So many times I find myself beginning one story only to end up at a radically different destination than the one I’d intended. The most recent manifestation of this phenomenon started the other day when I decided to revisit the Bazarouj family and more specifically, brother Youssef. Ayoub and his siblings provided the material for one of my earliest articles, and I always like to check up on those I’ve written about previously to see if anything new has emerged. It turns out that Ayoub is now seeking damages for the damages caused by the multiple raids on his property after the Paris attacks.
Older brother Youssef, who is in Syria, doesn’t seem to have registered as newsworthy of late, but in the research process I did stumble upon the Belgian national list of persons and entities that commit or attempt to commit, facilitate or participate in terrorist offenses and whose funds and economic resources should be frozen In accordance with Article 3 of the Royal Decree of 28 December 2006. The list was recently refreshed and includes Youssef Bazarouj from a previous iteration. I recognized quite a few other names, and decided to look into some of the others with which I was not familiar. I chose Yacine Azzaoui.
I quickly discovered that Azzaoui was the husband of Mélissa F., whom I remember reading about in the course of my other researches shortly after starting my blog. I remember being unable to determine her full identity, but now I spent a little more time reading about her and her case. Mélissa is the daughter of a Belgian mother and Lebanese father, and grew up practicing Christianity in Lebanon before moving to Belgium. She found her new home lacked the religious fervor of her mother country and ultimately fell in with Muslim compatriots with whom she felt she had more in common, eventually converting to Islam around 2008 at age 15. Four years later she met Azzaoui and married him. They had a child together but that didn’t stop Azzaoui from departing for Syria in August 2014.
Mélissa F. and her 14 month old would eventually be picked up at the Brussels South Charleroi Airport with two other males identified as Mohamed Amine B. and Abdelkader B. before they were able to begin their journey to Syria. She became part of what was referred to as the “filière poussette”—the stroller network—along with friend Julie V. and Marine P., a 23-year-old who departed the country in 2013 with her 5 year old daughter.
It’s one of Mélissa’s two male companions at the airport that served as the next pivot point in my researches and the one I ultimately found most interesting. Abdelkader B. was described in reports from January as 35 years old and the brother of Mohamed, age 31. Abdelkader received a five-year sentence for his role while Mohamed was released because prosecutors could not demonstrate witting material support to his brother. Given that information, I was able to construct a search to figure out who precisely Abdelkader and Mohamed are. Once the Merah brothers are removed from the result set, the next set of brothers that emerged were the Benameurs. A handful of articles demonstrated that these were in fact the two for whom I was searching.
In a 15 May 2016 article on Omar Damache and the Verviers cell, this piece of information was given: “The court imposed a five-year prison sentence on Abdelkader Benameur for attempting to leave Syria with a young mother and her baby in January 2015. And it decided a simple suspension of the conviction for Mohammed Benameur, convicted of complicity in his brother’s attempt to leave Syria.” A year earlier La Capitale had run a story on a Mohamed Benameur from Forest who had been released on 17 February after being incarcerated because he was suspected of terrorist acts and being a jihad recruiter. He had gone to Greece in October to bring his brother’s passport so that he could return to Belgium.
I could now focus on Abdelkader Benameur (possibly born 2 November 1979), who had been described as the pivotal actor in the group arrested in January 2015. The first mention I find of him comes from all the way back in 2003. An Abdelkader Benameur of the correct age for that time was involved in a 2003 robbery of the Argenta Bank in the Avenue Van Volxem in Forest, with between 4-5 alleged accomplices. Benameur was caught because he foolishly removed his hood during the event and was picked up by security cameras, while another accomplice partially removed his. This second man was believed to be Mohamed Nouiyer, but he strongly denied the accusation and Benameur exonerated him during the trial.
Here we have a case of what has been a hot topic in recent weeks: the criminal-terrorist nexus. I could not find any follow-up to this story describing the length of Benameur’s sentence or where he spent his time, so there is a large gap between 2004 and when we see him emerging again in 2014. Yet we can glean something a little further from his alleged accomplice, Nouiyer. Surprisingly enough this is not the first time I have mentioned him in my blog. My first article about “gangster jihadism” talked about the El Bakraoui brothers, their criminal history, some of the people in their circle, and said that the authorities would do well to revisit these characters and see if this transformation from hardened criminal to ardent jihadist was more than just a fleeting novelty. It turns out that Mohamed Nouiyer was part of the criminal crowd around surrounding Khalid El Bakraoui, was captured with him and sentenced with him in 2011. Are there direct linkages then between Benameur and some of the main characters involved in the Paris and Brussels attacks going back years?
It’s very well possible. Benameur has been described as an associate of Khalid Zerkani, the infamous recruiter in Brussels who made an industry out of self-funding jihadism through criminal activities by his network of followers. If Benameur’s bank robbery is more than a one-off activity in his history, he brought a valuable set of skills to Zerkani and the impressionable young men surrounding him.
Benameur was also discovered in the friends network of a social media site for Saïd Saouti, a founding member of the Kamikaze Riders (KR) biker gang, which has multiple connections to members of Sharia4Belgium and the Islamic State. Saouti, who had previous criminal convictions, and another member of the KR gang were placed on trial in the fall of 2016 and found guilty of participation in the activities of a terrorist group and the recruitment of people for a terrorist group.
Yet, it’s his activities in Greece prior to his arrest with Mélissa and Mohamed-Amine that may be of most concern. Benameur lived in Athens and Thessaloniki and was in contact with Omar Damache and Walid Hamam. Damache was tried in connection with the events in Verviers and sentenced to eight years in prison this past summer. Hamam, alias Abou Youssef, was sentenced in absentia to five years during the same trial. He was supposedly arrested in Lebanon in 2014 for plotting a suicide attack in Beirut but managed to gain his release. He was again captured with Damache in Greece in early 2015 but released. In fact, investigations show he was twice arrested and released by Greek authorities, probably not realizing who he was with his fake identity documents. In early December the US announced it had killed Hamam, Sammy Djedou, and Salah Gourmat in a coalition airstrike against Raqqa. Zaïd Koulliss also admitted to meeting with Benameur in Alexandrouplis.
So if he is the same guy we see robbing a bank in 2003, we see him like the El Bakraouis moving from this phase into something far more insidious. He may have moved at a different pace, for different reasons, but he ultimately peddled his criminal skills into terrorist facilitation skills. He likely spent time in a combat zone; he was arrested escorting others to these places; he moved among people who perpetrated horrific terrorist acts in Europe; he spent time with people dangerous enough to become the targets of airstrikes in the heart of Islamic State territory. He even warrants space in one of the special wings in Belgian prisons to isolate terrorists from the general prison population. This is quite a transformation. It’s a shame we have so little information to understand when, how, and why.
This was also quite a journey for me, but it’s becoming more the norm as I seek to “put the story together”.