THE LEVANT NEWS — Smiling, with a sparse beard, woolly ski hat, camouflage jacket and clutching an automatic rifle under the black flag of the Islamic State, Abdel-Hamid Abu Oud looked every inch the jihadi fighter as he posed jauntily somewhere in Syria.
Raqqa, capital of the Isis caliphate, is a long way from Brussels, where Abu Oud was born to a Moroccan immigrant family 28 years ago. His real name was not widely known until it was publicised by French officials on Monday alleging he was the mastermind of Friday’s attacks in Paris, which killed 129 people and injured hundreds more.
Abu Oud had mentioned plans to attack “a concert hall” to a French citizen who returned from Syria, a French official told the New York Times. The official said Abu Oud had been in contact with Omar Ismaïl Mostefai, one of the suicide bombers who attacked the Bataclan concert hall.
In an interview this year Abu Oud spoke confidently of the battle to “terrorise the crusaders waging war against the Muslims”.
For a man at the centre of global manhunt, he was already something of a celebrity. On social media he is referred to by his nom de guerre, Abu Umar al-Belgiki – combining a resonant Sunni Muslim first name with his country of origin. Confusingly, he also called himself Abu Omar Soussi, suggesting a Tunisian connection.
Abu Oud reportedly joined Isis in 2013 along with hundreds of other young Belgian Muslims seeking to fight the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He returned home, via Greece, at the end of that year. In March 2014 he appeared in a video in a pickup truck dragging four mutilated corpses behind it to a mass grave.
Evidence of his views suggests an unwavering commitment to the Isis cause. “All my life, I have seen the blood of Muslims flow,” Abu Oud said. “I pray that Allah will break the backs of those who oppose him, his soldiers and his admirers, and that he will exterminate them.”
The young Abu Oud studied at the prestigious Saint-Pierre d’Uccle school, in a smarter part of Brussels than the down-at-heel Molenbeek neighbourhood where he grew up as one of six children.
According to Belgian media, he fled Brussels in January this year after a terrorist cell in the eastern town of Verviers was broken up in a police raid in which two of his presumed accomplices, Abu Zubayr and Abu Khaled, fellow Belgians, were killed.
Omar, his father, complained that his son had “ruined our lives” when he was linked to that incident. “Why in God’s name would he want to kill innocent Belgians?” La Libre Belgique reported him as saying. “Our family owes everything to this country.”
French officials have also linked him to two earlier terror attacks that were thwarted: one against a Paris-bound high-speed Thalys train that was foiled by three young Americans in August; the other against a church in Villejuif in the suburbs of Paris in April.
Speaking in January to the Isis magazine Dabiq, where his smiling photograph appeared, Abu Oud boasted that he had secretly returned to Belgium to lead the Verviers cell and then escaped back to Syria despite his picture being widely broadcast. “I was even stopped by an officer who contemplated me so as to compare me to the picture, but he let me go as he did not see the resemblance!”
Asked why he became a suspect, Abu Oud said: “The intelligence [services] knew me from before as I had been previously imprisoned by them. After the raid on the safehouse, they figured out that I had been with the brothers and that we had been planning operations together. So they gathered intelligence agents from all over the world – from Europe and America – in order to detain me.
“They arrested Muslims in Greece, Spain, France and Belgium in order to apprehend me … All those arrested were not even connected to our plans! May Allah release all Muslims from the prisons of these crusaders.”
Abu Oud was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Belgian court in July for recruiting for Isis in Syria. He was one of 32 people charged with running one of the country’s largest jihadist recruitment networks, although many of the defendants – himself included – were tried in absentia and remain at large.
He was also accused of kidnapping after his younger brother Younes travelled to Syria in January 2014 at the age of 13, earning the media nickname of “the youngest jihadist in the world”. Omar, having heard no news from his two sons, filed a police complaint against the older son.
Abu Oud’s older sister Yasmina told the New York Times in January that neither of the two brothers had displayed much interest in religion before leaving for Syria. ‘’They did not even go to the mosque,’’ she said.
Omar owned a shop and lived with his wife and children in an apartment on Rue de l’Avenir, in one of Molenbeek’s better neighbourhoods, near a canal that separates it from a trendy Brussels district of bars and restaurants.
Yasmina said the family received calls in autumn 2014 from Syria saying Abdel-Hamid had become a “martyr”- meaning he had been killed in battle. She said they had not heard from him or Younes since. His death was reported on Arabic social media in early October. Investigators believed that the martyr claim was a ruse to try to throw western intelligence off his scent.
Indeed, Syrian sources reported in August this year that Abu Oud had been appointed Isis military commander in Deir al-Zor, south-east of Raqqa, replacing Abu Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen fighter who had been transferred to Iraq. Le Monde said he had been in the sights of French security services for several months before last Friday’s mass murders.
Source: The Guardian