Square Willems (Laken) and the Paris and Brussels attacks. (part 1)

Johan Leman, 12 October 2021

Square Willems is cool. Especially when the sun is shining. And yet it is here that some young people came who planned the Paris and Brussels attacks. This is the thesis defended by Georges Dallemagne and Christophe Lamfalussy in “Le Clandestin de Daech, L’histoire d’Oussama Atar, cerveau des attentats de Paris et de Bruxelles” (Kennes, 2021), publication which I will discuss here in 2 parts. This week: part 1.

Who were those young people? Oussama Atar (abbreviated: OA), who was later called Ali Saleh Mohammed and still later Abou Khattab, and who will take on many other names (e.g. Abou Ahmad)- and who knows, even later became Abou Yassir al-Belgicki? ; his brother and deputy Yassine; Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui (cousins of OA, turned into heavy bandits, and at the same time 2 of the 3 kamikazes in Zaventem and Maelbeek); Jawad and Moustapha Benhattal (respectively cousins and uncle of OA, also serious criminals, living opposite OA); Youssef El Moumen (the manager of an Islamist video shop on the ground floor of OA’s home); Hervé Bayingana Muhirwa and Sammy Djedou. They all lived in the vicinity of Square Willems. Note, there were also two extremist mosques in the area.

17 Years old, OA frequents the Serge Creuz atheneum of Molenbeek, also attended by Abdallah, son of cheikh Bassam Ayachi (of the Centre Islamique Belge). It was with father and son Ayachi that OA travelled to Syria for the first time in the summer of 2001. According to Abdallah, there was no sign of radicalisation then. Believe it or not… OA returns, but some time later he leaves again, this time more permanently, to return to Brussels after imprisonment in Iraq, and in December 2013 he leaves Brussels again to disappear for good in Syria and from November 2014 to prepare the attack in Paris (November 2015).

OA arrives in Iraq in 2004. On 21 February 2005, he is arrested there and imprisoned in Abou Ghraib. In July 2006, he is transferred to Camp Bucca (2006-2007), the prison camp from which most of the top leaders of the later IS will come: the “academy of terrorism”. There OA met Abou Mohammed al-Adnani, second in command of the future IS. On 27 February, OA was sentenced by the Iraqi judge to life imprisonment, which concretely means: 25 years of real imprisonment, mostly to be served only 75% of the time, so: 18 years. If everything had gone normally afterwards, Oussama Atar would not have been released until 2021. However, on 20 May 2007, the Court of Appeal in Iraq changed the sentence to 10 years in prison. Thanks to various interventions, both by the Belgian State Security (BSS) and some politicians, Oussama Atar is released on 16 September 2012 and can return to Belgium. Who has intervened to bring him back to Belgium? The BSS and people from the last Verhofstadt government and the Leterme government, as well as from the European Parliament (Louis Michel). The BSS, followed by politicians, sees in OA a future ideal infiltrator in jihadist circles. In a note to the Iraqi ambassador, Belgium assures that OA will be closely monitored and will never return to Iraq. Based on information from Interpol, OCAD responds with a negative note and places OA on level 3 within the danger zone, the highest possible level for imprisoned persons. The BSS, however, places the security risk at 2. In 2011, OCAD follows suit and downgrades the potential danger represented by Oussama Atar to level 2, which stands for: little risk.

In 2010 and 2011, several media campaigns take place in Belgium to get OA released, coming from all sorts of associations and politicians. I will not go into them. The lesson for those associations and politicians is: study your file a little better before calling for all kinds of actions in such situations.

On 16 September 2012, OA finally arrives in Belgium. Once in Brussels, he moved into a flat in Anderlecht, 64 rue Busselenberg, and found work at the Nour bakery in the north of Brussels. However, all the succession measures promised by Belgium come to nothing. There is not the

slightest control over what he does or does not do. He has no trouble befriending Jean-Louis Denis, a recruiter for jihadism. But where Jean-Louis Denis just recruits cannon meat, OA is more focused on recruiting men from the big banditry, people who can take command in case of a heavy attack. In one year’s time, he visits the two Bakraoui brothers, who are caught up in heavy gangsterism, up to 20 times on Saturday afternoons in prison (of Itre and Mons respectively). Under his influence, they converted to jihadism. Before that, in November 2012, the CIA informed the Belgian BSS that OA was not at work in the Nour bakery. Atar does something else. He recruits gangsters for jihadism.

In part 2 we’ll see what have been the consequences.