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.