From Europe to Syria and back: The Jihadists’ underground railroad

From Europe to Syria and back: The Jihadists’ underground railroad

The men implicated in the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks – both those who committed the crime, and those who have been arrested – were only the sharp end of a jihadist network that stretches from Europe all the way to Syria and Iraq. And it is from Syria, in the safety of the Islamic State’s so-called Caliphate, that these attacks were masterminded. By JASMINE OPPERMAN.

Who were the masterminds of the attacks in Paris last year and Brussels last week? In the aftermath of Paris, the media focused on Abdelhamid Abaaoud, depicting him as the organiser and planner-in-chief. Similarly, after Brussels, reporters zoomed in on Saleh Abdeslam.

Research conducted by the Terrorism and Research Analysis Consortium suggests a different conclusion: that both operations were in fact co-ordinated by another individual, thought to be Salim Benghalem, a French national thought to be in his mid 30’s.

Benghalem’s experience and connections make him the most likely candidate for the role of mastermind. Indeed, Benghalem is pedigreed, and has deep connections to well-established European jihadi networks. He is personally credited with recruiting more than 1,500 Frenchmen to fight in Syria, and is thought to be an executioner for the Islamic State.

Benghalem is also the lynchpin between the Islamic State and the 19th Arrondissement Network, a group of Islamists that was established in the early 2000s to train radical Islamists to fight for the Islamic State’s predecessor organisation in Iraq (the network is referred to by this name since most of its members were from the 19th Arrondissement, a poor Paris neighbourhood with a large North African population). Though the network was ostensibly dismantled after seven members were arrested in 2005, the recent attacks in Paris indicate that it remains operational. This network is not hierarchical, reliant instead on familial and friendship associations, to avoid detection.

Given his mentor status, his high level of experience in historical jihadist circles, his intimate knowledge of most French fighters in the Islamic State, and his already established position of authority within the Caliphate, it is much more likely that Benghalem would be entrusted with the necessary level of authority to organise the Paris and Brussels attacks. In any case, he is much more qualified than either Abaaoud or Abdeslam for the job: Benghalem has the right connections, the right experience, and carries the authority to organise an attack remotely.

Orchestrators, not masterminds

Abaaoud, on the other hand, was never a high-ranking member of the Islamic State, not even within his own unit when he was stationed in the heartland of the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. He was young, impetuous and undisciplined: hardly the personality traits required to organise a sophisticated terrorist attack. Similarly, Abdeslam had no track record, no experience, no pedigree. In fact, he was initially supposed to be a suicide bomber at the Stade de France in the Paris attacks, which would have left him ill-equipped to mastermind anything.

More likely is that both Abaaoud and Abdeslam were orchestrators, leaders “on the field”, their jobs being to co-ordinate all the suicide bombers. This is not the same as planning the operation from start to finish, recruiting the personnel to carry out the operation, and providing them with both weapons and targeting instructions.

Besides: it never made sense that the mastermind of the attacks would have physically been in Paris or Brussels during the attacks. He is far too valuable to the Islamic State to risk potentially jeopardising future attacks.

As shown above, neither Abdeslam nor Abaaoud could have been the masterminds of the attacks. Instead, the role is most probably attributed to Salim Benghalem. While Abdeslam and Abaaoud were respectively arrested and killed in the aftermath of their operations, Benghalem is nowhere to be seen, and is believed to be alive and well under the protection of the Islamic State in Syria.

If, as posited by the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, the real mastermind of the attacks is indeed still at large, this means that more attacks in the West can be arranged from within Iraq and Syria. However, since Abaaoud and, to a lesser extent, Abdeslam played such an instrumental role in preparing and waging both attacks, it is reasonable to assume it will take the Islamic State months if not years to organise a similar cell capable of orchestrating future attacks on the ground.

The underground railroad

That the Islamic State can create and maintain similar such cells is not in doubt, however. Based on the sheer number of people involved in the Paris and Brussels attacks, on their connections to other known terrorists, and on their links with others who remain in Syria, it is clear that what was first believed to be a relatively small group of jihadists is actually an underground railroad bringing a constant flow of Islamic State-linked militants from Europe to Syria, and back to Europe again once they are trained and ready to undertake terrorist attacks.

At the core of this 21st-century underground railroad linking Europe and Syria is of course an intricate system of recruitment and networking. This does not happen in a standardised manner: networking involves a complex mix of places, ranging from mosques and prisons to entire neighbourhoods in the suburbs of capital cities such as Paris and Brussels; of connections, be it family (siblings often – though not always – help radicalise each other), friends, and mentors; and, in certain cases, of connections with previously established jihadist networks which can then be used by larger terrorist groups as a kernel of recruitment.

Using previously established jihadists groups and networks is an important element of Islamic State recruitment, especially when it comes to recruiting foreign fighters. Most significant in this context is the 19th Arondissement Network and the Sharia4Belgium network.

Sharia4Belgium has provided IS with a substantial number of European fighters, and can even be considered the kernel of the current wave of recruitment. Dozens of Sharia4Belgium members left to join the Islamic State in Syria – and, with tragic consequences, some have and will come back the other way. DM

Jasmine Opperman is the Africa Director for the Terrorism and Research Analysis Consortium (TRAC).

Photo: In a propaganda video, a Belgian Islamic State member and former Belgium4Sharia member claims credit on behalf of the Islamic State for the March attacks in Belgium. Photo sourced by the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium.


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