AOAV: all our reportsUnderstanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber

Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber: Appendix 2 – Suicide bombers from Europe (Brussels attacks)

This article is part of AOAV’s report, Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber, to read the whole report, please see here. To see the other sections of the report, please go here.

Overview of the March 2016 Brussels attacks bombers

On March 22, 2016, twin suicide bombings hit the main terminal of Brussels Zaventem International Airport, before a third suicide bomb exploded at Maelbeek metro station in the centre of the city, close to the European Union (EU) institutions. The explosions killed 32 and injured 340 people. The initial two blasts took place at the airport at 07:58, whilst Maelbeek metro station was struck at 09:11 local time, with the explosion taking place on a train departing in the direction of Arts-Loi. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attacks, and the suicide bombers were named by the press as Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, Najim Laachraoui, and Khalid el-Bakraoui.

Ibrahim El-Bakraoui (Brussels Attacks, March 2016)

Background of Suicide Bomber

Ibrahim El-Bakraoui was responsible for the first explosion in the departure hall at Zaventem Airport, killing 11 people and injuring more than 90. Ibrahim El Bakraoui is the brother of Khalid El Bakraoui, who was responsible for the later bombing at the Maalbeek metro station.

Ibrahim, a Belgian national of Moroccan descent, was 29 years old when he committed the attack. Ibrahim grew up in Laeken, a residential, working class suburb in the north-west of Brussels, not far from the Royal Palace. His father is a retired butcher and a devout Muslim who emigrated from Morocco, and his mother is conservative Muslim woman. Both Ibrahim and his brother did not finish high school.

In the years prior to the attack, Ibrahim has been involved in violent criminal activity – in 2010, he robbed a Western Union branch in central Brussels and shot a police officer. Ibrahim was sentenced to nine years in prison for attempted murder in August 2010, and received parole in October 2014. According to his uncle, Ibrahim committed the robbery for a purely financial motive.

Shortly after his release, Ibrahim was detained in June 2015 in the western Turkish city of Gaziantep, close to the border with Syria. The Turkish authorities have stated that they notified Belgian security officials at the time that they had detained him, warning that he was a ‘‘foreign terrorist fighter,” and putting him on a plane to the Netherlands, at his request. Later, The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had given the Dutch police information on the radicalisation of both Ibrahim and his brother. The FBI said that they had been tracking the pair since September 2015, and informed the Dutch police that both brothers were wanted – Ibrahim for his criminal background and Khalid for “terrorism, extremism and terrorist recruitment”.

Dutch authorities reportedly received the information from the FBI on the March 16, 2016 – a week before the Brussels attacks – and passed it on to the Belgian authorities. Hours after the attack, the Belgian authorities found explosives and bomb-making equipment (15kg of TAT explosives, 150 litres of acetone, 30 litres of oxygenated water, detonators, nails and screws, glass vials, plastic and ventilators)  in the house where the two brothers lived in the Schaerbeek district of Brussels, along with IS flag.

In early March 2015, the police had raided an apartment in Forest that was rented by Ibrahim’s brother Khalid, in order to search for Salah Abdeslam, who was one of the Paris attackers. The police killed Mohammed Belkaid, an accomplice of Paris attackers, and Abdeslam was soon arrested. The arrest of Abdeslam possibly put pressure on Ibrahim and left him anxious that he might also soon be caught by the authorities. Ibrahim left a will on his computer in a form of an audio file, addressed to his mother, in which he said “I don’t know what to do. I’m in a hurry. I’m on the run. People are looking for me everywhere. And if I give myself up then I’ll end up in a cell next to him.” It is not clear if the word “him” was a direct reference to Abdeslam or not. Ibrahim was reportedly worried about what might happen to him if he was captured by the Belgium security forces. The laptop where he left the file was found in a bin in the neighbourhood of Schaerbeek.

Najim Laachraoui (Brussels Attacks, March 2016)

Background of suicide bomber

Najim Laachraoui was the second suicide bomber involved in the attack at Zaventem Airport. Najim was born on May 18, 1991 in the town of Ajdir, Morocco, and was the oldest of five siblings. His family moved to Schaerbeek in Belgium, which is considered amongst the poorest communities in the country and has a long history of racism. Najim attended a Catholic school from the ages of 12 to18. After that, he was a student of electrical engineering at the Université Libre de Bruxelles during 2009-2010; he dropped out of this university but continued studying electromechanics at the Université Catholique de Louvain from 2010-2011. Najim also worked at Brussels airport for five years until 2012, however there has been no official confirmation clarifying his employment or detailing the type of work he carried out. Unlike the other two suicide bombers involved in the Brussels attacks, Najim did not have a criminal history.

As a teenager, Najim was interested in Sharia – when he was 18 he wrote a paper for his religion class in school on how Islam views slavery; he also wrote another paper on stoning, and about punishment for adultery under Sharia. The primary aim of the assignments was to defend Islam, and Najim was hoping that Islam would not be judged harshly for such practices. By his last year of high school, he had adopted the dress favoured by Salafist Muslims, which meant rolling his trousers up to above his ankle, growing a beard and refusing to shake the hands of women.

In 2013, Najim left for Syria and joined the IS, as confirmed by IS itself in the 14th issue of Dabiq magazine. He was also one of the men who held four French journalists captive for months in Syria. Two of the former hostages, who spent 10 months in captivity and were freed in April 2014, confirmed that he was the jailer and that he was known by the name Abou Idriss. He was at that time in charge of interrogating the hostages and was apparently less brutal to the prisoners than Mehdi Nemmouche, who was another jailor with him in Syria.

When the dispute between Jabhat al-Nusra and IS occurred, Najim was part of Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, a group led by Abu Atheer al-Absi, and Najim was one of the first men from that group to pledge allegiance to IS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He also participated in several battles against the army of Bashar al-Assad (described in Dabiq magazine as the Nusayrī regime) and against Jabhat al Nusra – he was injured in his leg during a battle in Deir Ezzor. After fighting in Syria, he returned to Europe with a fake passport under the name Soufiane Kayal with his friend Salah Abdeslam, who is the only surviving Paris attacker.

In September 2015, he was stopped at a police checkpoint between Hungary and Austria with the same fake passport, and was with Salah Abdeslam in a rented Mercedes-Benz. Najim was allowed to continue his journey, and in October 2015 he rented a house in Auvelais, Belgium, which was used by the Paris attackers.

In February 2016, Najim was suspected of involvement with a possible terrorist cell led by Khalid Zerkani, a Moroccan citizen resident in Belgium, who was responsible for recruiting fighters in Syria including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian-Moroccan citizen who gained notoriety as the primary organizer of the November 2015 Paris attacks. Najim went to trial and was awaiting sentencing – scheduled for May 2016 – at the time of the Brussels bombings. Prosecutors have requested that Najim be convicted in absentia and sentenced to 15 years.

Najim was also closely linked to the November 2015 Paris attacks, as his DNA was found on several suicide vests recovered at the Stade de France and the Bataclan Theatre. On December 10, 2015 investigators searched an apartment on Rue Henri Bergé and found traces of explosive material TATP and the fingerprints of Abdeslam and another Paris attacker, Bilal Hadfi. ISIS also confirmed Najim’s responsibility for making the explosives that were used for the Paris attacks.

Influences on decision to become a suicide bomber

Najim was frustrated by the high unemployment rate amongst Muslim youths in Belgium, which is as high as 40 percent in neighbourhoods such as Schaerbeek. He believed the lack of employment opportunities was compounded by racism and discrimination against Muslims in the country. Najim also had a close relationship with, Khalid Zerkani, a street preacher and the country’s biggest recruiter.

Shortly before the attack, a prayer room was discovered at the airport where Najim used to work, and the airport management made a list of at around 50 employees that were suspected of having been radicalised. The prayer room was closed, which likely frustrated many employees, and may be one of the reasons for choosing to target the airport by Najim and Ibrahim.

Community and family response to attack

In a news conference following the attacks, Najid’s brother Mourad stated that his brother was a nice, intelligent boy and had displayed no signs of radicalization before he left for Syria in 2013, and said that Najim had broken all contact with his family while he was there.  Mourad also said that if there had been a way to contact him, “I would have tried to get him back, to reason with him”.

Mourad’s lawyer, Philippe Culot, remarked at the news conference that “Mourad and his family are crushed to learn that Najim is the author of such barbaric acts.” He also added that “If you had asked his family about Najim, they would have said that, for them, Najim has been dead for three years.”

Khalid El-Bakraoui (Brussels Attacks, March 2016)

Background of suicide bomber

Khalid el-Bakraoui, known by the name Abū Walīd al-Baljīkī, was the third suicide bomber involved in the Brussels attacks, who blew himself up on the metro train Maelbeek. He was also the brother of one of the airport-attackers, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui.

Khalid was 27 at the time of the attack, and during his childhood had lived with brother Ibrahim and his parents, in the suburb of Laeken, after being was born in Brussels on 12 January 1989.

Khalid had a past record of violent crimes, participating in at least four car-jackings and a bank robbery. In October 2009, he kidnapped a bank employee, and armed with a Kalashnikov, forced her to drive to a Brussels branch of the AXA bank to deactivate the alarm. Khalid, along with two accomplices stole 41,000 euros. Two weeks after this incident he carjacked an Audi S3, and was later located by the Belgian authorities in a warehouse full of stolen cars.

In September 2011, a Belgian court convicted him of criminal conspiracy, armed robbery, possession of stolen cars and weapons offences, and sentenced him to five years in prison. However, he was released on parole in 2013 having served less than half of his original sentence. In May, 2015 he was re-arrested for violating the terms of parole after meeting up with a former criminal accomplice, but the judge released him because he had continued to meet the other terms of his release.

In December 2015, two arrest warrants were issued for Khalid, one international and one European. The warrants were for renting an apartment in rue du Fort in Charleroi using a fake ID with the name Ibrahim Maaroufi – which was used as a safe house by some of the Paris attackers.

The 14th issue of IS’ Dabiq magazine described how Khalid was guided while he was in prison, after having a vivid and life-changing dream in which he saw the prophet Mohammed. According to Dabiq, after leaving prison Khalid started giving da’wah (proselytizing or preaching Islam) in his neighbourhood, and encouraged the youth to make the hijrah (migration)[i] to Sham.

Just a matter of hours after the attacks in Brussels, the Belgian authorities found large quantities of explosives and bomb-making equipment in a house in Schaerbeek, where the brothers had lived. IS later claimed that Khalid and Ibrahim were responsible for the preparations of both the Paris and Brussels attacks.

Influences on decision to become a suicide bomber

IS released Khalid’s five-page will on July 17, 2016, however the language used suggested that Khalid may not have written the will himself, or that IS’s media branch Furat had heavily edited its content. The will was addressed to ‘the West’ and in particular ‘the Muslims of the West’, encouraging them to join IS and carry out attacks in its name. Khalid describes Western countries as the “Crusader West” and accused them of massacring Muslims in Palestine, Bosnia, Iraq and Myanmar. The will also emphasizes the role of countries such as France and its allies – including Belgium and Saudi Arabia – in providing logistical support to the “Crusader”.

He also accuses the “crusaders” of killing many innocent Muslims, stating: ‘‘Iraq and its million murdered children, and the general body count exceeding millions of people unjustly killed. The revelations of WikiLeaks are only a drop in the ocean of tyranny. The Crusaders have allied once again to massacre the community of Muhammad.”

He also accused the West of frequently using violence and said it was in a ‘state of war’ with Muslims, which in his view justifies retaliatory attacks on civilians, women, and children in the West, and provides justification for undertaking a “martyrdom operation”. He supported this justification by mentioning that prophet Mohammed tolerated the killing of women and children in some cases, and went on to say: “I am not saying you should target women and children specifically in your operations in the West, but that if Allah enables you to carry out a martyrdom operation or something, strike them harshly and do not worry about what is around.”

Khalid promised that there will be “blood for blood and destruction for destruction” for the countries that were involved in killing Muslims, and labelled jihad as an individual obligation for every Muslim. Khalid goes on to promise ‘‘horror until you put an end to cowardly and barbaric bombardments, and release our brothers and sisters from prison.’’ The will ends with a pledge of allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.

[i]  Hijrah: literally means immigration but it is used to refer to the journey of the  prophet Muhammad from Makkah to Al Madina.