canada 2.85
50. Sudan 2.77
51. United Arab Emirates 2.60
52. Pakistan 2.51
53. Israel 2.48
54. China 2.19
55. Philippines 1.98
56. Estonia 1.58
57. Afghanistan 1.54
58. Italy 1.41
59. Bulgaria 1.39
60. New Zealand 1.35
61. Mexico 1.23
62. Ukraine 1.13
63. Portugal 1.11
64. Slovakia 1.10
65. Poland 1.04
66. Latvia 1.01
67. United States 0.93
68. Mauritania 0.56
69. Argentina 0.53
70. Jamaica 0.34
71. Oman 0.30
72. Moldova 0.28
73. Croatia 0.22
74. Brazil 0.18
76. South Korea 0.14
77. Romania 0.09
78. Iran 0.06
South Africa 0.06
81. Madagascar 0.04
82. Bangladesh 0.01
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 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.
The Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ reports today about Mohammed C. — a Belgian-Moroccan father who took his whole family to the Syrian war. He pushed his mentally unstable son into the fighting, while he forced his minor daughter to marry an Algerian commander of Islamic State.
On October 6, 2013, a family of six took a plane at Charleroi airport with destination Turkey. That they didn’t leave for a vacation was proven by their one way tickets, the fact that their home had been re-rented and most of their possessions were sold. Mohammed C. had been in contact with radical muslims longtime already, and most of his acquaintances apparently knew that he wanted to move to Syria.
His wife, Maria G. — a woman from Italian descent who calls herself ‘Fatiha’ since being converted — largely agreed with that plan. During later interrogations, she told about her intent to stay in Turkey with her three daughters, while her husband and her son would travel on to Syria. But the Belgian judiciary casted doubt upon her declaration that her husband finally forced all of them to cross the Turkish-Syrian border and settle near the northern city of Aleppo.
After their arrival, Mohammed hastened to carry out his plans. “They were only a few days at place, when he started to push his teenage daughter H. to marry a local ISIS emir”, it is noted in the judgment of a terrorism trial that was held in Brussels last July. The Algerian born commander was 27, while the daughter was barely 16. “She agreed to the marriage”, the judgment states, “because she feared that any other choice of her father would be worse.”
The mother remained with her two younger daughters in an apartment that they hardly ever could leave. “They lived there like recluses, on the rhythm of their prayers, and in constant fear for the war that happened outside.” Father Mohammed and son Rachid meanwhile presented themselves as fighters. But for the latter, it likely didn’t happen voluntarily, since he was diagnosed as a mentally unstable young man.
Apparently, the son was used for the dirtiest jobs. According to his sister, who saw him only every now and then, he was forced to risk his own life during the battles by collecting the corpses of fellow fighters who were killed. Soon already, mother and daughters wanted to leave, but father Mohammed resisted to that. Only after daughter H. got pregnant, he allowed her a journey to Turkey. From there, she traveled back to Belgium, soon followed by her mother and her two sisters.
Nothing is known about the current situation of the teenage girl and her baby that should be born. But her father, her mother and her brother are convicted now. At the trial against a Brussels based cell of recruiters — to which the well known Abdelhamid Abaaoud also belonged — Mohammed was sentenced to ten years in jail for leadership of a terrorist group. Son Rachid got ten years for membership of that group, while mother Maria got two years with probation for the same crime. She was present in court, while her husband and her son were tried in absentia.
About Rachid, nothing has been heard recently. Certain is that he didn’t join his father when Mohammed left Islamic State in May, 2014. That was about a month after the departure of his wife and his daughters. Mohammed switched to the brigade of Bassam Ayachi, the self styled ‘Cheikh’ from Molenbeek that once was named a key figure in nearly every Belgian jihadist plot. Nowadays, Ayachi holds a much more moderate profile, and he even fights against Islamic State. Mohammed himself is still active on social media, where he posts paintings and poems that he has made in Syria.
Fear exists that a 16 year old Belgian boy has died in Syria. Junior Juma, 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.
Junior is the son of Mossi Juma, the greatest soccer legend in the Central African country where he was born. Mossi served as captain of the Burundese national team for eleven years, played for top clubs in the Emirates, and landed in Belgium as a striker for KV Mechelen — at that time playing in the second division. He obtained the Belgian citizenship in 2006.
Since the divorce of his parents, Junior and his younger brother Issa 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 secretely. 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.