Hind Fraihi, a journalist who went undercover and wrote En immersion à Molenbeek ten years ago, described the district even then as a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Yet the emergence of the Islamic State and the extension of its influence in Belgium has created something different. Whereas earlier preachers and recruiters had sought to legitimize their violent ideology with carefully constructed justifications, the recruiters who aligned themselves with the Islamic State have eschewed all of this in favor of grafting a few basic religious ideas onto the existing career paths of its potential soldiers—a fusion some are calling “gangster Islam.” This serves the needs of an organization that seeks to attack the very heart of Western Civilization by supplying it with a ready-made network of facilitators already schooled by the Underworld.
At every point in the story of the Paris attacks (and now Brussels) one meets character after character who has spent time in jail/prison for theft or violent confrontations; has sold drugs; knows who to contact for discrete accommodations, weapons, fraudulent documents and so on. And while it is becoming less the case now, the reaction to the discovery of each new node in the European cells is met with by surprise on the part of law enforcement: “we thought he was just a common criminal; we had no idea he was radicalized!”
On Monday the public was alerted to two new arrests in the Brussels attacks: two more brothers by the names of Smail (b. 1984) and Ibrahim (b. 1988) Farisi. According to the Belgian press, the elder brother had rented an apartment for the conspirators on the Avenue des Casernes 39 (#402) in Etterbeek. From here Khalid el Bakraoui and Osama Krayem departed with explosives to attack the Maelbeek metro station. Authorities expected to possibly discover the “missing” bag of explosives last seen with Krayem. Yet, they found nothing but a spic-and-span apartment, which had been cleaned from top to bottom in the intervening period by the Farisi brothers. Since their arrest, we’ve heard nothing from them or about them apart from Ibrahim’s claim of innocence—he was just helping his brother out.
I would be inclined to believe that the Farisi connection to all of this is based on an existing friendship with the El Bakraoui brothers and not a prior association to jihadist cells in the city. I have not seen their names in connection to any previous reporting on foreign fighters or in connection with any completed or ongoing court cases against groups like Sharia4Belgium. Furthermore, I can’t find any news articles mentioning them in connection with any criminal activities, although this can be notoriously difficult to discover if their full names have never been released. They represent a possible example of that fusion described by Fraihi.
The El Bakraoui brothers are unquestionably a prime example. The latest issue of Islamic State’s magazine Dabiq describes how both came to follow the true path. Ibrahim had been sentenced in October 2010 to 9 years in prison for his role in the robbery of a stockbroker. According to the magazine, he followed events in Syria closely during his incarceration which caused a change in him. He decided to take religion seriously. He was conditionally released in 2014, whereupon he began to lay plans and stockpile materials with his brother Khalid. He attempted to go to Syria in the summer of 2015, but was turned away by Turkish authorities, who returned him to his last point of departure, the Netherlands. Having no proof that he was radicalized, the Belgian authorities simply let him go.
Khalid was sentenced in February 2011 to 5 years for his involvement in car-jackings. He apparently did not serve his full sentence either, but while in prison had a dream of fighting alongside the Prophet as an archer. This dream filled him with conviction, so that he began proselytizing youth in the city upon his release. He relates two other dreams in the article which contribute to his engaging in the Brussels martyrdom operation.
Interestingly there is no hint of recruitment within the prison system for either of them—simply a self-realization on the part of both to pursue this new course. How true this is, no one can say.
As we’ve come to see this phenomenon more and more, it may be worthwhile for the authorities to take a renewed look at some of the old criminal comrades of men like the El Bakraouis. For example, what are the Ibrahim’s accomplices from the stockbroker robbery doing: Belkacem Boulkoumite and Jawad Benhattal? Khalid’s gang consisted of some very hard-core, reckless individuals. Men like Yassine Dibi and Majib Azehaf staged an unprecedented armed escape from the Brussels Palace of Justice in 2009, when Yassine’s brother Youssef burst into the room and tossed them weapons. Lawyers, judges, and police officers were embarrassingly forced to lay prostate as the men walked unhindered from the scene and stayed on the loose for months afterwards. What are men like these and Khalid’s other accomplices Mohamed Nouiyer and Youssef Siraj doing now? Are they still in jail? Are they connecting to the world of the Islamic State?