The Migrant Train to “The 15:17 To Paris”

Khazzani
Khazzani Captured (Photo by Paris Match via Getty Images)

When I wrote my article bemoaning the lack of information and progress regarding the case of Ayoub el-Khazzani on August 20, 2016, I thought I had done an exhaustive search of the available information on him.  I think now that was largely true, but unfortunately, I missed something key.  It’s been a long time since I published anything, and in light of the February release of Eastwood’s new movie, I’d like to take the opportunity of my return to go over what I missed and bring you up to speed on the handful of developments that have taken place.

The Scout

Looking back the big new break seemed to have occurred on November 8, 2016, with the publication of “The Islamic State’s External Operations and the French-Belgian Nexus” by Jean-Charles Brisard and Kevin Jackson in the Combating Terrorism Center’s CTC Sentinel journal.  Drawing on a statement from the German Federal Prosecution Office and information obtained from the Hungarian Counter-Terrorism Center (TEK), the article in part detailed how Abdelhamid Abaaoud tasked a young Algerian named Bilal C. (identified in the French press on December 19, 2016, as Bilal Chatra aka Hamza) to map out the Balkan migrant route as a means to bring in Islamic State operatives.  Furthermore, Abaaoud made his way back into Europe in the company of Ayoub El-Khazzani, who had also been receiving travel tips from Chatra.  The two arrived in Hungary on August 1, 2016, and stayed together in a hotel in Budapest.  They parted ways on August 4 when Abaaoud left for Austria by car and el-Khazzani left for Vienna by train the day after.

This was followed by Le Monde coverage on November 12 reiterating the material from CTC Sentinel while adding a few more details about Chatra’s trip and detainment in Hungary and Abaaoud’s and Khazzani’s arrival and stay in Budapest.

By mid-December, El-Khazzani, who previously had either told investigators ludicrous tales of finding weapons in the park or simply said nothing, finally began providing investigators with something more believable.  According to CNN, Le Monde believed the heightened media coverage probably prompted el-Khazzani to open up to authorities.

Maybe.  Maybe not.

But if one can attribute such a breakthrough to extensive media coverage, one is left to ask why it wasn’t done sooner.  These November “revelations,” as they were called, were nothing new.  The initial revelation came months earlier from Der Spiegel on June 11, 2016.  The magazine announced that authorities made a chance discovery of a suspected terrorist in a young Algerian, Bilal C., arrested in Aachen for theft and violations of the Residence Act (Aufenthaltsgesetz).  He was alleged to have been in contact with the likes of Salah Abdeslam and Abdelhamid Abaaoud.  According to information obtained from French security services, he provided assistance to Abaaoud and one ‘Ayoub El K.’ in navigating the migrant route in Europe.

The local Aachener Zeitung provided even more detail two days later on Chatra, outlining a series of three arrests for petty criminal activity, the first in December 2015 and the last two in April the following year leading to his arrest on April 29, 2016.  Despite his pilfering and knowing that he was collecting state benefits under multiple identities, authorities couldn’t seem to find a reason to keep him in custody until he became a national security concern.  The local paper smelled a rat, however, when it came to the official story of a “chance” discovery.  Seizing on certain statements made by Polizeipräsident Dirk Weinspach and information from their sources in the security services, they speculated that Chatra had been under surveillance since before his arrest in December 2015.  Furthermore, they revealed that Chatra had moved in and out of the country multiple times following his first arrest.

The English language press didn’t appear to pick up on Chatra’s story until the German Federal Prosecution Office’s official announcement of his arrest as a terror suspect on July 7.  So certainly by early July the general outlines of Chatra’s role and relationships had been widely reported and were known well enough by the relevant individuals, even if someone like me managed to overlook them in August.  Even the July issue of CTC Sentinel included an article by Florian Flade mentioning the Chatra story.

The Aachener Zeitung continued its reporting on Chatra on July 26, building a little more detail as to the specific countries of transit and solidifying the nature of his relationship to Abaaoud and el-Khazzani.  The story seemed to dry up for the next couple months until a press conference was held in Budapest on September 30.  Csaba Majoros and Zsolt Bodnar from the Hungarian anti-terror unit Terrorelhárítási Központ (TEK) provided quite a few interesting details in the story of Chatra, Abaaoud and el-Khazzani and their travels through Southeast Europe.  Unfortunately, few seemed to pay any attention.  I discovered it through an article from Austrian newspaper Kurier.  Once I knew what to look for, the only other stories I found were from Hungarian (this, for example) and Romanian outlets.

The two officials revealed that 14 terrorists with connections to Paris and Brussels attacks passed through Hungary as “refugees,” traveling in groups of no more than 2-3.  Chatra was indeed tasked by Abaaoud to map out the route and report back on crossings, controls, waiting times, etc.  He entered Hungary on July 16, 2016, by way of the Greek-Macedonian-Serbian migration route.  He was in constant contact with Abaaoud, usually through the internet, but he did obtain a Hungarian cellphone upon his arrival in Budapest.  Within hours of his arrival in Budapest he boarded a train to Austria but was arrested in Györ for attempting an illegal border crossing.  He was transported to a refugee camp at Tatabanya where he passed himself off as a Syrian and was detained until August 4.  He was directed to Balassagyarmat upon his release but did not go there, making his way to Vienna instead.  From there he made his way to Germany.  Khazzani and Abaaoud, meanwhile, arrived in Hungary on August 1 through Röszke.  The two stayed a couple days in a hotel in Budapest, before setting off again on August 5, eventually meeting up with Bilal and travelling together with him to Germany.  The TEK officials stated this information was in the hands of German authorities who were able to establish Chatra’s identity by spring 2016.

With a few exceptions like the name Chatra used (Jdjrad Samas) while in Hungary, and the conflict concerning the particulars of Abaaoud’s and Khazzzani’s departure from Budapest, the story is essentially there in June/July and more so with the TEK’s press conference at the end of September.  I’m left with three basic questions after this:

  • Why didn’t the story gain traction before November?
  • What made el-Khazzani talk in December?
  • Who knew what and when?

To the first, I can only speculate that the job Brisard and Jackson did in aggregating and consolidating the story simply made it easier for news outlets to run more compelling pieces.  I appreciate the job Aachener Zeitung did on a local level at the outset, but I wish they had been able to uncover more about Chatra’s months in Aachen, the particulars of his arrests, and the impressions he made on those around him at the refugee center, for example.  Regarding the Hungarian press conference, the Kurier itself hints at why that was likely ignored.  At the conclusion, the media immediately began to ask the TEK officials why it was held two days ahead of a controversial refugee referendum.  That’s the nature of our world today—less interest in whether the information is correct and more in whether it’s being used as a political ploy.

The second question is really befuddling.  Nothing revealed in the press with regards to the connection between Chatra, Abaaoud, and el-Khazzani hadn’t already been in the hands of the Germans and likely the French since the early months of 2016, if not before that.  One would presume that this information had been used to question el-Khazzani, by which he would be aware of what they possessed on him.  What is it about the press coverage that prompted him?  Did he previously believe he might get through a trial without it being used?

For the last, a few points from my reading gave me pause.  The initial stories said the Germans were made aware of the information by French security services.  The TEK press conference said the information was in the hands of the Germans by spring 2016, although it does not say who put it in their hands.  The Aachener Zeitung says their sources indicated Chatra was already under surveillance in 2015.  The CNN article says that French investigators had requested but did not have the Hungarian file at the time Brisard and Jackson published their article, and that Brisard actually ended up sharing it with them.  All of this might be explained by multiple sources and inter- and intra-governmental information sharing problems, or press sources that don’t know what they’re talking about.  In any event it sounds convoluted and amateurish at best.

Khazzani Reveals

Once he began talking, he generally confirmed the story that had already been coming out, namely that he and Abaaoud traveled together following the advice laid out by Chatra.  He claimed to have spent just six days in Syria during which time he attended a training camp and learned to use a Kalashnikov.  In that short space he was persuaded to return to Europe and conduct an attack.  He was then driven to the Turkish border and told to await instructions in Istanbul.  Although he had flown to Turkey to begin with, he was twice refused at airports in Turkey to board flights to Albania (a point of error in my original article) because he lacked proper documents.  It is at this point that his handler links him up with Chatra and Abaaoud

The story then follows what has been laid out already.  El-Khazzani linked up with Chatra in Vienna and the two made their way to Brussels, linking back up with Abaaoud in a small apartment where Khazzani served as the cook for a small group of ISIS associates.  Shortly after their arrival, Abaaoud received orders from Syria that Chatra needed to psychologically prepare himself for an operation.  Chatra apparently wanted no part of being operational and fled the apartment soon thereafter, raising concerns among the conspirators that he would sell them out to the authorities.  El-Khazzani’s turn came a week before his attack, and Abaaoud made all the preparations for him giving him the target a few days later.  He claims that Abaaoud told him to target Americans and that there would be 3-5 aboard, something investigators find highly implausible.

Chatra Reveals

Le Monde published an excellent profile of Chatra by Soren Seelow on November 11, 2017, which really fills in the details of this whole episode.  Chatra was born on May 18, 1996, in Bou Saâda, Algeria.  He left his country on a flight to Istanbul on October 12, 2014, with dreams of entering Europe.  In an attempt to pay off his debt to get into Europe, Chatra was working for a smuggler in Edirne who specialized in North African immigrants when he met Abaaoud at the end of 2014.  Abaaoud invited Chatra to stay with him in a house in Edirne with several other men, including Redouane Sebbar, a “Youssef”, Khalid Ben Larbi, aka “Abu Zubir,” and Soufiane Amghar, aka “Abu Khalid.”  He drove Abaaoud, Abu Zubir, and Abu Khalid to Athens in December 2014, leaving them in the hands of Sebbar, who had gone ahead of them.  Ben Larbi and Amghar then made their way back to Belgium where they were killed by French forces in the process of disrupting Abaaoud’s Verviers cell on January 15, 2015.

During this time Chatra was in Syria being trained by Islamic State per Abaaoud’s instructions.  He did well, earning the name “Abu Hamza the Sniper,” but eventually ran afoul of the group when he asked to leave Syria following a particularly hard battle.  He was held in prison for a month, but Abaaoud came to his rescue and secured his release.  He was then immersed with Abaaoud’s group of Belgians in Deir Ezzour for two months before being entrusted with a mission to help a brother stuck in Turkey—Ayoub el-Khazzani.

Chatra’s path through Europe and the assistance he provided Abaaoud and el-Khazzani is much as we’ve been told already.  We find out that Chatra and el-Khazzani met up in Vienna and traveled together by train to Cologne.  They caught a game of soccer together with some young people as they waited to be picked up by Mohamed Bakkali aka Abu Walid and taken to Brussels.  Bakkali had been the one who picked up Abaaoud in Budapest when he and el-Khazzani split from one another.

Becoming operational was more than he bargained for, so he departed the apartment while Abaaoud and el-Khazzani slept and made his way back to Germany.  He cut off all contact with his former compatriots despite their entreaties to get him to return.  His run-ins with the law began almost immediately, getting caught shoplifting in August 2015.  He did it again in September and spent several weeks in prison.  During his stay in prison he attempted suicide and is reported by a supervisor speaking to himself in the cell, saying things like, “For a hundred and thirty years, they have fought us in Algeria. (…) We Muslims must unite in the fight against the disbelievers. (…) We will shoot you with knives, with knives!”  A few months later he was picked up again for fraud.  He was arrested for the final time on April 29, 2016, and now sits in the prison at Fresnes in the south of Paris.

The Safehouse Homemaker: Redouane Sebbar

Almost immediately on the heels of el-Khazzani’s cooperation with authorities came the arrest of another Moroccan, Redouane Sebbar (Redouane S. in initial press reports), on December 20, 2016, in the small German locale of Otter bei Tostedt in Lower Saxony.  Sebbar’s arrest came as a total shock to locals, especially those closest to him at the Gasthof Gerlach, a hotel being used to house refugees.  He was described as someone who enjoyed himself, showed no signs of radical belief, was making a concerted effort to learn the language, as someone who was trying to fit in.

What they didn’t know was that he had been intimately involved in the preparations for Islamic State attacks in Europe.  Those initial reports accused him of being involved in securing apartments in Turkey (Edirne) and Greece (Athens) for the conspirators in preparation for the attacks, involvement in the planning and preparation of the failed Verviers plot with Abaaoud, and continued contact with the group following his arrival in Germany in May 2015.

Later reports reveal that he had been managing these conspiratorial apartments for Abaaoud from August 2014 until early 2015, cooking and cleaning for him while being responsible for his security.  Chatra confirmed that Sebbar performed this function.  Sebbar took generally the same path into Western Europe as the others, and then applied for asylum once he arrived in Germany.

One important aspect of Sebbar’s story that received virtually no attention was his linkage to Omar Damache (see my other articles on Damache).  The relationship between Damache and Abaaoud had received plenty of coverage, but only Belgian paper La Derniere Heure and some Greek outlets covered Damache’s relationship to Sebbar.  This occurred from the outset of his arrest, making it all the more curious why other big outlets failed to explore it.  Damache admitted renting his apartment on Chomatianou Street in the Sepolia neighborhood of Athens to a Hamza aka Ezzerrifi and his young fiancée.  He identified Hamza as Redouane Sebbar.  Officials from the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office were already seeking information from the Greeks regarding Sebbar in August and October of 2016.

Sebbar was transferred to French custody on October 26, 2017.  Apart from what was already known, French authorities expressed an interest in his possible involvement as a scout for el-Khazzani’s attack.  Sebbar made a trip on the Thalys five days before the attack, leading investigators to suspect a potential tie-in.  On November 21, a close friend of Sebbar’s in Port-Jerome-sur-Seine (Seine-Maritime) was arrested, but no further information has come to light regarding that.

Sebbar
Redouane Sebbar (“Un complice d’Abaaoud arrêté”)

The Story Continues to Dribble Out

In my previous article I mentioned raids that took place on June 20, 2016.  Those involved 4 searches in Molenbeek-St. Jean, Woluwe-Saint-Lambert and Haren.  Six people were arrested but all were released the same day.  The following day seven more searches were conducted in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean (2), Willebroeck (2), Antwerp (1), Brussels (1) and Koekelberg (1), all with no arrests.  Although they were connected to the Thalys investigation, no other information was ever given about them.

Other more recent raids have resulted in some surprising new additions to the story.  Two individuals were detained in raids on October 9 and 10, but released on October 12 for lack of evidence.  Another series of six raids resulting in four arrests took place October 30 in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean (2), Anderlecht, Laeken, Andenne, and Marche-en-Famenne, the last two locations being prisons.  The subject of the Laeken raid was Mohamed Boutmaret.  Boutmaret, a friend of the el-Bakraoui brothers, had already been embroiled in the Paris attacks investigation, alleged to have purchased 14 Kalashnikov magazines from the Dekaise armory in Wavre which were used in the operation.  He was released without charge.  Two inmates were “arrested” as well, one in Andenne (Zoher El Halimi) and one in Marche-en-Famenne (Mohamed Bakkali).  Bakkali was a key logistician for the Paris and Brussels plotters, and in this case, it turns out that he was the man who picked up Chatra and el-Khazzani in Cologne and brought them to Brussels.

Of the four, only Bakkali and the last man who was netted in Molenbeek, Youssef Siraj, were charged.  Siraj was an old friend of the el-Bakraouis from their days of grand banditisme.  Siraj, Khalid el-Bakraoui, Mohamed Nouiyer, and Yassine Dibi were arrested on the morning of November 12, 2009, for carjacking and were sentenced to between 5-6 years for their efforts in February 2011.  Siraj and Nouiyer appeared in court again the following year to answer for a series of robberies conducted in May 2009 and had another year to a year-and-a-half added to their sentences.  Thus if one adds his sentences together and counts from the time he was arrested, Siraj should still have been in jail at the time of the Thalys attack.  Instead he is alleged to have provided for housing for el-Khazzani, Abaaoud, and others before they executed their attacks.

Siraj has since been transferred to French custody on February 2, 2018, but not before a tortured sequence of releases and detainments.  Following his initial arrest and detainment, the chambre du conseil de Bruxelles prolonged his detainment by a month on November 16, 2017.  He was  re-arrested on 12/20/2017 on the basis of a European arrest warrant issued by French authorities, and it is this episode which revealed that he had been released some weeks earlier by the chambre des mises en accusation.  He was reported to have been released again on January 17, 2018, but it is not clear that this actually happened.

News then broke on February 14 of another arrest linked to the Thalys investigation.  It involved a 35-year-old Moroccan man living illegally in Almería, Spain accused of providing logistical help to el-Khazzani.  The suspect had recently been in Morocco but re-entered Europe through Spain and was on his way to Belgium when French authorities, with support from the Spanish, arrested him in Paris.

What’s Next?

A great deal of progress has been made, but the story continues to unwind, and one wonders why it takes the amount of time it does.  Evidence is perishable, and there is little surprise that raids undertaken two years after the event yield nothing of value.  The latest developments with individuals like Youssef Siraj continue to demonstrate the utility of existing criminal networks to the successful plotting of groups like the Islamic State.  When the el-Bakraouis first came to the public’s attention, I mused in my blog that their old compatriots might be worth looking at, naming Siraj explicitly.  And now I discover I was right.

The story of Chatra appears to show the Germans fumbling again, unfortunately.  How many infractions does it take to be taken seriously?  I dare say that if the national security angle hadn’t entered the equation, he’d still be stealing and cheating his way through his new life in Europe.  And as the Aachener Zeitung pointed out, it’s not clear the Germans didn’t know what they were dealing with in Chatra well before they arrested him at the end of April.

Not to be outdone, the Belgians played the revolving door with Siraj these last few months, but that thankfully is put to bed with his transfer to France.

Let’s hope that the authorities have mostly wrapped things up with respect to this plot.  The new arrest may give insight into that.  Other aspects of this story may yet show themselves to be important.  For example, was Chatra doing anything more than applying for asylum and benefits while in Holland?  It’s believed that people like Najim Laachraoui and Ahmed Dahmani entered the Netherlands to procure weapons, and Osama Krayem was possibly plotting against Schiphol Airport. Stay tuned.

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