Belgian antiterrorism police carried out an operation in the late afternoon of last Tuesday in the Rue Albert in the Brussels suburb of Laeken. A couple was arrested and charged with providing logistical support to the perpetrators of the November Paris attacks and the Brussels attacks. The two were identified as Farid K. and Meryem E.B. in the press. Two days later Farid’s surname was divulged as Kharkhach. Kharkhach has been kept in detention since his arrest, but his wife has been released under strict conditions. While she is charged with forgery and the use of forgery in writing, she does not share her husband’s additional charge of participation in the activities of a terrorist group.
Looking at the residents of the Rue Albert, there is a Meryem El Balghiti at number 16. Social media for a Meryem El Balghiti in Brussels shows her family to include a ‘farid.’ There is no one by the name of Farid Kharkhach on that street so far as I can tell, but a Mourad Kharkhach lives next door to El Balghiti. Thus I am fairly confident that Meryem E.B. is El Balghiti.
Although we have only scant information, El Balghiti may be the victim of her husband’s illicit business activities instead of a collaborator in them. Kharkhach, operating as Bilal, told her initially that he had gotten into the business of selling used vehicles to explain the strange people showing up at their home. Later his story changed to helping people from Morocco come to Belgium to find work.
According to news reports Kharkhach admits to being the go-between for the false documents used by some of the perpetrators of the Paris and Brussels attacks in the run-up to November 13, 2015. It appears that Khalid El Balkraoui was the purchaser and the “factory” in Saint Gilles disrupted on October 19, 2015, was the supplier. Kharkhach says he helped El Bakraoui not realizing that he was radicalized, but refused any further assistance following the Paris attacks; they met again on December 31, 2015 at the house of an Omar near Gare du Midi. Today’s La Dernière Heure says that Kharkhach and El Bakraoui had known one another at least since December 2014.
The story of one end of this transaction, Khalid El Bakraoui, is fairly well known—certainly better known than the other end. The false documents industry operating out of the Brussels municipality of Saint-Gilles is an interesting story all its own, and one that shows yet another missed/delayed opportunity by the Belgian authorities to interdict multiple terrorism events.
Djamel Eddine Ouali and the Saint-Gilles Document “Factories”
While reports of false papers factories being discovered in Saint-Gilles were appearing in the Belgian press in late July and mid-October 2015, they received scant coverage there and none outside the country until a major arrest took place in Italy in the immediate aftermath of the Brussels attacks in March 2016.
On March 27, 2016, authorities in the small southern Italian town of Bellizzi swarmed a 40-year-old Algerian man in broad daylight bringing him to his knees on the street. The man was named Djamel Eddine Ouali and he was being arrested and charged with the production of the false documents used by the members of the Paris attacks teams. The Italians discovered his presence when he and his wife applied for a residency permit and the name matched an international arrest warrant out of Belgium. Later it emerged that Ouali had departed Belgium rather hastily and indicated that he and his wife (Lynda Sadki) would be going to Dubai. He had resided in Dubai prior to coming to Belgium in 2014 and had worked for the university there, where a friend referred to him as a “computer genius.”
According to his wife Lynda, they traveled to Liège for a change of atmosphere following her miscarriage and met an Abdelkedir El Makhlouch in a restaurant there. He advised them to go to Italy in order to regularize their situation and would assist them in the process. El Makhlouch’s bona fides were testified to by Ouali’s boss in the document forgery business, who told him that everything El Makhlouch did was above board and within the proper legal framework. Abdelkedir and his brother Mustapha helped Ouali and his wife get set up and referred him to a lawyer named Adel El Hamri who would help them with legal matters. This arrangement fell apart the moment Ouali was arrested.
It turns out that Ouali was the “artisan” behind the false documents being produced in Saint-Gilles and authorities discovered his identity from the materials taken out of the apartment, e.g. a photo he had taken of him and his wife together, at Rue Gustave Defnet 32 on October 13, 2015. From the outset the documents he and this network generated were considered very high quality and would pass muster on an international level. The network was also able to produce a considerable quantity of documents of various sorts for a variety of countries. Its clientele was global. When reported on October 19, the authorities considered the bulk of the material was for human smuggling/trafficking purposes but even then recognized the fact that jihadists were also possibly using the network’s services.
When the network was disrupted, 10 raids were conducted and 9 individuals apprehended. Ultimately 14 would be rounded up and eventually put on trial. Besides Ouali, I’ve found a few others associated with the case that have been named in the press: Khalid Ledjeradi, Redouane Ledjeradi, Abdelouahab Kerbache, and Mouatassim M. Khalid Ledjeradi was identified as the leader of the organization and was already convicted in October 2015 in a separate case for participation in a criminal organization and human trafficking. Details about the Ledjeradis are few and confusing. An Algerian article refers to them as brothers and Djamel as their cousin and states they were convicted for trafficking false papers in 2011. An Italian paper calls the Ledjeradis cousins and says that Khalid is the cousin of two other forgers investigated in 2010 and 2014. Kerbache, age 43, was arrested in the October 2015 roundup. Mouatassim M., known to authorities for trafficking in documents, was arrested as part of an investigation into a stolen bag on November 11, 2015. In a recent court appearance he pleaded for a lighter sentence claiming that he was working with authorities and that his information had helped them uncover the fraud documents ring in Saint-Gilles. The courts are skeptical and have received no information from the authorities to corroborate his story. To add insult to injury, Mouatassim’s plea was not only rejected but his sentence increased from 50 to 66 months.
In an interesting wrinkle, today’s article also states that the investigation that led to Kharkhach’s arrest also mentioned links to Jamal Alkhomaili. Readers of this blog will recognize the name from a previous article as a co-accomplice of Moustapha Benhattal, a seasoned member of the Laeken Gang, and relative of the El Bakraouis and Atars. Online records show that Alkhomaili is/was a neighbor of Benhattal’s sister Khadouj, mother of the El Bakraoui brothers. Alkhomaili is also known for his violent criminal activities with Brussels gangsters like Mohammed Hammani, Younes Zaanan, and Mohamed Azannay. The particulars of his relationship to this investigation could be very interesting.
Of the little attention received by this aspect of the story, the bulk went to the arrests and the apartment involved in the month prior to the Paris attacks. However, there was another location raided on July 27th only several minutes’ walk away from Rue Gustave Defnet operation. As part of an anti-terrorist operation, authorities entered an apartment at Rue des Fortifications 14 in the early morning to find not the suspect for whom they were looking but a full-fledged document production facility. Reports at the time suggested the raid was conducted in concert with arrests of terror suspect in Antwerp, including two former Guantanamo detainees, Moussa Zemmouri and Soufian Abar Huwari, but this was never subsequently explored as far as I can tell. It was only following Ouali’s arrest that this incident and location were mentioned again in connection to his activities. Yet the description given is so much like the description of his activities at the Rue Gustave Defnet that it’s hard to tell whether he truly operated at both locations or if this is just a journalistic conflation.
A Sense of Urgency and a Sense of Importance
There is admittedly a great deal we do not know about this whole story. Yet what we have so far gives a palpable feeling that both the authorities and the media have treated this phenomenon in general and this case in particular as a routine matter. It’s as though the prevailing thought is that the fraud documents business is bad, but not as bad as terrorism. Thus the investigations stretch out for years. The news coverage of a bust lasts for a day or two and then disappears. It took the Paris and Brussels attacks and the fear of more such events perpetrated by sleeper agents infiltrated into Europe disguised as migrants and refugees to shake up the system. But change comes slowly.
Here’s what I mean. A significant detail I did not mention earlier is that the whole investigation into the fraud documents activity of the Ledjeradi network began with the interception of a package destined for Greece in May 2014. That means the first real disruption didn’t take place until over a year later. Information recovered from July and October was of no use in preventing November 13, despite the fact that the October material is known to have the false identity documents of some of the perpetrators. Despite October’s bust they were still unaware of important members of the ring, like Ouali, until December. Once they knew who he was, they didn’t know where he was until he initiated an encounter with Italian authorities trying to regularize his status. Despite listening in on phone conversations between Kerbache and Kharkhach two months prior to the Paris attacks, Kharkhach is not arrested until now, nearing three years from the investigation’s kickoff and nearly a year and a half following Kharkhach’s first reported interaction with the Saint-Gilles operation.
What is the problem? Are there not enough people to work the issue? Is there too much information? Do the authorities lack the necessary tools to analyze it? Are they just inept? Is it a failure to prioritize? Are there jurisdiction and information sharing problems? Are the legal hurdles insurmountable?
Answer: Some combination of all of the above.
The press can help out as well by amping up the coverage of the activities of criminal networks, especially those that are critical facilitators for terror conspiracies, e.g. fraud documents, weapons smuggling, etc. In this case, there would literally be one or two articles about an incident, mostly in a single paper, with no names. And then silence. Even now with the Saint-Gilles group on trial, I can only find a handful of the fourteen names involved.
In a world awash in 38 million (as of July 2013) lost or stolen passports uprooting the networks trafficking in fake documents is more important than ever. It needs to be made a top priority and the public should be adequately informed about the performance of those charged with tackling it.