I was excited this morning to see a new article from CNN about Oussama Atar. For those of you who have followed my blog, you know I have written about him a number of times (5 to be precise). I initially stumbled upon him while trying to unearth more about the background of the El Bakraoui brothers, discovering his relationship to them, the Benhattals, and Yasin Atar. My findings were confirmed by the Belgian press the following month. I came back to his story briefly with the arrest of Moustapha and Jawad Benhattal last June. August brought forth the stunning development of a series of unsuccessful raids in Laeken, Anderlecht, and Evere aimed at capturing Atar. Meanwhile Belgian MP Alain Destexhe demanded an investigation into the role of Amnesty International and the deputies Zoe Genot (Ecolo), Jamal Ikazban (PS) and Ahmed El Khannouss (CDH) in the release of Atar from an Iraqi prison in 2012. The last time I mentioned the Atars was in connection to a neighbor of their aunt Khadouj, Jamal Alkhomaili, who was an old gang-mate of Moustapha Benhattal and an associate of the recently arrested Farid Kharkhach, a supplier of false documents from the Saint-Gilles “factory” to the El Bakraouis.
CNN’s article is a good summation of the information we have to this point, peppered with a few new details and clarifications. However, for my own part I would have liked more digging and confirmation on some aspects of the story, and a little pushback on one of the sources, in particular.
Significant space is given to the thoughts and impressions of Andre Jacob, head of the anti-terrorism unit for Belgian intelligence at the time Atar was captured. I like the idea of getting someone so close to the story to talk, but I was bewildered by his presentation. He describes Atar as a “boy” who really wasn’t a terrorist at the time he was captured, but more of an intelligent, clever kid that fell in with a bad crowd. He recognized his error, but was left by the Americans and the Iraqis in prison camps and jails to fall into the waiting arms of real jihadists who fully radicalized him. If only he could have brought him home in 2006 all of this might have been avoided.
On what basis does he say this? Damn, if I know. Jacob freely admits that Atar crossed the border from Syria into Iraq and was picked up by forces in Ramadi (one of the most dangerous spots in Iraq). Those forces arrested not only Atar but other known jihadists in the vehicle. These others were driving Atar for medical treatment for an injury he told Jacob he received while “experimenting” with grenades.
So much for the story of a young boy who wanted to provide humanitarian aid to suffering Iraqis but just chose the wrong friends. Jacob’s assessment just seems like willful ignorance to me. Furthermore, how is he in position to assess Atar’s degree of radicalization before he arrived in Iraq? Did he perform an in-depth review of Atar’s life before departing for Syria? Did he have any idea what Atar was doing, apart from language study, while in Syria? Did he have such a profile of Atar before going to speak with him?
So until we are given a lot more information about this period in Atar’s life and some real evidence of making friends with the future leadership of ISIS while in Camp Bucca, I’ll stick with the Iraqi assessment that he had already traveled the road of radicalization.
What doesn’t require speculation is the Belgian’s failure with regard to Atar following the campaign to have him released. The article states that the Belgians worked for years to secure his release. A special effort was made on his behalf following claims of a cancer diagnosis in 2010 only to find that this was false, and that he suffered instead from an infection of the colon. He was finally let go by the Iraqis in August 2012 on two precise conditions: he would not be issued a passport, and he would be monitored. Yet CNN reports that he was issued a passport, and the subsequent history shows that he was not monitored. Despite his history, he was allowed to visit his cousins, the El Bakraouis, in separate prisons a minimum of twenty times! What is the possible justification? What did they talk about? I’m assuming their communications were monitored, but then again, I probably shouldn’t assume.
He was detained in Tunisia in 2013. According to CNN he made his way to Turkey after that and disappeared into Syria. Yet, in the aftermath of the Brussels attacks authorities went looking for him at his rue du Busselenberg address. Such was the extent of their monitoring.
And most stunning of all in the CNN report is the admission by a judicial source that Atar—a man considered more important by radicals in the country than Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a man who authorities believe is the “Abu Ahmad” behind the Paris attacks—came physically to Belgium in August of last year and met with members of his family. Direct, physical contact with people supposedly being surveilled by Belgian authorities, and yet they can’t catch him. There’s a missed opportunity for you.
Have there been any consequences for those family members?