Cloak & Dagger

From French Soldier to ISIS Spymaster

It’s been almost six months since The Daily Beast exposed Abu Suleyman al-Firansi. Now new details are emerging that can tell us a lot about ISIS’s organization.

The photograph is nearly a decade old, but it is not difficult to imagine that the young man staring inscrutably into the camera, his face bathed in the white light of a flash, now looks much older. The clean-shaven teenager, about 16 or 17, with close-cropped black hair, probably has a long beard now. Gone will be the stylish patterned T-shirt he’s wearing, which looks like it was picked up at a local H&M. Ditto the blingy chain around his neck. If the ravages of time have been accelerated on this young face in the nine years since this portrait was taken then it is because the young man has got the blood of hundreds on his hands, blood that has been spilled in two capital cities of Europe.

The boy in the photograph, which a Western intelligence source shared exclusively with The Daily Beast on the condition that it is not published, is Abdelilah Himich, who U.S. and French intelligence officials have identified as the mysterious Abu Suleyman al-Firansi, the terror operative believed to have been a prime mover of the Paris and Brussels attacks over the last year, and arguably the single most important European in ISIS.

Much that was speculated about Abu Suleyman, pieced together from testimony of active informants inside the ISIS security branch he allegedly heads as well as from defectors from the organization—a game of terrorist telephone—missed some nuances, but otherwise was close to the mark.

He is not an ethnically European convert to Islam, as one French private intelligence newsletter had it, an assumption apparently based on the lightness of his complexion. Himich is Moroccan, having been born in Rabat in 1989, although it would be more accurate to describe him as a cultural Frenchman, as his kunya, or nom de guerre “Firansi” suggests. He spent the majority of his adolescence and education in Lunel, a southern French town of around 26,000 that has produced as many as two dozen youngish foreign fighters for the Syrian battlefield. Also, he does not appear to have run gyms or fitness centers; instead, he ran drugs. And, typically, before becoming a jihadi, he was a jailbird.

Most embarrassing of all for the French is the fact that the 26-year-old ISIS spymaster is also a former serviceman in the French military. According to French press reports, building on the disclosure of Himich’s identity by ProPublica and PBS’s Frontline program, he joined La Légion Étrangère, or Foreign Legion, on Nov. 13, 2008. (Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, that was the same calendar date as the Parisian massacre he conceptualized seven years later.)

During his time as a legionnaire, Himich reportedly thrived in the role and fought with distinction in Afghanistan, serving for six months in the hardscrabble Surobi region, where, months before his enlistment, 10 French soldiers had died in a single ambush that scandalized their country.

Himich’s regiment was the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment, headquartered in Nîmes. It’s one of the largest and more specialized infantry units in the French military, although not quite on a par with the U.S. Navy Seals or the British Special Air Service (SAS), however much Abu Suleyman would later embellish his status as a “commando” and crack marksman. He may have even received national and NATO decoration for his service.

Himich is by no means the only former French soldier to trade the tricolor for the black flag. In January 2015, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that there were as many as 10 former French servicemen fighting for the caliphate, including those who had been bona fide special ops. One jihadi reportedly had belonged to the First Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, France’s equivalent to the SAS, with which it shares the motto, “Who Dares Wins.”

By 2010, Himich was back in the barracks at Nîmes but then went AWOL, according to Frontline, in order to attend his father’s funeral. The Foreign Legion doesn’t seem to have embarked on much of a manhunt for Himich, given that when he next surfaced, a year later, it was as a convict.

Himich was arrested at Paris’s Gare du Nord train station after arriving from Amsterdam with around $55,000 worth of cocaine. He was seconded unwittingly as a drug mule, he’d tell the authorities, by a Senegalese man he met in Paris who offered the cash-strapped army deserter $1,600 to transport a parcel from Rotterdam whose contents Himich swore, rather implausibly, that he knew nothing about. Yet he seems to have gotten high on his own supply, according to French court records, testing positive for both cocaine and heroin when he was collared.

Himich was sentenced to three years in prison (with a year suspended due to time already served awaiting his trial). He did five months. When he was released, he returned home, in the summer of 2013, just as Lunel was fast gaining a reputation as a recruitment center for holy warriors hungering for battle in the far-away Syrian conflict.

Himich soon relocated to Salon de Provence, which lies about 60 miles east of Lunel, on the road to Aix-en-Provence. He seemed to settle there with his young wife, Alexandra, a French convert to Islam. But he often went back to his stomping grounds in Lunel to meet up with old buddies, one of whom, Raphael Amar, was the son of a Jewish engineer and also a convert to Islam. Amar, according to The New York Times, grew up comfortably in a house with a pool and, well before hearing the siren song of the ISIS nasheed, preferred electric guitar and Led Zeppelin.

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In the relatively brief interval between Himich’s relocation and his departure for Syria, Himich reportedly underwent intense military training in the nearby Cévennes mountains, suggesting he had already decided on his next career choice as a guerrilla insurgent.

With a sizable and increasingly disaffected Muslim population, and an unemployment rate that hovers at around 20 percent, Lunel has gained a reputation as the “French Molenbeek,” referring to the ghettoized district in central Brussels where several of Abu Suleyman’s Paris massacrists, including the ringleader Abdelhamid Abbaoud and the only surviving (and imprisoned) member of that team, Salah Abdelslam, grew up. It’s an insular community where terrorist recruiters don’t have to work terribly hard to find willing volunteers.

As it transpires, Himich was identified by the French media 18 months ago, only the French media didn’t know it. According to “Jihad: Who are the men who have been arrested in Lunel?,” a Jan. 27, 2015, article published in Le Point, five people in Lunel were arrested in a counterterrorism sweep as accomplices to a conveyor belt system of jihadi emigration to the Levant. All had known each other at school and were intimate friends, if not siblings, a hallmark that defined the Paris and Brussels attack rings, too.

“Two of the five are suspected to have left for Syria themselves,” Le Point noted, “while the three others are suspected of being future candidates for the jihad.” Among those listed in the article: “Abdellilah H., a former French soldier who introduced himself as an ex-member of a commando unit and a specialist in firearms. To his acquaintances, he claimed to be a sniper for [ISIS].”

Himich’s nickname, in fact, was “The Sniper” or “Abdel the Legionnaire,” owing to the way he embroidered his past in Afghanistan as a kind of Franco-Moroccan Chris Kyle. He likely played up, or exaggerated, his wartime experience, which no doubt made him first among equals in this small sodality of budding mujahideen.

The Lunel network was able to raise enough money for the complicated journey from Europe to Syria using consumer loans, with each member borrowing €10,000 from various credit institutions. (Amedy Coulibaly, the ISIS-inspired jihadi who shot up the Hyperkasher kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris on Jan. 9, 2015, used a similar approach to finance his killing spree.)

They had all also attended what Le Point termed a “particularly pious and non-political mosque,” linked to the Tabligh Jamaat, an Islamic current begun in the 1920s among Indian Muslims. The Al-Baraka mosque was putatively committed to bringing Muslims who have strayed from their faith back into the fold, but its relationship with French social cohesion was complicated, to say the least.

Himich’s migration was as part of a group of nine Lunel jihadis, including his own spouse. They broke up into teams of three, the better to evade detection by French authorities.

“They rented a BMW SUV which, so they claim, they sold for $30,000 upon arrival in Syria,” according to the French daily Libération. The trunk of the vehicle was also apparently stocked with an assortment of low-grade military gear including backpacks, combat knives, and night-vision goggles, although no guns.

Himich rose much faster through the ranks than his hold buddies. In August 2014, about a month after the declaration of the caliphate, Raphael Amar, the Jewish convert to Islam, and another of the old Lunel gang would emigrate to Syria and find their old friend, Abdelilah Himich, was a new emir.

Hamza, another member of the old group, is quoted in Libération as saying, “All Lunel guys, including my brothers, were under his command until his calf got wounded by a piece of shrapnel.” But, still, Himich survived and thrived.

Jean-Charles Brisard, a French terrorism specialist who spent months trying to ascertain the identity of Abu Suleyman al-Firsani, says that Himich personally partook in the crucifixion/execution of two people.

Abu Khaled, the pseudonymous ISIS defector who was profiled in the The Daily Beast in November 2015, just days after the Paris attacks, has claimed that Abu Suleyman’s promotion to the head of the amn al-kharjee, or foreign intelligence branch in charge of European operations, was personally approved by the now-assassinated ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, who was the proconsul for all of Syria, and through him, the caliph himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Abu Khaled believes that Abu Suleyman and his wife and children “surrendered” to Turkish authorities at the Syrian-Turkish border in July or August, not long before the coalition reclaimed the city of Manbij, in Aleppo province. This would have been amid mounting fears in ISIS ranks that the group would lose control of al-Bab, a second city in the province and the headquarters of the amn al-kharjee. (As of this writing, both Turkish and U.S.-backed proxy forces are competing in a kind of race-to-Berlin march on al-Bab.) However, Abu Khaled’s claims have not been corroborated by Ankara, nor do they mesh with what U.S. and French intelligence have stated, namely, that Abu Suleyman is probably still somewhere in Syria.

As a spy chief, Abu Suleyman has kept the company of other now internationally infamous Frenchmen, especially Jean-Michel and Fabien Clain (a.k.a. Omar and Abdelwahid), who have been identified by French authorities as operatives of the terror army. Both are former Catholic rappers now believed to be somewhere in Syria or Iraq, and it was Fabien Clain who first claimed that the Paris attacks were the work of ISIS in an audio message released not long afterward and who had previously scouted the Bataclan theatre—the scene of the grisliest carnage inflicted by a combination of gunfire and suicide bombings—owing to its Jewish ownership and the hosting of pro-Israel events there.

Abu Suleyman’s name gained the attention of Western governments immediately after Paris. During the Bataclan siege, two of the terrorists were overheard by hostages inquiring as to what their instructions were and whether or not to “call Abu Suleyman.” Moreover, analysis of the computers belonging to Ibrahim Al-Barkaoui, one of the ISIS operatives involved in the follow-up bombing of the Brussels airport on March 22, 2016, had uncovered audio files revealing that orders for that attack came directly from Abu Suleyman. He is addressed by his kunya, and it is to him that plans for further attacks, including in France, are submitted for approval. Abu Suleyman had apparently sought to perpetrate a sequel attack on Paris; Brussels was chosen later as more expedient because it would be unexpected by European security services.

Although technically Moroccan-born, Abdelilah Himich is, in effect, the first European to occupy such a sensitive covert portfolio since the founding of the terror organization 16 years ago. ISIS, formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq, has undergone multiple transformations in the demography of its upper cadres. First, it was a Jordanian-led apparatus, given the nationality of its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who brought with him into Iraq, via Afghanistan, other Levantine militants. This constituted AQI’s inaugural “foreign” period. Over time, however, Zarqawi sought to “Iraqize” his franchise, first by sleight-of-hand (by bundling it into an umbrella consortium of native Iraqi insurgencies). After his demise, Iraqis did begin to take over AQI from within.

Al-Baghdadi, who assumed the leadership in 2010, is from Samarra; most of his senior advisers and “ministers,” at least prior to the conquest of Syria and Iraq, were fellow Iraqis. Today, however, Europeans, Caucasians, and Central Asians have steadily gained prominence as much of ISIS’s old guard, including lifelong Arab jihadis and former officers and operatives of Saddam Hussein’s military and mukhabarat, are picked off by the coalition.

The three terrorists who killed 45 and injured 230 more in Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport last June, it bears remembering, were from Dagestan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, not Iraq or Syria.

Aby Suleyman, having spent the majority of his life 4,000 kilometers away from what is now ISIS-land, seems to have found what is, by his lights, very good company indeed.