The two men who are in a Belgian jail because they brought Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam back to Brussels, made suspicious journeys before. Hamza Attou went to the UK with a man of Iraqi descent only three days before the attacks, while Mohamed Amri visited Turkey at least seven times during the past two years.
Mohamed Amri (26) and Hamza Attou (21) belonged to the very first suspects who were caught after the Paris attacks. They quickly confessed that they had brought the only surviving perpetrator back to Brussels that night. On the phone, Salah Abdeslam reportedly said that he had suffered a car accident. It was only when they met him in Paris, that he told them about his role in the bloodbath. According to their declarations, he threatened to blow up Amri’s Volkswagen Golf if they refused to give him a lift.
Amri and Attou are still behind bars, but no details have surfaced yet about a further implication in the terrorist plot. When Molenbeek mayor Françoise Schepmans named the Paris suspects who were on a list of radicalized inhabitants prior to the attacks, she did not mention these two. In the 55 pages long report that the Paris police has written about the attacks for the French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve however, it is stated that the Belgian authorities knew Amri already as “being close to the movement of the extremist Islam”.
That same report also reveals how both Amri and Attou undertook suspicious journeys in the days and years before the Paris attacks. Airline registers learned that Amri went to Istanbul at least seven times between May 2013 and May 2014. When returning, he often flew to other destinations than his home town Brussels — such as Paris, Marseille, and Copenhagen. The report contains no proof that his travel was related to terrorist activities, but they happened at a time when Turkey served as the main gate to Syria for tens of members of the network behind the Paris and Brussels attacks.
Hamza Attou left Belgium on the 10th of November 2015 for a journey to the UK. He did so in the company of a man from Brussels with roots in Iraq, and a Dutchman of Somali descent. It was the latter who drove the Ford Focus with Dutch license plate when they boarded the ferry from Dunkerque to Dover. Their tickets were booked by an autochtonous Dutchman we could reach and who provided some background about the trip.
He told us that the Dutchman of Somali descent is a youth friend who wanted to visit relatives in the UK. “On the internet, he searched for people who would join him in order to share some of the costs. That’s how he came into contact with the men from Brussels. He did not know them at all prior to that England trip.” Reportedly, the trio was stopped in the UK because something was wrong with the identity papers of one of the Brussels men. But what exactly was the problem, is not known — and neither is how long they were held.
The men from Brussels did not travel back together with the Dutchman, but if they did so with their initial reservation, they came back the very same day as the Paris attacks. Again, the French police report does not allege that their stay in the UK was somehow linked to terrorism. The Brussels man of Iraqi descent, 43 year old A.J.I.H. seems to have relatives living in London, which can mean there is a completely innocent reason for visiting the UK. We do not know whether he was interrogated about the trip, but the Dutchman of Somali descent certainly was.
The latest story of a Belgian citizen trying to join the Islamic State, seems to reveal a controversial swap by the Turkish government. According to a list that is widely circulating now, the Belgian was caught on his way to Syria. But Turkey exchanged him with IS as part of the deal about the Turkish hostages that recently were set free.
Johan Castillo Boens (35) isn’t the average Belgian fighter within IS. He is the son of a retired professor at the chemistry department of Leuven University, whose wife comes from the Philippines. They raised their son as a christian, but Johan converted to islam several years ago after some serious personal troubles. Nowadays, he is married with a woman from the Philippines himself. They have five children, of which the youngest one was born in June of this year. His wife was also a christian, but has followed him into islam.
According to his mother, Johan didn’t manage to find a decent job, although he has studied business management and took additional courses in IT. “Because he is half Philippino, he looks a bit like a foreigner”, she is quoted today in the Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’. “And letting his beard grow, made things only worse. We often tried to convince him to shave off that beard. It isn’t necessary that everyone can see you’re a muslim, we told. But he didn’t want to listen. Recently, he spoke about moving to Jordania and in August he left to search there for a job.”
At least, that was what he told. Two separate sources informed us this week that Johan went to Turkey instead, trying to join the Islamic State in Syria. According to the first source, his name is on a list of several European IS supporters that were recently caught by the Turkish police. The second told us that he was in Turkey indeed about fortnight ago, but since has crossed the Syrian border. Caught or gone to Syria? That seems to be a contradiction. But both sources say they have indications that Johan was part of a shadowy deal.
At least one other man — a Briton, we are told — was mentioned on the same list, but has joined IS in Syria now. It is thought that Turkey has handed them over to IS as a part of the exchange that has set 49 Turkish hostages free, including the staff of the Turkish consulate in Mosul. According to the Turkish press, there has been such a swap indeed. But until now, it was thought Turkey only persuaded the Syrian resistance movement Liwa al-Tawheed to hand over some of their IS detainees, but didn’t release anyone itself. The fate of Johan Castillo Boens possibly can prove otherwise. If he really is in Syria now after being detained by the Turkish authorities, Ankara will have to explain a few things.