A friend recently sent me an article by Matthieu Suc from March 23, 2016, that I had somehow missed. Entitled “The terrorist networks of the Islamic state (2/3): the chain of command leading to the attacks,” it details the background stories of a few of the major figures involved in organizing attacks in France and Belgium. One of them, the least well known by far of the group, is related to the fifth article I ever wrote for my blog. His name is Abdelnacer Benyoucef.
In the aforementioned article, I told the story of Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a young Algerian studying computer science at the University of Reims. Ghlam had fallen in with jihadists in France and was arrested on April 19, 2015, in a botched plot to attack a church in Villejuif in which he managed to murder a young woman in her car and shoot himself all before ever getting to the church. Investigators discovered during Ghlam’s questioning that he had a “director” from abroad named Abou Mouthana, who he claimed to have met on a trip to Algeria in October 2014. He accompanied the man to Istanbul at the end of October and after a month returned to France with €2000 from his new friend and a request to stay in touch.
Mouthana subsequently reached out and asked Ghlam to return to Istanbul in February. Ghlam arrived there on 3 February 2015 and stayed for ten days. He traveled by bus to Gaziantep and met in a safehouse with Mouthana and five others (including two Tunisian religious authorities and a computer specialist by the name of Abou Omar).
The early speculation was that this mysterious director was Fabien Clain, but Suc’s article says that’s not the case, and it should have been clearer much earlier. Even in August 2015 articles about Ghlam’s shadowy associate stated that he was a native of Villepinte (Seine-Saint-Denis) and initially wanted Ghlam to attack the train station there. Villepinte is not Clain’s hometown.
Benyoucef is 43 years of age and comes from a wealthy Algerian family. He arrived in the area of Aulnay-sous-Bois/Villepinte as a 5-year-old to stay with his grandfather and became a professional thief by the age of 17. Within several years he would be attending a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan with his friend Zine Eddine Khalid. The two went on to spend several months in the Pankisi Gorge following their training before returning to France.
On March 1, 2004, he participated in a staged robbery of Brinks ATMs with his friend Zine Eddine, Khalid’s brother Djamel, Fred Gustave (a convert from Antilles), and Hassan Baouchi. Baouchi, the brother of GICM leader Moustapha Baouchi, was an ATM technician who claimed that he was forced by three masked robbers to open the machines at six different locations in the northern suburbs of Paris (Seine-Saint-Denis) where they made off with over a million euros. The police and his employer immediately doubted the story, given that he had training for such situations and had technical means to alert his employers. Yet they had not the proof to detain him, although he was put under surveillance moving forward. Brother Moustapha was arrested a month later for his alleged involvement in the Madrid train bombings.
It would not be until October that the first of the conspirators was arrested. Benyoucef (referred to in stories of the time as Nasser B.) was picked up in his native Algeria in possession of €40,000 for some undeclared reason. The rest of the men were rolled up the following month beginning with Gustave, an official of the Association culturelle des musulmans d’Aulnay-sous-bois, to be followed with a few days by Baouchi and Djamel Khalid. Zine Eddine had already been arrested in June as part of the investigation into what would become known as the ‘Chechen Network’ (filière tchétchène). He received 5-6 years during the trial for his involvement in that network in 2006 and a further 10 years for the fake robbery in 2010. Baouchi received 6 years, Gustave 4 years, and Djamel Khalid 18 months. The largest sentence of 12 years was reserved for Benyoucef who was tried in absentia. As for the money, it was never found and one can only presume it made it into the hands of those for whom it was intended.
So there you have Benyoucef’s pedigree: a jihadist trained in Afghanistan who gained experience in the Caucasus, with links to the Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain and individuals plotting attacks on French soil. His fellow conspirators in the Brinks robbery, the Khalids, also had an older brother distinguished as one of the handful of French citizens at Guantanamo: Ridouane Khalid. Suc’s article also mentions that he had a possible connection to Ouassini Cherifi’s network, but given his absence the authorities were unable to explore this in detail.
So what happened to Benyoucef in Algeria? Articles in November say that the Algerians held him for two years and then released him. Then he disappears—until now. If the identification of Benyoucef as Abou Mouthana is correct then we can surmise a number of interesting things.
- Despite knowing his background and what kind of individual he is, the French were unable to or simply failed to have him extradited from Algeria following his incarceration there
- Conducting a trial in 2010 for an event that occurred in 2004 when that event has a nexus to terrorism is a recipe for disaster. This is how you get convictions in absentia.
- If one presumes an international arrest warrant has existed for Benyoucef, it certainly hasn’t prevented him from traveling freely outside of Europe or even on its fringes.
- If one presumes that intelligence services are aware of Benyoucef’s position within the Islamic State, then he either has false identities good enough to fool the Algerians and the Turks, or there is a failure to share the relevant intelligence, or there is a refusal to share the relevant intelligence—possibly for legitimate reasons.
The bottom line for me is a consistent refrain on these pages. Europe’s long-running reluctance to recognize the serious nature of the threat it faces, to appropriately incarcerate those who threaten it and keep them there for their full sentences, and to maintain tabs on them following the completion of their sentences continues to enrich the soil for those old roots to develop more and more shoots.