BRUSSELS — On a cold evening in January, a few dozen Belgian police officers in tactical gear amassed outside a redbrick apartment building in the eastern town of Verviers. It had been a week since the terrorist attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher mini-market in Paris. Police across Europe were on high alert against additional terrorist plots, and now Belgian authorities believed they were closing in on one.
For some time, the Belgians had been monitoring the communications of two men who had holed up in Verviers. Soufiane Amghar and Khalid Ben Larbi, who were 26 and 23 years old, had disappeared from their homes in Molenbeek, a mostly immigrant, low-income neighborhood of Brussels, the spring before. Amghar's parents reported his departure to the police, who later determined that both men had flown to Istanbul that April, and from there onto Syria.
Now the men were back, and authorities feared that a major attack on home soil was in the works. "It was a matter of hours perhaps," the federal prosecutor's office said at the time, "at most a few days." A third man who arrived at the apartment in the moments before the raid was believed to be delivering final instructions. The police moved in, flashbangs firing, rifles ready. Amghar and Ben Larbi returned fire with Kalashnikovs. When the carnage stopped, the two shooters were dead, and the apartment looked like a war zone. The body of Ben Larbi was partially burned by the assault. (The third man fled and was arrested.) The clash had been shockingly intense, a police officer involved in the raid would later tell a friend, and the suspects had seemed to retaliate with almost superhuman determination. "Even though they were dead, they were still using their weapons in order to kill us," the friend recalled the cop as saying.
At the time, news of the raid in Verviers was mostly overshadowed by the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which left 17 dead over three days and shocked the world with its ferocity. But in the aftermath of a second deadly rampage in Paris last month, some have wondered what was missed. In many ways, Verviers appears to have been a clear prelude of those events. In the Paris attack, a group of nine European men of North African descent, with connections to ISIS and a willingness to die for their cause, used small arms and explosives to target a mix of locations in an urban area. In Verviers, police say Amghar and Ben Larbi had sought to round up a group of people to assist in their plot; investigators say they found a stash of Kalashnikovs, handguns, cash, fake IDs, and police uniforms. Potential targets included a police station and newsstands that were selling Charlie Hebdo.
The similarities in the plots raised questions about the ability of Belgian and European authorities to track complex terrorist operations across international borders. Much of the attention has fallen on the movements of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan origin who is thought to have played a key role in both the Paris attacks and the plot in Verviers. After Verviers, Abaaoud slipped out of the sights of European intelligence agencies. He fled to Syria, where he was featured in the next month’s issue of the ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq, boasting of how he’d escaped the clutches of Western security services: "All this proves that a Muslim should not fear the bloated image of the crusader intelligence." (A few days after the November attacks, Abaaoud was killed in a shoot-out with police at an apartment building in the St. Denis neighborhood of Paris.)
If ISIS wanted the world to take note of Abaaoud, it had far less to say about the other survivor from Verviers. Marouane El Bali had been in a bathroom in the back when the police busted down the door. Hearing the authorities approach, El Bali, who was 25 at the time, jumped out of a window, landing in a yard below, where he was quickly apprehended.
El Bali’s role in the plot at Verviers has been hard to pinpoint. He had arrived at the apartment shortly before the raid, around the time Belgian police say they were expecting a third man to show up. Prosecutors believe he may have been there to deliver instructions, or perhaps to help Amghar and Ben Larbi acquire guns for their plot. The details of the official inquiry, which is ongoing, remain under seal, and lawyers involved with it have been barred from speaking to the press. But numerous defense attorneys and other legal professionals in Brussels who have access to the files told BuzzFeed News that the case against El Bali is vague and circumstantial. The police knew a man was meant to arrive at the apartment, but they admit they didn’t know who it specifically would be, or if El Bali was indeed that man. And while the police's intelligence had led them to believe the third planner would be traveling from Brussels to Verviers by train, El Bali's lawyers say he came by car — back in January they even presented the man who claimed to have driven El Bali to a Belgian reporter.
El Bali’s attorneys have argued that he is innocent of the terrorism charges — they say he had traveled to Verviers to smoke some weed with old friends from Molenbeek, or maybe to visit a girl, and had no idea what the guys were really up to. Another attorney who knows El Bali but doesn’t represent him says that even assuming El Bali was aware of the men's plan (“He knew they had been to Syria," the lawyer said, "he’s not dumb"), he doesn’t appear to have been ideologically attached to ISIS, or committed to terrorism. When El Bali first appeared in court in January, he cried profusely, one of the lawyers said. "He had no idea what was going on."
Eleven months on, the extent of El Bali's involvement in Verviers remains one of the case's most enduring mysteries — and, for those interested in the roots of Europe’s terrorism crisis, potentially one of its most illuminating. Unlike Amghar and Ben Larbi, El Bali had never gone to Syria, and he wasn't seeking martyrdom; his impulse for self-preservation during the raid stands out even to the prosecution. "He wasn't prepared to die," Eric van der Sypt, a spokesperson for the Belgian federal prosecutor's office, told BuzzFeed News recently. "He could have entered the room where the two others were and grabbed a gun and fired back.” But if El Bali was in some way complicit in the attack, that would indicate the root of Europe's terrorism problem lies less in Syria than it does much closer to home.
Molenbeek, the neighborhood in Brussels where El Bali grew up in the early 2000s, is largely composed of immigrant families from Morocco and Algeria. Its population is poor, and the crime rate is high. (A Belgian broadcaster once labeled it the "Bronx of Brussels.") Unlike the infamous banlieues of Paris — the rundown high-rise suburbs that symbolize France's failure to integrate its own Muslim immigrant residents — Molenbeek is practically in the middle of Brussels; it’s just two metro stops west of the central train station. Still, Molenbeek can feel deeply isolated. The immigrants of Brussels, most of them Muslim and of North African descent, are highly concentrated there — the schools they attend, shunned by white Belgian families, are disparagingly referred to as “concentration schools,” after the high percentage of immigrants enrolled, and the poor conditions. “I didn’t believe it was this bad when I first started,” said a teacher who works at a mostly immigrant school near Molenbeek. “The schools, all they do is accentuate the problems the students face in their daily lives.”
For all its supposedly progressive social values, Belgium remains a deeply divided country. Within white Belgian society, animosity between French- and Dutch-speaking regions has forced the establishment of autonomous enclaves and hampered the creation of a national identity, not to mention a fully fledged national police. Immigrants from outside descend further down this social ladder. Even with a diploma, young people from places like Molenbeek often find their opportunities for work and life halt abruptly at their neighborhood’s boundaries. “When you apply for a job, they see your name — Mark? OK. Mohamed? No thanks,” a Molenbeek resident named Khyyat Nourdin said one recent afternoon, as he waited to get his hair cut. “So what do the kids do? They sit at home all day; they smoke weed.”
According to a few people who know him, El Bali may have enjoyed a joint now and then, but he was also a fine student, a positive force in the community. "He loves sports and beautiful women," one of the lawyers said. Another friend told a Belgian reporter shortly after El Bali's arrest, "He is an important figure in the neighborhood. He's a big brother to many young people. He attempts rather to calm people down when there is tension, he has never sought to indoctrinate kids here, not at all.” (In a brief conversation in front of their drab, two-story apartment building in Molenbeek, el Bali's mother and brother were visibly nervous and declined to speak to BuzzFeed News: "We have nothing to say about this.”)
And while he hung with the delinquent crowd — young men, including Soufiane Amghar, who dealt drugs and traded in stolen car parts — he didn’t have a criminal record, and he wasn’t on the security services' radar. In his job as a private security guard, El Bali occasionally drew contracts from the federal government, one of which, according to a lawyer familiar with his case, was part of the extended protection for a 2014 appearance in Brussels by Barack Obama. (The White House declined to comment and the Belgian government said it had no information on this particular job, but noted that El Bali had been fired three times from private security jobs.)
But if El Bali seemed to be doing all right, he was also, inescapably, a product of his surroundings. One day recently, I spent some time in Molenbeek with a 21-year-old resident named Mohamed. (He asked to be identified by only his first name so he could talk openly about his past.) Mohamed is tall and slim, with a youthful face and patchy facial hair, and wears a red checkered kaffiyeh. At least two of the Paris attackers came from Molenbeek, and several people involved in other plots in Europe had spent time there. Since then, the neighborhood had come to feel like it was under siege. "What I see is all the guns in the city pointed at Molenbeek," Mohamed said, "just because a couple crazy motherfuckers came from here."
When Mohamed was 16 or 17, he dabbled in illegal activities — “I had my time with the street stuff,” he says — stealing car radios, selling drugs. With a mother who worked cleaning hotel rooms and a father who was a janitor at a university, petty crime was often the only way to acquire the textbooks Mohamed needed, or the cell phone he wanted. But Mohamed read the books he stole, taught himself English, and emerged as something of a street-level community activist. His cause is against police brutality — he's been inspired by Black Lives Matter — and in favor of young people in Molenbeek assuming more responsibility for their own lives. But in Belgium that's not always enough. Despite Mohamed's education and skills, the only work he’s been able to find was a contract job at a department store, where he said his white co-workers refused to learn his name: “If they needed something, they’d say, ‘Hey, worker, get over here.’” He's given up on the prospect of being accepted into an apartment in another part of town. “Why are we in a neighborhood with blacks and Arabs only? They will say it’s because we don’t want to integrate, but that’s not true. It’s because it's the only place they want us to be — the only place they will let us live.”
When some of his friends first started going to Syria, a few years ago, Mohamed wasn’t particularly alarmed. Even before ISIS emerged, the fight against the regime of Bashar al-Assad drew young men from across western Europe. His only real question for them was why they hadn't chosen Gaza, or somewhere in Africa — places where the need for assistance seemed greater, the injustices of the world closer at hand. "At the time, everybody wanted to go to fight Assad, to free the people of Syria," he said. "We didn't know yet who al-Nusra was, or who ISIS was."
It didn't hurt that Syria happened to be easy to get to. The Belgian government didn't exactly interfere, looking the other way for years as young men flowed to the anti-Assad battleground. Just about anywhere one looked in Molenbeek there seemed to be someone offering to help a young person make the journey, with cash and a promise of righteous glory upon arrival. ISIS recruiters who encountered them on the streets and online talked a lot about Israel and Gaza, Mohamed and others familiar with the tactics said, and they promised to help convert a personal sense of injustice into a greater cause. "It was trendy," Mohamed said. "If you go to Syria you can have money and a nice life. If you die, you go to heaven. So what have you lost? It's still better than here."
In discussions of Islamic extremism, the process of "radicalization" is typically seen as a final turning point — the last stage before a person with long-standing religious views suddenly becomes willing to kill for them. But Molenbeek, and the entire trend of European-born jihadis going to Syria before returning to carry out attacks at home, challenges this sequence. In recent years, Alain Grignard, a lecturer of political Islam at the University of Liège and one of the top counterterrorism officials in the Brussels police, has closely followed the cases of young Belgians who joined ISIS in Syria. What he's noticed is a steady stream of young men who are disillusioned by their lives and dissociated from society, more likely to be found at the corner pub than the local mosque. Few of them have had any insight into Islam prior to the appearance of a recruiter or online activist, and their subsequent departures for Syria. "They are — above all — members of groups of friends who lived before in the same neighborhood, were in the same schools, the same street gangs and, sometimes, the same jails," Grignard told BuzzFeed News.
The final transition to becoming a fully fledged jihadi happens quickly — often in a matter of days or weeks — and Grignard contends this is because these people are already radicalized. That radicalization, he argues, would have taken place long before, back when these young men became accustomed to a life of criminality, and inured to everyday violence. The ideology introduced by ISIS, then, is not the motivator: It is merely a late-appearing, and convenient, excuse. For this reason, he prefers to call these men "Islamized radicals" rather than "radical Islamists." "The garb of religion serves only to legitimize, and maybe even provide a redemptive quality, to any forms of violence that they choose to use," Grignard said.
Of course, not every street-level criminal goes to Syria, or becomes a jihadi, even as the appeal of ISIS has undeniably grown. But as Mohamed sees it, for many young men in Molenbeek, the divergence between a life of petty crime and joining ISIS is not all that stark: They are each turnoffs from the same byway. Analysts obsessing over the process of radicalization are asking the wrong question. “All these people don't see a social problem — they just see a personal problem,” he said. “This one guy went to Syria, this one didn't — why him, why not him, et cetera? But the main problems we face are social problems: the difficulty we have finding work, the difficulty in finding apartments, the daily discrimination.”
He went on, “If this Syria thing didn't happen, these guys would have had to stay here. But then all their feelings of frustration would have just built up in their heads anyway, and they probably would have done something about it here instead.”
When Amghar and Ben Larbi returned from Syria to Belgium, sometime in late 2014, they had a new objective — and they needed help. For much of the prior year, the two had been training with a special unit of foreign fighters called Katibat al-Battar, in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor. According to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an analyst who closely tracks Syria's fighting groups, Katibat al-Battar was crucial to ISIS's triumph that year over Syrian rebels in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor.
As with many of the returning jihadis, it's not known if Amghar and Ben Larbi made the decision to return home on their own, or if they were sent by ISIS higher command. In his interview with Dabiq, Abaaoud claimed he traveled from Syria with them, and that the three men "spent months trying to find a way into Europe," before finally making it to Belgium. But to carry out their operations back home, Amghar and Ben Larbi would need more than three men, and they would need assistance and supplies — much of it illicit. (One lawyer hinted El Bali may have picked the men up when they arrived in Munich.) The acquisition of guns would be one such challenge: Despite the widespread assumption that Belgium is awash with illicit firearms, high-powered assault rifles like Kalashnikovs are in fact quite hard to come by — they require connections.
An Vranckx, a small arms expert at the Brussels-based Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP), notes that most of the Kalashnikovs used in recent attacks like those in Paris were unreliable. "For me, that suggests that there is in fact real difficulty in getting a quality gun," Vranckx said, in an interview at her office in Brussels.
The Kalashnikovs used in almost all of the recent European terror plots were originally purchased at a gun shop in Slovakia, where they had been decommissioned and sold for use as movie props. An expert from the criminal underworld would have been required to restore the gun to a working condition, a process that is cumbersome and often prone to malfunctions. Vranckx noted something like this seems to have been at play during the August attack on a high-speed train traveling from Belgium to France; the attacker's gun jammed, and he was forced to resort to a box cutter, allowing himself to be more easily overpowered by bystanders.
Indeed, European experts say that if not for gun dealers and other accomplices — unwitting, willfully ignorant, whatever they might be — many of the recent plots would have proved logistically impossible. "Why these people can perpetuate their attacks is because they can rely on these networks," said Michael Dantinne, a professor of criminology at the University of Liège, who has studied the way terrorist organizations use criminal networks to raise funds. "And then they can hide out afterward."
Dantinne notes this may be what happened with Salah Abdeslam, a native of Molenbeek and one of the more enigmatic figures from the recent Paris attack. Abdeslam had been slated to carry out a part of the attack along with his brother, Brahim, but he evidently changed his mind at the last minute, dumping his suicide vest in a trash bin, and fleeing back to Brussels. To make his escape, Salah called on two friends in Molenbeek and begged them to come pick him up. The friends, who were later detained, have both strongly denied any prior knowledge of the plot, or involvement in terrorism. Their attorneys told BuzzFeed News that neither had traveled to Syria. (Nor, for that matter, had Abdeslam, who remains on the run.)
Delphine Paci, a Brussels attorney who has represented several people who have traveled to Syria in recent years, says she encounters people like the two drivers in terrorism-related cases all the time. "These are people from small delinquencies in the neighborhoods who will help the big boss without always knowing what they are doing, or that they are helping terrorists," she said. "Because that's how it works in the neighborhoods."
In July, the family of Soufiane Amghar filed a legal challenge against the Belgian police for their conduct in the raid in Verviers. The family, which declined to be interviewed, has said that they simply want to know what happened to their son and whether it was justified. "It may be that everything we are told is what happened," said Virginie Taelman, the Belgian lawyer representing them. "They just want to know the truth." According to Taelman, the family has been kept in the dark about their son, despite their efforts to engage with the authorities: After reporting his disappearance to the police in April 2014, they say, they did not hear back from officials until four days after the raid, when they were informed that he had been killed.
Some of that delay may have come because the police didn’t actually know who was in the apartment at the time of the raid. Prosecutors told BuzzFeed News that not only did they not know who El Bali was before the raid, but they didn’t know much about who else was there. "We had some trouble identifying the exact people," said van der Sypt, the prosecutor's spokesperson. In the first days after that raid, Belgian police gave the press the wrong names for Amghar and Ben Larbi. Meanwhile, according to The Telegraph, the police struggled to locate a man who had traveled with Amghar and Ben Larbi to Turkey, despite the fact that he was wearing a tracking device on his ankle. (He turned himself in a few days after the raid, after reading his name in the newspaper.)
Prosecutors have also acknowledged they didn't know what exactly the plotters intended to target, or when. One lawyer who has listened to police recordings of Amghar and Ben Larbi says there was little specific information. "There are a lot of little details but no clear picture of a plan," he said. The raid itself was authorized by a Belgian judge three days before it was actually carried out. "For such an imminent attack, why don't we know what the actual target was?" asked Taelman.
The lack of solid information prior to the raid has made some question the ferocity of the police action. (Many details of the night remain in dispute.) Marc Metdepenningen, a journalist for the Belgian newspaper Le Soir who has covered the case, compares the raid in Verviers to the recent French police assault on a house in St. Denis, outside Paris, in which officers fired some 5,000 rounds while hunting for Abaaoud. "It was incredible," Metdepenningen said. In the aftermath of the St. Denis operation, it took nearly two days to positively identify Abaaoud's body, and a dismembered female head that flew out a window was mistaken for that of another woman who was nowhere on the scene. Metdepenningen has referred to the deaths of the two men in Verviers as a “judicial failure.”
Taelman, for her part, sees little evidence the police were ever interested in making any arrests. "I have the impression that the police were there just to kill them," she said. This is not her view alone. Another attorney familiar with the raid told BuzzFeed News he understood there was a period of time in the hours before the raid when El Bali went for a walk outside with one of the men. "They went to a night shop," he said. "The police could have arrested them then. I don't understand why they did not."
"It's really a pity, as I see it," said a third lawyer, who didn't recount the men as leaving the apartment that evening but agreed that the police had ample opportunities to make arrests prior to the raid. "Because the police blew a chance to know what was really going on there."
In an interview in late November, van der Sypt told BuzzFeed News that the men’s deaths were regrettable. "In these kind of actions we always want the people to be alive, not dead," van der Sypt said. "We regret their deaths, we don't want that." He did not apologize for the heavy deployment of force. Amghar and Ben Larbi fired around 300 rounds at police, van der Sypt said, destroying two cars on the street and the facade of the house across the way. "Our first concern is the security of our men," he said. "The moment we touched the door they started to fire away. There were some mailmen who were very lucky they didn't touch that door early in the morning." He confirmed that no police officers were wounded during the raid.
Both van der Sypt and the defense attorneys insist the tape recordings, if they are ever revealed, will prove them right. "We'll see in court," van der Sypt said.
If the plot being hatched in the apartment in Verviers really was some kind of antecedent of the deadly assault on Paris, it also showed that killing the plotters alone is not enough to stop further attacks. The police will need a better grasp on the nuanced dynamics of the people involved — not just the Amghars and Abaaouds, but the drivers and firearms dealers and childhood associates from the neighborhoods where they grew up.
Community activists who work in Molenbeek say the problem with the government's current approach is that it emphasizes policing over self-examination — improving the schools, say, or programs that promote social integration and economic opportunity. "What this government calls a security problem is just because they do not want to manage the problems of society," says Farida Aarrass, the director of an organization in Molenbeek that encourages young people to invest more in their own community through volunteer projects. "The education here is oriented to one kind of job — bus drivers, or security guards, or shopkeeping. So, many young people just stop their studies, because they see where it is heading. And if they want more in life, they turn to stealing money, carjacking, pickpockets. It's like a snowball effect — this is the first step along a very bad path."
Dantinne, the criminologist in Liège, thinks the accomplishments of Belgian police — much criticized in the aftermath of Paris — are underappreciated. The stakes are so high, and the public tolerance for missteps so low. "The investigations in terrorism cases are extremely particular, because politicians and public opinion insist that police services act in a way that will prevent terrorist attacks," Dantinne said. "Unlike with normal crime, they are asked to be proactive. That's quite difficult. It also might happen that they deter a terrorist attack but they can't say anything publicly — but, later, if one happens, they are blamed for it."
But even routine police work would be an improvement over the tendency to view jihadism as simply a global trend, with global solutions. Nils Duquet, an adviser to the Flemish Parliament who specializes in gun trafficking, notes that the government has very little data on the use of firearms in non-terrorism-related crime — despite the fact that this activity can feed directly into terrorist plots. "We've noticed an increase in use and possession of firearms in the past five years, but don't ask me how many guns we seize — we don't know," Duquet told BuzzFeed News recently. "It's a serious problem. If you want to make good policy, you need good information."
Kris Luyckx, a criminal lawyer in Antwerp who has taken on a number of clients who have gone to Syria in recent years — the majority of whom he represented years earlier for smaller offenses — says understanding the jihadi networks requires understanding the non-jihadi criminal networks first. In doing so, he adds, the appearance of leadership figures like Abaaoud can be demystified.
"You see this all the time in drug-related crime — there are always a few guys who are a bit smarter than the rest and manage to avoid detection, avoid going to jail," Luyckx said. "It's the same thing with the Syria travelers. Those guys have connections from before, to buy Kalashnikovs or whatever else, but I don't think there is some mastermind in Syria saying you have to do this, do that — I think it's more improvisation. Which makes it more dangerous, of course. Anyone can pick it up, and anyone can be the next Abaaoud."
Alice Dulczewski contributed to the reporting of this story.
Joshua Hersh is the 2015-2016 Michael Hastings National Security Fellow. He is based in New York.
Contact Joshua Hersh at email@example.com.
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