The crowd is large and variegated. There are teenaged boys in baseball caps, women in hijab or designer clothes, and men in suits. They are Muslim and non-Muslim. They are all chanting and clapping in French.
The year is 2010, and all want the same thing: the immediate release and repatriation of a 26-year-old native son of Laeken, Belgium, imprisoned in Iraq for nearly seven years. He was arrested in 2003 for crossing the Iraqi border illegally, and he has been jailed in several U.S. and Iraq-run detention facilities, including Abu Ghraib, Camp Cropper and Camp Bucca, which are now alternating bywords for human rights abuses and jihadist indoctrination.
The original sentence handed down was seemingly absurd: life in jail, all for entering a war zone illegally. (As the boy’s Belgian lawyer would later put it, no other charges were filed against his client and surely if there was evidence of terrorism or criminality, Baghdad would not have hesitated to add those to the rap sheet.) The sentence would be commuted, upon appeal, to a still-disproportionate 10 years. But the boy was said to be suffering from a life-threatening ailment, possibly kidney cancer, and had lost 70 pounds. It was feared that he might die in Iraq. At first, his family was discreet, pursuing humanitarian démarches via third parties with the U.S. embassy and the Iraqi government. But when these failed, Belgian parliamentarians and Amnesty International intervened.
The boy’s brother, Yassine, would later tell Belgian Radio Al Manar that his family had been agonizing “after many misleading promises from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, which was giving us wrong dates and telling us that he was about to be repatriated to Brussels on December 25, then in January, then it allegedly was in March.”
So Yassine, “out of despair,” traveled to Iraq to find his brother. Upon arriving, he was arrested and his passport was confiscated. But he was luckier than his sibling; he was only deported back to Belgium.
Ossama Atar would have to wait until 2012, when he was 28 years old, to see daylight again. Upon his release, Atar returned to his home, no doubt to an ecstatic welcome by his family. (The rumored kidney cancer turned out to be a benign ailment and he recovered.)
Nor was he much bothered by the country’s security services as to why he had originally traveled to hell on earth, hardly a tourist destination even in 2003. As Atar’s then-attorney told CNN last week, “Investigators didn't ask him a lot of questions about what happened [in Iraq]. At that time nobody was really speaking about ISIS in Belgium. After he got released nobody was really interested in Ossama. They left him by himself.”
Atar then departed again, this time for Syria, in 2012. And last week, he was identified by French and Belgian intelligence sources as the infamous “Abu Ahmad,” the long-suspected coordinator of the grisly terrorist attacks that have in the last year claimed hundreds of victims in Paris and Brussels. A Belgian official told CNN Atar was believed to have been in Brussels himself as recently as August of this year.
Depending upon which Western counterterrorism official one consults, Atar is either the man most responsible for the blood spilled on the streets of two major capitals or he is an influential and well-positioned deputy to the real prime mover of mass murder in Europe. That would be Abu Suleyman al-Firansi, or Abdelilah Himich, the 27-year-old Moroccan-born head of European operations for the amn al-kharjee, or foreign intelligence service of ISIS, who grew up in the town of Lunel, in southern France.
Owing, it seems, to competitive national embarrassments, the French want to pin the blame for Paris and Brussels on the Belgian Atar, whose release from an internment facility in Iraq was largely the result of his own government’s agitating on his behalf, and whose network was, after all, headquartered in Brussels. The Belgians, however, insist that the Frenchman Himich, once a decorated soldier in the French Foreign Legion and a veteran of the Afghan war, is the true mastermind of both attacks.
Whatever the reality of ISIS’s internal pecking order, Atar was clearly closer to the perpetrators. His cousins, Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, were two of the suicide bombers who, on March 22, 2016, detonated TATP explosives at the Brussels Airport in Zaventem and in the city’s subway 30 minutes later. Thirty-two people were killed, and over 300 injured in those successive blasts.
The Bakraouis grew up in Laeken, a working-class district northwest of Brussels, the sons of a pious Muslim butcher from Morocco. True to the typology of so many foreign fighters from Europe who have gone off to join the ranks of the so-called Islamic State, the Bakraouis were petty crooks before they were religious fundamentalists.
According to the New York Times, Khalid Bakraoui spent the better part of 2009 ripping off high-priced cars and robbing banks. He and two accomplices lifted $60,000 in cash off the AXA bank in Brussels by kidnapping an employee at Kalashnikov gunpoint, making her drive to the branch and deactivate the alarm. Khalid was convicted in 2011, the year of the Syrian uprising, and received five years minus time served. He was paroled about two years later.
Ibrahim, too, wielded an AK-47 as lookout man on a botched Western Union heist in the same city, at the turn of 2010. Caught by surprise by a Belgian policeman, whom he shot and wounded, Ibrahim and his accomplices crashed their car and then ran off to his native neighborhood of Laeken where he was eventually collared. He received nine years for attempted murder and was paroled in 2014.
Neither Bakraoui, it is believed, ever traveled to Syria, making them anomalies in the Francophone ISIS network of operatives.
Atar, on the other hand, was groomed in the sands of Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, and his nom de guerre or kunya, Abu Ahmad, has turned up repeatedly in the forensic spadework of French and Belgian authorities.
For instance, in December 2015, about a month after the siege of the Bataclan theater and the gun-and-bombing attacks at the Stade de France and other “soft targets” in Paris, two suspected jihadists — Mohamed Usman, a Pakistani, and Abdel Haddadi, an Algerian — were taken into custody at a refugee camp in Austria. Both had been on terrorism watch lists in their native countries; Usman had belong to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, they both informed Austrian police “that a certain Abu Ahmad has recruited them in mid-September in order to participate in a mission in France in the company of two other recruits: The future Iraqi kamikazes of the Stade de France.”
Abu Ahmad, according to these suspects, paid for their trips and those of four other terrorists who crossed the Turkish border from Raqqa and made their way sinuously back into the Continent as part of the Syrian refugee exodus. Atar allegedly handed each operative $200 and put them in touch with a smuggler in Turkey who facilitated their journey, which included a sea-borne play for Greece via a raft filled with migrants from Somalia, Yemen, Palestine, and Afghanistan.
According to an investigation by The Washington Post, all the operatives traveled on false Syrian passports to the Greek island of Leros and were duly processed along with scores of arriving asylum-seekers.
The two Iraqis, later identified by their kunyas, Ukashah al-Iraqi and Ali al-Iraqi, made it past Frontex, the European Union’s border agency. But Usman and Haddadi did not, owing to the former’s inability to speak Arabic fluently and Haddadi’s ignorance of his putative birthplace, Aleppo.
Transferred to another island, Kos, They received suspended three-month sentences for falsifying their asylum applications and traveling on forged documents. As The Washington Post reported, they then messaged their “handler” back in Syria (most likely Atar) on the encrypted WhatsApp platform asking for money. When it arrived, they made their way to France, now about a month behind their Iraqi comrades, tromping through the Balkans and Eastern Europe. They were in transit on Nov. 13, the date of the Paris attacks. When they arrived in the Austrian Alps, they were instructed by ISIS to remain there as sleepers, having missed their rendezvous with martyrdom. Usman and Haddadi applied for asylum again, this time using their real names and countries of origin. They were domiciled in a refugee center near the German border.
But because the fake passports used by the Iraqis who blew themselves up outside the Stade de France were recovered, the Pakistani and Algerian were later identified as traveling companions to Leros by European intelligence. Usman and Haddadi were arrested on Dec. 10. A Turkish phone number found on one of the Iraqi bombers, meanwhile, was found to contain a number used by Atar to communicate with his operatives.
Atar, and perhaps Himich above him, had planned a sequel attack in Paris to coincide with the Euro 2016 soccer tournament held in June and July. (Usman and Haddadi gave a positive photographic confirmation of Himich as Abu Ahmad based on photographs taken of him in Syria.)
The one surviving attacker of Paris, Salah Abdeslam, was still on the lam, suspect of being hidden somewhere in Europe and not ready to carry out whatever orders came through from the amn al-kharjee.
By mid-March this year, investigators were closing in on Abdeslam, who was hiding out in various parts of Brussels. In a raid on and apartment he used in the neighborhood called Forest, the police killed one member of ISIS, Mohamed Belkaid, but Abdeslam got away. Finally they caught up with him in his old neighborhood of Molenbeek, arresting him Mar. 18, 2016.
With Abdeslam possibly hemorrhaging vital information about the whereabouts and ambitions of other European ISIS operatives, and now down two Austrian-based sleepers, Atar, it is believed, accelerated plans for a fresh assault on Europe by commissioning the Brussels bombings. He was certainly the point-man for the Bakraoui brothers.
Following the Brussels attacks on Mar. 22, Belgian authorities found a laptop tossed in a dumpster outside one of the many rented apartments in the capital Abdeslam used as a safe house, this one in the Schaerbeek district. Among the bits of digital evidence recovered from its hard-drive was a prospective target list, including La Défense, Paris’s busy high-rise business district, as well as the reactionary French Catholic movement Civitas, founded by Bishop Marcel Lefebvre and headquartered in Argenteuil, in the northwest suburbs of Paris.
Also recovered on the computer, as Le Monde noted, were a series of audio messages sent to Atar from his field operatives from Feb. 15 to Mar. 15, 2015. One future suicide bomber asks his commander, “How are we proceeding? A large operation where we all get out and then it’s over?” in the course of recommending France as the only country to be targeted rather than Belgium, which is the fallback base for ISIS’s Francophone network.
In another recording, dated Mar. 21, Ibrahim Bakraoui relays to his cousin the necessity for speeding up a post-Paris sequel attack because of the raid on Abdeslam’s apartment in Forest. It was Bakraoui’s idea, according to this communiqué, to target Brussels’ subway system and airport, where he himself would detonate a suitcase full of explosives the day after the message was sent.
Finally, the last will of one of the Bakraoui brothers was stored on the Schaerbeek laptop. It was addressed to Yassine Atar, Oussama’s brother and erstwhile campaigner. Just days after the airport and subway explosions, Yassine was arrested after Belgian authorities discovered in his possession a key to the apartment which the Bakraoui brothers sowed carnage in their native city.
One wonders if Oussama, still at large and now a most wanted man in Europe, will be as concerned with his brother’s legal plight as Yassine once was with his own.