In September 2021, the trial began of 20 men accused of planning, aiding, and carrying out the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, which saw Islamist terrorists target the Stade de France, bars, restaurants, as well as the Bataclan concert hall, with hundreds of people becoming victims. The mastermind of these attacks was Belgian citizen Oussama Atar. It’s worth taking a closer look at his life, as it explains quite a lot of how it could all come that far.
In addition to the November 2015 Paris attacks, Atar was also the mastermind of the March 2016 Brussels terrorist attacks, which targeted the Brussels national airport and a metro station. Initially, the suspicion was that another Brussels native, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was the mastermind, until, after a few months, Belgian investigators realized that it was Atar, who resided in Raqqa, Syria, then the capital of the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS). He apparently also planned a terrorist attack on Amsterdam airport, but for unknown reasons this plan was abandoned.
Atar wasn’t some random ISIS member. As the confidante of Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, a Syrian citizen and number two of the terrorist group, he had risen to become the number three of ISIS. Atar spoke Iraqi Arabic and French, enabling him to command the preparation of terrorist attacks in Europe within the “External Operations Unit” of ISIS, called “Copex.”
All of this is documented in a new book about Atar, authored by former Belgian politician Georges Dallemagne and journalist Christophe Lamfalussy. The book is particularly revealing about how close the links were between ISIS and active terrorists in Europe.
Atar’s early life shines light on the problematic integration of minorities in Belgium, a factor that contributed to the path of Islamic radicalization followed by a very small minority of Belgian Muslims. Similar patterns are visible throughout northern Europe, but it’s hard to deny the situation in Brussels, where many of the November 2015 Paris attack terrorists were based, is particularly troubling.
In this respect, it is important mentioning the role of the Belgian welfare state, which is rife with so-called ‘unemployment traps,’ benefits that are so generous that it is more attractive to remain unemployed than to find a job: this is particularly the case for women with children. As a result, the Brussels region has one of the lowest labour participation rates in the EU, with only 37.6% of non-EU foreigners of working age being currently economically active. Clearly, this is a major obstacle for integration into society.
Atar comes from a family of Moroccan immigrants. Many Moroccan immigrants are very well integrated into society, but a minority is not. A 2015 survey revealed that 15.7% of Moroccan Belgians felt more Moroccan than Belgian; for Turkish Belgians, the proportion stood at 21.3%. Around 80% of Moroccan Belgians in Brussels marry with someone from their own community; for Turkish Belgians, the figure is 90%.
The Netherlands has also welcomed a comparable number of immigrants from Morocco, mostly from the 1960s onwards. However, an 2006 investigation by the Dutch government revealed that people of Moroccan descent are better integrated into society than those of Turkish descent, reflecting the Belgian 2015 survey. The criteria to judge “integration” were the work situation, performance at school, and social benefits; not crime, which may have altered the results, given that crime rates among young Dutch of Moroccan descent are about three times as high as among comparable Dutch of Turkish descent.
However, some 83% of Belgian citizens who went to Syria to fight are of Moroccan descent, with only a handful being of Turkish descent. In 2016, Belgian scholar Fouad Gandoul, himself of Moroccan descent, explained this, noting that the Turkish state—in particular the “Diyanet,” or Directorate of Religious Affairs—has a strong influence on those Belgian mosques attended by the Turkish minority: “Ankara has control here. As a result, there is only a very small faction supporting Saudi Arabia’s Salafism.”
University researcher Ilke Adam added, “Mosques visited by Moroccans are hardly recognised by Belgium [to obtain funding]. A lot of the mosques therefore obtain finance from Saudi Arabia.” She further remarked that in Belgium people of Moroccan descent have “higher degrees” than people of Turkish descent, while there were also more divorces in Belgium’s Moroccan community than in the Turkish community. Rachid Madrane, a socialist politician in Brussels of Moroccan descent, highlighted that “Turkish nationalism knows many strong figures, reminiscent of a father figure, like President Erdogan. Moroccan families are more often torn apart, driving young people into radical Islam.”
The lack of integration was a necessary factor to drive people into the forms of Islam best described as ‘Islamo-fascism,’ given how there were almost no ‘native’ Belgians going down this route—but it was not a sufficient factor, as witnessed by the low numbers of Turkish Belgians becoming radicalized. In a sense, the better integration of Moroccans, which came with a more hybrid identity than Turkish Belgians, may have even made them more vulnerable.
The role of crime
According to CBS, the Dutch government’s statistics body, “Moroccan men between 18 and 25 are often suspected of crime. 20.3% of them were a suspect of one or more crimes in 2012. That is more than four times as much as native men of the same age (4.5%).” In Belgium, men of Moroccan descent are also disproportionally represented in crime statistics.
During his youth, Atar was never involved in crime. However, many of the Brussels-based terrorists were criminals—petty or less petty—that had turned to the fascist variety of the Islamic religion when in jail. The authors of Atar’s biography mention that he grew up at Place Willems in Laeken, a borough in Brussels, where “there was abundant drug trade. A lot of youngsters were engaged in crime, like the brothers Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui, now known as two of the suicide terrorists of the 22 March 2016 [Brussels attacks]. They were cousins of Oussama Atar, and already then, they were tough guys that were violent towards well-meaning social assistants.” Later, when he was with ISIS in Syria, Atar recruited them into the “Copex” team, along with a number of other childhood friends—like Najim Laachraoui and Sammy Djedou—whom he knew from his upbringing in Laeken.
The El Bakraoui brothers had already been in the news. In 2010, the mayors of Brussels city and Molenbeek—another Brussels borough and infamous for being a hotspot of Islamo-fascism—downplayed an incident whereby one of the El Bakraoui brothers fired at local police with an AK47, following a failed burglary in broad day light, as a “minor news time.” The incident was followed by a police strike and although Bakraoui was arrested and sentenced to ten years of prison, he was freed—on parole—from prison in 2014. While jailed, he received frequent visits from Atar.
Atar’s story reveals many ills of Belgium’s criminal justice system: jails infested with Islamo-fascism, low conviction rates, and lax sentencing for both serious and less serious crimes, and a progression of criminals from less to more serious crimes. In 2019, expert Tamara Makarenko explained in a testimony for the UN Security Council that smaller terrorist cells were focused on recruiting criminals in prisons, which have become true “incubators of the link”, and a place for the exchange of knowledge. This is most certainly true for Belgium.
Belgian lobbying on behalf of Atar
In their book, Dallemagne and Lamfalussy recall how “at the start of the 2000s, Al Qaeda veterans from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq were hanging around at the Place Lemmens [in Brussels], telling the youngsters stories about their Holy War.” They recall how Oussama Atar often visited the video shop of his neighbour, “a notorious Islamist” who had a collection of Islamo-fascist content on offer: “When he was 17, he went on a holiday to Syria with one of the most extreme imams of Molenbeek, Sheikh Bassam Ayachi. In September 2003, he returned to Damascus, for a period of two years, supposedly to study Arabic, but then in a Quran[ic] school where jihad was being openly promoted.”
In February 2005, he was arrested in Iraq by U.S. troops, first claiming to be a “soldier of the Islamic army” before changing his story into claiming he came to Iraq for humanitarian reasons. Atar was held at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, and it was only after eight months that the U.S. informed the Belgian State Security Service (VSSE; Dutch: Veiligheid van de Staat; French: Sûreté de l’État) that he was being detained.
After a visit, the VSSE decided to try to enlist him as an informant, and, as a result, the Belgian government started to lobby hard for his release: in 2008, a formal demand for his release was issued to Iraq. This was also encouraged by Atar’s family and a number of local politicians in Brussels. According to the authors of Atar’s biography, this was not only the usual socialist suspects that have specialized themselves in obtaining the electoral support of minorities in a rather tribal manner, but also liberal MEP Louis Michel, a former Belgian Minister.
The Belgian government lobbied for this despite the warnings by both the U.S. and French secret services, which deemed Atar to be extremely radical, and despite an assessment by the Belgian state’s own Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (Dutch: OCAD, Orgaan voor de Coördinatie van de Analyse van de Dreiging; French: OCAM, Organe de Coordination pour l’Analyse de La Menace), which had also warned he was very dangerous. Meanwhile, Atar was transferred to Camp Bucca, described as “the US prison that became the birthplace of ISIS”, where he met the individual who would later become the number 2 of ISIS.
Despite all of this, the Belgian government continued to ask for his repatriation, and, in 2010, the campaign to release him intensified. In September 2012, Atar was repatriated to Belgium, and while he was formally accused of being a member of a terror group, he was released under the condition of being monitored by the secret service. This didn’t stop him visiting his El Bakraoui cousins in prison at least twenty times, continuously promoting jihad. At the end of 2013, he flew to Tunisia, but he was sent back to Belgium by Tunisian police who must have known he was up to no good. Despite this, the Belgian authorities took no action, and he was able to travel to Turkey and then on to Syria to join ISIS.
While Belgium’s intelligence services may have had to cope with a lack of resources and after the event, when you know what to look for, it’s to find links and blame them, ‘embarrassing’ doesn’t even start to describe all of this.
Spreading Salafism in central Brussels
It’s not just on the streets of Brussels where youngsters with an immigration background have been exposed to authoritarian interpretations of Islam: mainstream Islam in Belgium has been plagued by it for years.
In 2018, the Belgian government regained control of the Grand Mosque of Brussels, located in the Cinquantenaire Park close to the European Commission’s headquarters, by terminating with immediate effect Saudi Arabia’s 99-year rent free lease of the building over concerns that it was promoting radicalism. This concession had been awarded in 1969, allowing Saudi-backed imams access to Belgium’s growing Muslim immigrant community in return for cheaper oil for Belgium’s industry.
While the Turkish authorities provided mosques and imams to Belgium’s Turkish minority, the Moroccan minority was left to their own devices, and the Saudis jumped on the opportunity, exposing them to a Saudi-inspired religious education that really is alien to the more tolerant kind of Islam prevalent in Morocco. It would be too simplistic to blame just this for the radicalization of some Belgian Moroccans, but it did play a role. Prior to the Brussels attacks, the Saudi-controlled mosque had already come under fire for promoting Salafism, for example from the Flemish socialist MP Yamila Idrissi, also of Moroccan descent. But it was only after the attacks that the Belgian government ultimately decided to take action and end the lease, surprisingly perhaps without much fuss from the Saudi government.
Tensions have remained, however. Earlier this year, the Belgian government threatened not to extend recognition of the mosque, which comes with subsidies, after Belgian intelligence found evidence that the departure of the Saudis had cleared the way for the Moroccan government to install its own representatives, accompanied with allegations of espionage. This was amid calls by the Belgian government upon the Muslim Executive—the largest group representing Muslims in Belgium—to purge itself of representatives of the Moroccan government. New legislation in the Flemish part of Belgium now foresees a ban on certain kinds of foreign funding for those religious communities that want to receive subsidies.
It’s an uphill struggle to prevent toxic foreign religious ideology from reaching Belgium’s immigrant communities, which form a (literal) battleground for foreign religious struggles. In 1989, the Saudi imam of the Grand Mosque was even murdered inside the mosque’s office, apparently by a Lebanese terror group that considered him not radical enough.
Nowadays, it goes without saying that online preachers can simply operate without any restriction, so some of the well-intended legislative action will have limited effect without accompanying measures addressing online radicalization.
Western values under threat
Ultimately, the state can—but should also not—influence how people think. The only sustainable path to prevent people from falling for violent and authoritarian thinking is for Western civil society to be strongly convinced of the superiority of the values that have been more prevalent in the West than elsewhere and can therefore be called ‘Western values.’
It is true that ‘Western values’ are not always easy to define, but as tense as ideological struggles in Western society may have been between the religious and the non-religious, or between Catholic and Protestants, they have always contained a common core of support for individualism, property rights, free speech, and equality before the law. Clearly these Western values have been violated many times in the history of Western societies, but they have been more strongly present than in any non-Western society.
Today, these values are being questioned. Think of the support for criminalizing ‘hate speech’—an arbitrary and subjective concept. Think of the deep scepticism among socialists of all stripes towards the system of property rights. Think of the support for the concept of a strongman or for authoritarian systems of governance. All of these beliefs are deeply embedded in what was once called the ‘Third World’ and are ultimately responsible for the fact that many chose to emigrate from there.
What was the ‘Third World’ has meanwhile adopted a lot of those Western values, especially when it comes to property rights and reducing authoritarian governance. Most immigrants stemming from these countries have gladly embraced Western values, but those that haven’t can perhaps be forgiven for not having done so when many in the West are not supportive of these values in the first place. Just as some Moroccan Belgians who are confused about their identity are vulnerable to the siren calls of Islamo-fascism, many immigrants will not properly integrate into Western society as long as these values are being questioned in Western society itself.
Pieter Cleppe is the editor-in-chief of BrusselsReport.eu, an online magazine covering EU politics. He is on Twitter @pietercleppe.