Friday and Saturday have brought new arrests and charges in Belgium, one definitely connected to the March 22nd attacks. Youssef E.A. (b. August 4, 1985) was arrested on Friday and had the book thrown at him: participation in the activities of a terrorist group, murder in a terrorist context and assassination attempts in a terrorist context, as author, co-author or accomplice. Nothing further was given regarding his identity or the particulars of the activities of which he is accused.
Just coming over the wire yesterday was news of an extensive series of raids in Belgium. The Washington Post reported on raids of 152 garages and the detainment of 40 individuals. Twelve of the forty people were arrested, and three of them have been charged. The three charged are named as Samir C.* (b. January 13, 1989), Moustapha B. (b. March 14, 1976), and Jawad B. (b. March 3, 1987); they are suspected of intending to carry out an attack at the fan zone for the Belgian national soccer team at the Place Rogier. This is huge, because I we can already say who the last two are. I already had a notion of their identities based on my previous writing and Belgian media conglomerate RTBF confirmed my suspicions earlier today.
If you have been reading my blog, you may remember the article I wrote linking the El Bakaroui brothers to Oussama and Yassine Atar, two brothers who are actually their cousins through their mothers. Oussama spent significant time in prisons in Iraq throughout the US occupation, suspected of having shown up in Ramadi to help the Islamist insurgency. Yassine was arrested after the March 22nd attacks, because he figured prominently in one of the El Bakaroui brother’s last will and testament. The Wall Street Journal even reported that investigators discovered explosive residue on Yassine’s skin and hair.
The mothers that connect them all are two sisters with maiden name Benhattal. When I was digging into the family connections and reading up on people with the surname Benhattal in Brussels, two of the names I discovered were Moustapha and Jawad. Jawad was an accomplice of Ibrahim El Bakraoui in the ill-fated robbery that landed him in jail in 2010. Moustapha was mentioned as a participant in a 2000 robbery of a Stessens jewelers, for which he was later acquitted in a 2011 retrial. At the end of my article I wondered aloud how Jawad and Moustapha might connect. RTBF supplied the answer in their report. Two of the three charged were, in fact, Moustapha and Jawad Benhattal, uncle and cousin respectively of the El Bakraoui brothers.
This is significant for the implications it carries about the importance of family (El Bakraoui, Atar, and Benhattal), and the fluidity between typical criminality (albeit violent) and jihadist-influenced terror. If the Brussels authorities are smart they will start taking a wholesale look at the criminal circles operating in their areas of operation, start figuring out who is related to whom, and look for any avenues of jihadist influence within those circles.
The other thing that interests me about this report is that 152 garages were searched. Are they looking for something in particular, e.g. explosives? Is there something about the particular people detained that makes them look at garages? Are garages simply significant points of illegal activity in the country? Or is it a combination of all of the above?
I ask these questions, because if one keeps in mind that Yassine Atar tested positive for trace amounts of explosives, that investigators were searching for more explosives following the March 22nd attacks, that Osama Krayem claims to have flushed explosive material down the toilet, and that investigators are clearly looking for something in those 152 garages, it seems quite clear to me why Samir C. and the Benhattals have been arrested.
*Samir Chahjouani per news reports from June 23