A Brussels Mentor Who Taught ‘Gangster Islam’ to the Young and Angry

The New York Times/April 11, 2016

By Andrew Higgins and Kimiko De Freytas-Tamuraa

BRUSSELS — He lived under the rafters in a small attic apartment in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, and became known to some followers as the Santa Claus of jihad. He had the bushy beard and potbelly, and generously offered money and advice to young Muslims eager to fight in Syria and Somalia, or to wreak havoc in Europe.

When the Belgian police seized the computer of the man, Khalid Zerkani, in 2014, they found a trove of extremist literature, including tracts titled “Thirty-Eight Ways to Participate in Jihad” and “Sixteen Indispensable Objects to Own Before Going to Syria.” In July, Belgian judges sentenced him to 12 years in prison for participating in the activities of a terrorist organization, and declared him the “archetype of a seditious mentor” who spread “extremist ideas among naïve, fragile and agitated youth.”

But only in the months since then has the full scale of Mr. Zerkani’s diligent work on the streets of Molenbeek and beyond become clear, as the network he helped nurture has emerged as a central element in attacks in both Paris and Brussels — as well as one in France that the authorities said last month they had foiled.

“Mr. Zerkani has perverted an entire generation of youngsters, particularly in the Molenbeek neighborhood,” the Belgian federal prosecutor, Bernard Michel, said in February.

During his trial, Mr. Zerkani, 42, denied any involvement in terrorism. His Brussels lawyer, Steve Lambert, declined to comment for this article.

But court documents and interviews with Molenbeek residents and activists, as well as with Belgian security officials, suggest that he had direct or indirect connections with several crucial figures who are now dead or under arrest in connection with the November massacre in Paris that killed 130 people and the bombings last month in Brussels that killed 32.

Take Mohamed Abrini, a former Molenbeek resident who, the Belgian authorities said on Saturday, has confessed to being “the man in the hat,” caught on surveillance video accompanying the airport suicide bombers and later walking away alive.

His younger brother, Souleymane, traveled to Syria with help from Mr. Zerkani, according to security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do otherwise. The brother reportedly died there in 2014 while fighting with the Islamic State. Reda Kriket, another veteran of the conflict in Syria who was arrested in France last month in connection with the thwarted attack, stayed in Mr. Zerkani’s apartment for a time and lent him his French-registered Mercedes, prosecutors said.

Belgian investigators say that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Molenbeek resident who commanded the November attacks in Paris, was a disciple of Mr. Zerkani. Najim Laachraoui, who the authorities suspect was the bomb maker for both the Paris and Brussels attacks, is also believed to have been connected to his circle.

Hawa Keita, an immigrant to Brussels from Mali, said her son, Yoni Mayne, had become radicalized in a matter of months under Mr. Zerkani’s influence. (She believes her son died in battle in Syria in 2014.)

“He is a sorcerer,” she said of the now-imprisoned Mr. Zerkani in an interview at her apartment in a Brussels high-rise. “He is Satan.”

The role in Molenbeek of Mr. Zerkani, a surly man more versed in the ways of the street than in those of the mosque, helps explain why a small and not particularly destitute district of the Belgian capital keeps cropping up in relation to terrorist investigations. It also highlights a pronounced shift over the past decade from the often arcane theological debates of an earlier generation of jihadists linked to Al Qaeda to what Hind Fraihi, who wrote a book about Molenbeek, called “gangster Islam.”

Ms. Fraihi, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, said that when she first started researching in Molenbeek more than a decade ago, the radical scene was dominated by extremist clerics well versed in religious texts. This has mutated under the influence of Islamic State propaganda, she said, into a criminal enterprise driven by “the synergy between banditism and Islam.”

The Islamic State recruits among “bandits and gangsters because it needs them for their knowledge of guns, safe houses and the underground scene,” Ms. Fraihi said. “Mix this with a little Islam, and this is what you get in Molenbeek.”

Some trace the roots of radicalism in Molenbeek to the 1990s, when Bassam Ayachi, a Franco-Syrian former restaurant owner, set up the Belgian Islamic Center, a makeshift mosque that promoted the dogmatic Salafi strand of the religion. Residents and some municipal officials repeatedly warned the authorities that it was sheltering extremists.

Philippe Moureaux, Molenbeek’s mayor from 1993 until 2012, said that on meeting Mr. Ayachi, “it was clear he was an extremist,” but that he considered this the responsibility of the Belgian federal security service, not of municipal officials like himself.

Johan Leman, an anthropologist and a Molenbeek community worker, said he had sounded the alarm over the center’s activities but received no response — even after it became known that Mr. Ayachi had officiated at the wedding of a Qaeda militant who took part in the September 2001 murder of Ahmad Shah Massoud, an Afghan warlord opposed to Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Leman, who was serving on the government’s anti-discrimination commission, filed a lawsuit accusing the Islamic Center of promoting anti-Semitic and anti-American views. The court ruled in 2006 that the center had indulged in hate speech, he said. Around the same time, the Belgian police raided Mr. Ayachi’s apartment, carting away computers and documents.

Mr. Zerkani, a Moroccan who became a Belgian resident in 2002, moved on the fringes of Mr. Ayachi’s milieu but did not attract close attention, people in his neighborhood said. While the Islamic Center had championed an ascetic and rigid form of Islam that had only modest appeal to young people who liked to drink alcohol and carouse at night, Mr. Zerkani, Belgian investigators said, was able to bridge the divide by channeling the criminal energies of young delinquents.

Among these Zerkani recruits, the investigators said, were Mr. Abaaoud, who was killed a few days after the Paris attacks when French police officers stormed his hide-out, and Salah Abdeslam, a former drug dealer and onetime bar owner suspected of being an architect of the Paris attacks, who was captured in Molenbeek last month after four months on the run.

Mr. Zerkani was born in Zenata, an area of northern Morocco inhabited by the country’s often rebellious Berber-speaking minority, and spent time in Spain and the Netherlands before moving to Belgium when he was 28. In Brussels, his associates included supporters of the Shabab, a militant group in Somalia affiliated with Al Qaeda. Belgian investigators say he shoplifted and committed other petty crimes before becoming a prolific recruiter for the Islamic State.

A senior Belgian terrorism investigator, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to do otherwise, said that it was not clear how Mr. Zerkani had become a trusted operator for the Islamic State and its predecessors, and that the extent of his involvement with people connected to plots was only now coming into focus.

One theory is that Mr. Zerkani was recommended to the militant group’s leadership in Syria by Fatima Aberkan, a friend of the wife of the Qaeda militant who killed Mr. Massoud, the Afghan warlord. In the 2015 trial that featured Mr. Zerkani, a Belgian court sentenced Ms. Aberkan to five years in prison for participation in a terrorist organization; she and five of her children, three sons and two daughters, have spent time in Syria with the Islamic State, prosecutors said.

There is no record of Mr. Zerkani traveling to Syria. But prosecutors said that at least 18 people he was in regular contact with went there to fight between mid-2012 and 2014.

Belgian security officials and people who know Mr. Zerkani said he had assured Molenbeek’s wayward youth that past criminal convictions were not an obstacle to the Islamic cause, but a vital foundation. At his trial, according to the judges’ summary of the verdict, witnesses testified that he had preached that “to steal from the infidels is permitted by Allah,” and necessary to finance travel to “zones of jihad.”

He had been arrested carrying 4,397 euros (about $5,000) and $1,235, as well as currency from Singapore, Morocco and six other countries. The police also seized stolen passports and found multiple cellphones, computers and a device to foil shoplifting alarms.

And he had rung up large phone bills, making 47 calls to Islamic State contacts in Syria and 89 to others in Turkey in just 10 days in December 2013, according to court documents.

Investigators struggled to balance these findings with the fact that Mr. Zerkani had no known job since 2008, yet for years had doled out money to volunteer fighters. Mr. Zerkani told the authorities that he had worked “au noir” — in the shadow economy — trading “various objects.” But surveillance teams reported that they never saw him sell anything.

Belgian prosecutors said in a report that Mr. Zerkani had secured the obedience of disaffected young men “by progressively cutting them off from their previous bearings and from their family, school and social ties in Belgium.” Most were 15 to 20 years his junior and shared his Moroccan origins.

“They’ll catch a North African because they know the inside of his head,” said Bachir M’Rabet, a youth counselor in Molenbeek. Recruiters like Mr. Zerkani, he added, “won’t go to a Turk or an Albanian because they’re not culturally close.”

Mohamed Karim Haddad, the brother of an acolyte who left for Syria, described Mr. Zerkani “as a charlatan who, for a bad cause, misled youths or men who are socially unstable.”

Ms. Keita’s son, who would have been 25 now, was convicted of drug charges in Brussels in 2013. But his mother said it was not until he started hanging out in Molenbeek that he showed any interest in Syria, and criticized her for being insufficiently devout.

Mr. Zerkani did not lecture these recruits on arcane theological justifications for violence, like Mr. Ayachi of the Islamic Center, but instead used a few crude religious ideas to give legitimacy to the criminal path they had already chosen.

Long before jihad became fashionable on the fringes, crime was endemic in parts of Molenbeek, a breakdown for which many blame Mr. Moureaux, the former mayor who won election after election.

He set off an uproar in 2010 when he joined the mayor of the Brussels region in dismissing a gun attack on police officers by a Belgian-Moroccan armed with a Kalashnikov rifle as a “fait divers,” or a titillating news item of no consequence.

The gunman, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison but released after four, was Ibrahim Bakraoui, one of the two brothers who the authorities say staged suicide attacks in Brussels on March 22.

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