From Afghanistan to Syria: The Deadly Legacy of Belgium’s Jihadists

Since the late 1980s, a small minority of disenfranchised Muslims have found the streets of Brussels fertile ground for violent ideas

From Afghanistan to Syria: The Deadly Legacy of Belgium’s Jihadists
Brussels a month after the terrorist attacks which took away the life of 31 people /2016 (Photo by Hristo Rusev / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

When Tarek Maaroufi arrived in Brussels to study journalism in the late 1980s, he found the place bewildering. The city was organized chaos. It had 19 communes, several mayors and a gendarmerie that harked back to Napoleonic times. For those who grew up there, it was comprehensible and things somehow worked. Yet for men like Maaroufi it was confusing and lonely. Brought up in northwest Tunisia in the town of Ghardimaou, he was used to a slower pace of life and the kind of community where everyone seemed to be a neighbor or friend of a friend. In Brussels, Maaroufi did what most young men in similar circumstances do: He stuck to what he knew, or what he thought he knew. Security is often found in the familiar, even if that familiarity is imagined, and Maaroufi was drawn to areas like Molenbeek, a municipality three miles from the city center. A warren of sights and sounds that reminded him of home, its side streets had shops where hawkers talked in North African Arabic dialect. If he wanted, he needed only to walk through one of Molenbeek’s neighborhoods to catch the smell of sizzling merguez, a spicy sausage, or hear halal butchers chopping up meat. Seeing the old-timers sitting in cafes drinking mint tea and arguing over a card game or backgammon was a source of comfort.

Maaroufi arrived in Belgium at a time of critical importance for the Muslim world. As he settled into his new life, changes continued apace. Some of them seemed positive. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the same year the Afghan mujahedeen drove the Soviets from their country. Chechen separatists resisted the Russian army’s brutal assault on Grozny. But there were also setbacks: The United States invaded Iraq in 1991; in Algeria, the military junta clamped down on the Islamic Salvation Front, an Islamist party that won democratic elections; Bosnia witnessed rape and genocide in 1993. These events were reflected in the diaspora communities of cosmopolitan cities like London, Paris, Milan and Brussels, where newly arrived immigrants began to throw around ideas about how the Muslim world should recalibrate itself politically. Some gravitated toward left-wing Palestinian movements, others toward an emerging new wave of Islamism. The old order was crumbling before Maaroufi’s very eyes.

The presence of Arab exiles in some of Europe’s greatest cities meant these often-complex events were framed in a language of anger and alienation that suggested the governments of both the West and East did not want to see a Muslim world, still reeling from colonization, rise up and challenge their authority. In this atmosphere, it was easy for angry young men, far from their ancestral homelands, to become radicalized, as the memoirs of countless former jihadists and spies attest. One political current that captured their imagination was Salafi-jihadism, which blended identity, belief, martial tradition and action. For Maaroufi, it was the answer he had been waiting to find ever since leaving Tunisia. As one of the earliest converts among his generation to this extreme interpretation of Islam, he would leave a legacy of havoc in his wake that is still being felt today. The hundreds of Belgians who flocked to the Middle East to join the Islamic State group in Syria from 2011 onward may not have realized it, but Maaroufi’s life foreshadowed their own; he was their unofficial mentor and guide.

Maaroufi’s radicalization coincided with a political experiment of sorts that was going on in Europe. Arab exiles were not just talking about the need for revolutions in the Middle East, they were actively trying to stir them up, having often escaped persecution from the same authoritarian regimes they wanted to overthrow. In northwest London, two of those in exile, Abu Qatada — a Palestinian of Jordanian citizenship — and Abu Musab al-Suri — a Syrian — were editing the Arabic-language magazine Al-Ansar, which railed against the Algerian military junta and its allies, the French, and published Eid greetings by the future leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. All of these men are notorious now, yet the British government considered none of them dangerous at the time. Brussels offered similarly fertile ground for aspiring jihadists. There, the Afghan mujahedeen party Hizb-e-Islami had offices for fundraising and propagation. Hizb was the most hardline of the seven Sunni mujahedeen factions in the war against the Soviets and, though its interests were focused on Afghanistan, it had a global outlook that appealed to Maaroufi. Its members had fought in Azerbaijan, and its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, had been an outspoken supporter of international jihadist causes. As Maaroufi recalled in a controversial Tunisian TV interview in 2016, his life changed forever when he attended a Hizb press conference in Brussels. Until then, he had struggled to settle in his adopted city. But at that otherwise mundane event, he found a home in jihadism and would soon become a prophet for the cause despite knowing little about the intricacies of Islam. By 1995, he was writing for the same Al-Ansar magazine as Abu Qatada and had allegedly become a leader of a cell of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA), whose methods and ideas were an early prototype of the violence that would come to be unleashed by the Islamic State.

In his work as a journalist for Al-Ansar, Maaroufi also came into contact with another of the magazine’s writers, Rachid Ramda, who was later convicted for his involvement in bomb attacks on the Paris metro in 1995, which killed eight people and injured dozens. Once a small-town boy, Maaroufi now staged lectures, held exhibitions, fundraised and wrote polemics not only for Al-Ansar but also Hizb-e-Islami’s magazine, Sadd al-Jihad. He also contributed to a magazine of the Egyptian Al-Jihad group, which had been responsible for the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. But the line between jihadism and criminality was always difficult to discern. Many jihadi theologians held that Europe had fallen under the legal designation of “dar al-harb” (the house of war) and so should not be immune from attack. Others, however, saw it as a staging post for more important struggles elsewhere in the world.

For Maaroufi, Brussels was a perfect intersection of cultures, or what he called “a symbol of Europe.” He could disseminate his messages in French, Flemish and German, and mingle seamlessly with the criminal underworld, involving himself in nefarious causes that masqueraded as jihad. In the end, money was a universal language, and Maaroufi was not the only Islamist who found this convenient. At one point, a team of Serbian safecrackers supplied stolen passports to Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian convicted in the U.S. in 2001 of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. They didn’t care that he was a Muslim jihadist with associates fighting on the side of their opponents in the Bosnian war. What mattered was Mammon. The Serbians doctored passports in workshops and sold them all over Europe to anyone who wanted them, for around $700 to $2,300. The system was so sophisticated that Ressam’s coordinator, an Algerian known as Abu Doha, was caught with Belgian, Spanish, French and Slovak passports, as well as laminating equipment, when Scotland Yard raided his house in 2001. Abu Doha had perfected the manipulation of identities so well that U.S. prosecutors could not establish his real name with certainty when they later indicted him.

Maaroufi thrived in this gray zone of jihad and criminality, until he pushed his luck too far. In 1995, he was arrested for his role in the deadly Paris metro bombings of that same year. Despite being sentenced to three years in prison, his commitment to jihad remained undimmed. In time, his reach went beyond Brussels and crisscrossed Europe to Italy, France and the U.K. In London, he had already recruited a fellow Tunisian from Bizerte, Seifullah Ben Hassine, who was a devoted student of Abu Qatada. In June 2001, the two of them reconvened in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, and formed the Tunisian Fighting Group, a sister organization of the Algerian GIA. They also had audiences with the al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. When they declared war against the Tunisian state for its failure to rule according to their interpretation of Islamic law, they were finally putting everything they had learned in Brussels and London into practice. But their act of greatest significance was the plan they hatched to assassinate the Afghan Northern Alliance’s military leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The Taliban government had by then established control of most of Afghanistan, and Massoud was the one remaining obstacle between them and total victory. Killing him would be Maaroufi’s gift to their regime on behalf of al Qaeda. The assassins who would carry out the attack were fellow Tunisians, Dahmane Abd al-Sattar and Bouraoui al-Ouaer. Posing as journalists seeking to interview Massoud, they obtained an introductory letter from another Islamist activist in London, Yasser el-Sirri. This allowed them to access the Northern Alliance commander in Takhar, a remote corner of northeast Afghanistan. Having convinced him to sit down for a TV interview, they killed him with a bomb concealed in a camera on Sept. 9, 2001, two days before 9/11.

Maaroufi was among 23 men charged with various terrorist activities in the wake of Massoud’s assassination. Accused of supplying the killers with the forged passports they needed, he was sentenced in 2003 to six years in prison by a Belgian court. He was convicted alongside men who would later join the Islamic State in Syria. As for Ben Hassine, with whom he had established the Tunisian Fighting Group, he was arrested in Turkey in 2003 and extradited to Tunisia. There, he received a hefty prison sentence only to be released after the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Ben Hassine went on to play a prominent role in the establishment of Ansar al-Sharia, a radical Salafi-jihadist group in post-Arab Spring Tunisia. Later on, press reports connected him to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. News reports have also linked Ben Hassine to a 2015 attack in Sousse, Tunisia, where a shooter killed at least 38 people on a beach, the majority of them British tourists.

What began before 9/11 continued after 9/11. While many of this first generation of Salafi-jihadists were locked up, their legacy could not be contained. Other disenfranchised Muslim men they had left behind were already under their influence. Among them was Khalid Zerkani, who took on the mantle of jihadism when the Arab Spring broke out in 2011. In later years, no one knew quite what to make of Zerkani. To Belgian security services, he was an “Arab Afghan,” that simplistic catchall term for jihadists influenced by the mujahedeen’s victory over the Soviets. To some of his more acerbic critics, he was simply a buffoon and welfare scrounger living on handouts. To the mothers whose sons he sent to join the Islamic State, he was selfish and evil. To his devotees, however, he was generous, good-humored and charismatic. According to Belgian court documents from 2015, Zerkani believed he “had been sent by Allah to Belgium to fulfill a special mission.” Not unlike Maaroufi, he wandered the alleys and streets of Molenbeek fishing for lost and confused men to recruit, spreading his message of God’s oneness mixed with talk of guns and glory.

Very few photos of Zerkani exist. Those that do show a middle-aged, slovenly man with a faint prayer mark on his forehead. He was born in 1973 in the town of Zenata on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, north of the sprawling city of Casablanca. Afflicted by flooding and drought, there were few local employment opportunities for young men like him. The town’s obscurity may explain why so little is known about his activities for the first 29 years of his life, and why he ultimately decided to make his way to Europe. Zerkani spent time in Spain and the Netherlands, and at some point became involved in smuggling and petty crime, just as anyone trying to make ends meet might. Then he found God in the mid-1990s and went to Afghanistan. Precisely how long he spent there and what exactly he did are unclear, but when he returned to Europe, he became embedded in the network of Islamic radicals already then established in Brussels. His associates included Fatima Aberkane, who became a prominent recruiter of international jihadists in Syria, where three of her sons fought for various groups, including the Nusra Front and the Islamic State.

The connection between Zerkani and Aberkane was only possible because of the preexisting Islamist underground built by Maaroufi and others. This crossover between one generation of jihadists and the next was perhaps most apparent in the friendship between Aberkane and another woman, Malika el-Aroud, a Belgian of Moroccan descent. El-Aroud’s first husband, al-Sattar, was one of the assassins who killed the Afghan Northern Alliance commander Massoud. Since then, she has spent years embroiled in legal disputes relating to her ties to Islamist extremism, and Belgian attempts to deport her to Morocco are believed to still be ongoing.

The presence of these jihadists in inner-city Brussels did not mean Molenbeek was a hive of radicalism or a no-go area for non-Muslims. Nor was it prone to ghettoization, like the banlieues in France. Molenbeek was (and is) in the heart of Brussels; a vibrant, welcoming place, where the smell of North African food permeates the street markets and the people are warm and friendly. Yet it was also home to poverty and inequality, which the jihadists were able to exploit. The poorer neighborhoods inhabited by the North African Molenbekois differed from the more affluent areas in which their white counterparts lived, a distinction epitomized by the nickname given to the white side of the municipality: “Molenblanc.”

The jihadists were always a tiny minority, but their influence exceeded their numbers. As Molenbeek’s most senior councilor, Sarah Turine, told me in February 2017, clusters of young men often traveled to Syria from small towns in Belgium or France because of a single recruiter who had lived among them and knew how to exploit their vulnerabilities. In the case of Molenbeek, that person was Zerkani. He sold young men false dreams and was careful in the way he spread his message. For that reason, he did not focus on the elders in the main mosque, Al-Khalil, on Rue Delaunoy. It was closed after each prayer, and there was little time or space to relax and talk about anything other than conventional scriptures on the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Instead, Zerkani’s mosque of choice stood on Rue de la Colonne and was known locally as the “African mosque” due to its popularity among the Senegalese and Malian diasporas. There is no suggestion that the mosque’s imam or administrators encouraged Zerkani or knew what he was doing, but it proved the ideal place for him to recruit followers. It was small and cozy with a door that was often left open to welcome anyone in need of sanctuary or rest. Away from prying eyes, Zerkani could hold court, luring young men away from the outside world’s intoxicating promises of alcohol, drugs and casual sex. Even if the mosque’s staff noticed Zerkani, they had no reason to suspect he was a troublemaker. He was discreet and charming, and smarter than his enemies. Aware of the danger of being arrested, he used sophisticated countersurveillance techniques. He never sent text messages; he used multiple phones registered under different names and spoke in code. This impressive tradecraft, acquired in his smuggling days or during his time in Afghanistan, helps explain why there are so few images of him in the public domain.

One of the reasons we know anything at all about Zerkani is because of Hawa Keita, the mother of Yoni Mayne, one of his recruits. Mayne was born in Bamako on Oct. 9, 1990, to a Malian mother and Belgian father. He grew up in Anderlecht, Brussels. His parents separated during his teenage years, but this did not seem to affect him adversely. When I met his mother in a Brussels cafe in 2017, she told me he was well-adjusted and just like any other teenager. Mayne left school early with few qualifications and started his own business in Molenbeek. Handsome and likable, he made friends in the neighborhood and regularly attended local mosques to pray. Yet Mayne also wound up in Syria in 2013, where his friends massacred local villagers who believed in democracy, and video footage emerged of him dragging dead bodies from the back of a pickup truck. How did that happen?

Perhaps parental love obscured Mayne’s darker side. In Belgium, he had run-ins with the law for engaging in petty crime. Maybe he felt guilty about those sins and was trying to fill an inner void when he found religion. His private notes and writing show how devoted he was to Islam. But they also make clear he wasn’t studying from traditional books. The texts he studied with Zerkani were the products of “Ansar-al Haqq,” the “Helpers of Truth,” a jihadist web forum and publishing house that eulogized Bin Laden. They included biographies of the al Qaeda leader as well as sermons by the American-Yemeni jihadist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his book, “44 Ways to Support Jihad.”

Like many other young men I have covered as a journalist, Mayne had not even studied the basics of daily worship. He drank straight from the canonical tradition; the raw material that made up the foundations of Islamic jurisprudence. Alone, he wrestled with immensely rich and complex sources dating back over 1,400 years, with no one to help him distinguish, discern or even contextualize these prophetic traditions or Quranic verses that were sometimes harmonious, sometimes contradictory and at other times simply confusing. Even for an Arabist, the Arabic language is challenging. Zerkani, a Zenata Berber of unknown scholarly credentials, couldn’t help Mayne and perhaps didn’t want to. Yet Mayne, a non-Arabic speaker, grabbed these hadiths by the jugular and tried to understand them himself. Some of the notes he jotted down in his labored handwriting referred to jihad: “Every [religious] community,” he wrote, “has its peregrinations and the peregrinations of my community is fighting in the way of Allah.” As Mayne grew more militant, he came to adopt the name Abu Dujana. Precisely when he did this is unclear, but it indicates he wanted to emulate the warrior companion of Muhammad of the same name who was famed for his red turban and martial qualities.

Equipped with a few hadiths, Mayne argued with his mother. He saw it as his responsibility to school her, to bring her back to righteousness and virtue. In traditional societies it was up to youngsters to follow their elders, but now that situation had been reversed; the young were schooling the old. When I visited Mayne’s mother in Brussels in 2017, she showed me a book that belonged to Mayne. It was, surprisingly, an important tome for millions of Shiite Muslims, “Nahj al-Balagha,” “The Way of Eloquence.” A medieval text that purports to contain the sermons and aphorisms of the Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, this is not a book ordinarily admired by Salafi-jihadists. It raises the question of whether Mayne and Zerkani even understood the traditions of their own movement, which views Shiites as heretics or non-Muslims.

When Zerkani was finally arrested in February 2014, he had over 20 different currencies in his possession, as well as travelers’ checks, passports and 24 electronic devices, most of them cameras. His computer revealed a trove of extremist literature, such as “Sixteen Indispensable Objects to Own Before Going to Syria.” Arguably, Zerkani was not interested in personal enrichment. He was an itinerant lay prophet spreading his message along the way. His followers went off to Syria or Somalia, sometimes naively and sometimes acutely aware of the potential consequences of their actions. Zerkani did not do any of this to get rich. For a man with his guile, there were easier ways to make money. Why, then, did he choose to undertake such dangerous missions, ones that resulted in his incarceration at Brussels’s Saint-Gilles Prison and a 15-year sentence for recruiting young men to join the Islamic State and running a criminal network? Zerkani was a modern-day Peter the Hermit; he pointed to Syria and infused young men like Mayne with a sense of masculinity, of chivalry, of who they should be instead of who they were. This is why, at his sentencing appeal in February 2016, the prosecutor Bernard Michel said Zerkani had perverted a whole generation of young people in Molenbeek.

When it came to the war in Syria, Zerkani’s message seemed to be that young Muslim men had an obligation to make up for the West’s reluctance to stand up to President Bashar al-Assad, a brutal dictator. With their superior and purer creed, he believed his boys could lead the way in an Islamic revolution, passing on their knowledge of religion and combat to Syrians. It was arrogant and woefully misguided. Belgians on the margins of their own society, with little or no religious learning, went to the ancient land of Syria where three Abrahamic faiths had flourished and told them how to worship, desecrating the Mamluk gravestones of their forebears.

By April 29, 2013, Mayne had left for Syria, where he joined either the jihadist factions Katibat al-Muhajireen or Katibat al-Battar. He called his mother from a Turkish cellphone number, inviting her to emigrate to Syria where true religion could be found. She immediately informed the police and begged him to come home. He returned to Belgium three months later dressed in a djellaba (a long, hooded garment) and sporting the kind of cultivated appearance jihadists like to display on social media, with the legs of his pants above his ankles and his turban carefully wound in a way fellow militants would appreciate. On his arrival, Belgian police interrogated him while he boasted of future attacks on the West. But Mayne was still not deemed a threat to Belgium’s national security, so they let him go and allowed him to continue to travel.

Perhaps it was sheer incompetence on the part of the Belgian authorities, or they were simply trapped by the archaic traditions that gave their local municipalities immense power and made it difficult for them to act effectively in unison. Maybe they felt compelled to adhere to the liberal principle of freedom of movement for Belgian citizens. In the past, the Belgian state had dealt harshly with any of its citizens fighting abroad. As George Orwell noted in “Homage to Catalonia,” his book on the Spanish Civil War, Belgian nationals fighting in Spain at the time risked having their citizenship revoked and long prison terms on their return home. Mayne had no such problems. On Jan. 20, 2014, he flew to the Middle East with his friend Abdelhamid Abaaoud and rejoined Katibat al-Battar for the last time. Three months later, police turned up at Hawa’s door saying they had good news and bad news. The good news was that they had caught the man who had sent her son to Syria. Her face lit up with joy. Then came the bad news: Mayne was dead. Hawa was devastated. She had cooperated with the police throughout.

Only now did the Belgian authorities realize the price they would pay for their tolerance toward these extremists. While the ideas of Salafi-jihadists had never resulted in street battles in Brussels or London, ideologues and exiles had been allowed to weave their beliefs into local communities, giving rise to political organizations that vowed to turn their words into actions. Eventually, this morphed into something dangerous and violent: transnational jihadism. Everyone ended up suffering as a result.

Despite feeling let down by the police, Hawa knew the blame for her son’s death lay with Zerkani and vowed to bring him to justice. She showed the police all the places Mayne had frequented, recounted the conversations she had overheard and the Islamist material she had come across in his room. At considerable risk to herself, she became one of the principal witnesses at Zerkani’s trial. There, in court, she disputed his claim to be a pacifist and rejected his denials of ever knowing her son. Her efforts led to him being sentenced to 15 years in prison, but his legacy lived on regardless.

Mayne’s friend, Abaaoud, returned to Belgium with other Zerkani recruits and committed devastating terror attacks in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016. Meanwhile, Maaroufi, the Tunisian who first arrived in Belgium back in the late 1980s, seemed to have repented. Stripped of his Belgian citizenship and deported to Tunisia, he restyled himself as a patriot and poet, and spoke out against terror attacks by young extremists. Yet he could no longer control what he had once helped start. His friends wouldn’t listen. Ben Hassine, who had once met Bin Laden with him in Afghanistan, was reported to be running jihadist training camps in Sabratha, Libya, when he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2015.

The Prometheus of jihad now had a life of its own.

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