Mehdi Nemmouche, suspected of carrying out the shooting attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels (Twitter/@G_deLinares)
The Jewish Museum in Brussels (Brusselsmuseums.be)
The suspect in the street after the shooting attack (Facebook page of the Brussels police department).
1. On May 24, 2014, a shooting attack was carried out at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, killing four people, two of them Israeli tourists. The following week, on June 1, 2014, a suspect was detained in Marseilles. He was found with the weapons used in the attack and articles of clothing identical to those in pictures taken by the security camera at the museum at the time of the shooting. He also had a camera with a video where he claimed responsibility for the shooting.
2. The suspected terrorist is Mehdi Nemmouche, a French Muslim of Algerian extraction, who has a criminal record. He was also carrying a white cloth with the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on it. The ISIS is a jihadist organization in Syria which, along with the Al-Nusra Front, serves as a magnet for European foreign fighters. According to the French prosecutor, Mehdi Nemmouche went to Syria and joined the ISIS in January 2013. After a number of months he left Syria for Germany and from there returned to France.
3. France and Belgium are the two European countries from where the largest number of foreign fighters have gone to Syria (hundreds from each) to fight in the ranks of Al-Qaeda and the global jihad. Mehdi Nemmouche fits the profile of European foreign fighters who have the potential to carry out acts of subversion and terrorism. His case may be an indication of potential translated into action and a sign that more terrorist attacks may be carried out in the West by jihadists who participated the fighting in Syria.
4. The French authorities are aware of the potential dangers posed by returning veterans of the Syrian civil war. During the past year they engaged in a series of preventive activities against those who had returned and those who dispatch them. According to the French media, the authorities prevented a terrorist attack in which a fighter who returned from Syria was involved. Nevertheless, in ITIC assessment, the attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels shows that the steps taken by the European security services in general and the French security service in particular, and the pan-European cooperation regarding the issue of foreign fighters in Syria, are still not sufficiently effective. It would seem that France, Belgium and other European countries have been made aware the potential dangers presented by veterans of the Syrian war who return to their countries of origin. However, a variety of operative, intelligence, social and legal difficulties may still prevent them from translating their awareness into an effective campaign to deal with the problem.
The Terrorist Attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels
5. At around 1550 hours on Saturday, May 24, 2014, a man parked his vehicle near the entrance of the Jewish Museum in the Sablon district of Brussels. He wore a blue shirt and a baseball cap. He entered the museum and began indiscriminately shooting at museum visitors with a Kalashnikov assault rifle. The attack lasted about a minute and a half. He exited the museum and fled.
6. Four people were killed in the attack (one, who had been critically wounded, later died). Two of them were a middle-aged Israeli man and wife from Tel Aviv who were on vacation and in the museum foyer at the time of the attack.
7. The day after the attack the Belgian authorities released the video of the shooting taken by the museum security camera. It showed a man wearing a baseball cap enter the museum carrying two bags. He retraced his steps, put the bags down and extracted a gun from one of them. He raised it and began shooting, continuing for less than a minute and a half. He then returned the gun to the bag and left the museum. The security cameras outside the museum recorded him leaving on foot.
Security camera photos. Left: The terrorist fires a rifle. Right: He exists the building (Facebook page of the Brussels police department).
8. No terrorist organization claimed responsibility for the attack. The Belgian prosecutor said it had been carried out by a lone, well-prepared, well-armed terrorist operative. It was also reported that it is being considered a terrorist attack and not a felony. The Belgian department of justice said in a statement that an examination of the security camera photos indicated that the terrorist acted alone and behaved calmly, which might indicate that he was experienced. That led the investigators to think it was a terrorist attack. Following the shooting, the Belgian minister of the interior said that security would be increased at Jewish institutions.
Apprehending the Suspect
9. On June 1, 2014, the French authorities announced that on May 30, 2014, Mehdi Nemmouche had been detained in the south of France on suspicion of having carried out the attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. At a press conference held by the French security authorities, the French prosecutor said that the suspect, who was exercising his right to remain silent, had been detained in a routine customs check on a train that had come to Marseilles from Amsterdam via Brussels. (According to another version, the customs check had been carried out a bus terminal the suspect arrived at; he came from Brussels to Marseilles via Amsterdam).
10. The suspect is a 29 year-old French Muslim. At the time of his detention he had two rifles, one of them a Kalashnikov assault rifle identical to the one used by the terrorist in the attack. He was also found to be carrying a white cloth with the name of the ISIS (a jihadist organization operating in Syria and Iraq in whose ranks are European and Arab-Muslim foreign fighters) on it. In his possession there was also a camera with a 40-second video on it of the two rifles. In the background his voice could be heard claiming responsibility for the attack (BBC, June 1, 2014).
11. Mehdi Nemmouche is a French citizen. He was born in Roubaix, an industrial town in northern France. His family comes from Algeria (Annahar.com, Al-Arabiya, June 4, 2014). He did not know his father and was abandoned by his mother when he was three months old. He was raised in foster homes until he was 17, when he went to live with his grandmother. An aunt related that he was nice, intelligent and educated, and had studied at a university for a year.
12. According to the French prosecutor, he had previously been convicted seven times for various felonies and had served a number of prison terms. The last time he was imprisoned for five years, during which he joined groups of Islamist extremist prisoners. In December 2012 he was released from prison, and three weeks later, in January 2013, he went to Syria, where he joined the ISIS. After a number of months in Syria he flew to Frankfurt, Germany, and according to one media report, his arrival was reported to the authorities but his name was spelled incorrectly (Note: Foreign fighters assume aliases when they arrive in Syria). However, the French authorities are currently investigating to discover if he worked alone or was part of an organization.
13. So far Mehdi Nemmouche refuses to leave France and give himself up to the Belgian authorities. His lawyer said that he could be tried in a French court. He claimed his client did not carry out the attack at the museum but rather stole the weapons found in his possession from a car parked in Brussels, and that he planned to sell them in Marseilles (Jpost.com, June 6, 2014). (Note: In 2004 the EU passed a system of interstate detention orders meant to ensure simple deportations between EU countries, making it possible to complete them within 48 hours (Nrg.co.il, June 5, 2014).
Al-Qaeda and Global Jihad Recruitment in France and Belgium
14. The number of European fighters in the ranks of Al-Qaeda and the global jihad in Syria is estimated by the ITIC at more than 2,000 (according to other estimates, there are as many as 3,000). France and Belgium are the two European countries with the greatest number of fighters in Syria, which the ITIC estimates at several hundred each.
15. According to various estimates previously issued in the French media relying on French security and intelligence sources, between 200 and 220 Frenchmen have been recruited into global jihad organizations in Syria. Several months ago French President François Hollande reported that about 700 young Frenchmen had gone to Syria, some of whom had been killed (AFP.com, January 14, 2014). In ITIC assessment, there are several hundred French fighters in Syria, some of whom have already returned to France.
16. Several hundred Belgianshave also joined the ranks of the fighters in Syria, a relatively large number for a country as small as Belgium. One factor is the existence of a Salafist-jihadi infrastructure within the local Muslim community which helps recruit fighters and send them to Syria. Prominent was a network called Sharia4Belgium, whose stated objective was the institution of the Sharia (Muslim religious law) in Belgium. In October 2012 the local authorities outlawed the organization, which did not stem the stream of Belgian fighters making their way to Syria. At this point it is unclear whether the French terrorist who carried out the attack in Brussels received support from a local Salafist-jihadi network.
Does Mehdi Nemmouche Fit the Profile of a French Foreign Fighter?
17. In ITIC assessment, the description of Mehdi Nemmouche as it appeared in the media corresponds to the profile of the French fighters who join the jihad organizations in Syria (as described in the ITIC study from January 2014). The components of his profile are suitable, as follows:
1) Age– Most of the French fighters in Syria are relatively young, aged between 20 and 30. Mehdi Nemmouche is 29 years old.
2) Extraction– Most of the French fighters are of North African extraction, most of them second and third generation immigrants. Mehdi Nemmouche is second generation, born to Algerian immigrant parents.
3) Religion– Most of the French fighters are Muslims. They are characterized by religious extremism, the result of a process which occurs over the years before they go to Syria. The process is usually initiated by a personal or economic crisis, feelings of deprivation, or the influence of local preachers. Mehdi Nemmouche is a Muslim who joined extremist Islamist groups in prison and was exposed to their influence.
4) Relatively low socio-economic situation– Most of the French fighters come from the immigrant slums in the big cities or industrial towns in regions with high unemployment. Mehdi Nemmouche comes from a poor industrial town in northern France, where a Muslim gang was active in the 1990s. The gang integrated criminal activities with jihad terrorism.
5) Criminal record– Many of the French fighters have criminal records and served time in prison. Mehdi Nemmouche has a criminal record and spent a number or years in French prisons.
Preventive Action Taken by the French against Foreign Fighters
18. As far as the French authorities are concerned, the fighters returning from Syria have the potential to carry out acts of terrorism and subversion. The authorities say the fighters can be expected to return as trained jihadists, and that at least some of them may join local jihadist groups. They may be handled either locally or by operatives abroad to carry out terrorist attacks against France, against Western targets or targets identified with the West, Israel or Jews (such as the Jewish Museum in Brussels). However, despite its awareness of the danger, France finds it difficult to take action against the fighters because the country formally supports the overthrow of the Assad regime and because of various internal legal, social and political difficulties.
19. This past year France began taking steps to prevent French fighters from leaving for Syria or returning to France. The catalyst was apparently the shooting attack at the Jewish school in Toulouse, carried out by a terrorist (of Algerian extraction) who had been trained abroad (perhaps in Afghanistan), and was affiliated with the global jihad. The case signaled that jihadist veterans of the war in Syria could also carry out terrorist attacks against Jewish and/or French targets. The result was that the French authorities began detaining not only those returning from Syria (against whom it could be claimed they had broken the law by belonging to a terrorist organization) but also local activists who recruited fighters and sent them to Syria. However, there are still legal and political problems that make it difficult for the French to deal with the phenomenon (the French minister of the interior said that he and the minister of justice would work to get a law passed that would make it possible to arrest and try individuals planning terrorist activities even if no action had been undertaken).
20. The following are examples of preventive actions taken by the French authorities in recent years:
1) In June 2013 the French minister of the interior reported that the police had detained three suspects belonging of a group that had been in Syria and then returned to France (Reuters.com, June 25, 2013).
2) In July 2013 the French security and intelligence services uncovered two cells of operatives planning to go to Syria. With one exception they had converted to Islam, and had criminal records (Libération, July 22, 2013).
3) In November 2013 the French police detained four suspects who belonged to a network sending fighters to Syria to join Islamist groups. They were between the ages of 22 and 35, and were detained in a Paris suburb following an investigation that had begun midway through 2012. One of the suspects was in contact with middlemen who organized passage from Turkey to Syria, while the others had previously fought in Syria (Jihadwatch.org, November 17, 2014).
4) In March 2014 a unit of the French counterterrorism force prevented a terrorist action on the Riviera by operatives who had returned from Syria. The suspect detained was Ibrahim B., who went to Syria with two friends in September 2012. Once there they joined the Al-Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria. Ibrahim B. first came to the attention of the Greek authorities on January 3, 2014, when he was on his way back to Syria. On January 16, 2014, he was detained in Italy and sent back to France, where he was arrested. On February 17, 2014, his temporary lodgings near Cannes were searched and 900 grams of acetone peroxide (TATP), an organic compound and a primary high explosive, were found (English.rfi.fr, March 24, 2014).
5) On June 2, 2014, the French authorities detained four men during a raid on jihad recruiters. The raid was conducted after the investigation of a French suspect who had spent time in Syria. The authorities claimed that the raid was not related to the shooting in the Jewish Museum in Brussels and that the men arrested were part of a network operating in Paris and the south of France (Al-monitor.com, June 2, 2014).
|21. The case of Mehdi Nemmouche shows that the preventive steps taken by the French and other European authorities are not particularly effective, and that veterans of the Syrian civil war who are potential terrorists can avoid the security services. A report issued by the Investigative Report on Terrorism about the attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels stated that "In fact, Nemmouche himself was on the French officials' radar." That was because he had previously been arrested for armed robbery and because he was known to have fought in the ranks of jihadist groups in Syria. Nevertheless, stated the report, he somehow managed to enter Belgium, walk into the Jewish Museum with guns, and use them to carry out the attack.|
In the 1990s a Muslim gang, composed primarily of North Africans, was active in Roubaix. Some of its members were veterans of the war in Afghanistan and others fought together in Bosnia at the beginning of the 1990s. The gang planned, among other attacks, to detonate a car bomb at the G-7 job summit held in Lille in January 1996. Most of the gang members, including the leader, were killed in a shootout with the police in March 1996. Some of those who survived continued their involvement in international Islamic terrorism (Globaljihad.net/view_page.asp?id=1701).
For further information about foreign fighters in Syria from Western countries, including France and Belgium, and their significance, see the February 2, 2014 bulletin "Foreign fighters from Western countries in the ranks of the rebel organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad in Syria."
The Investigative Project On Terrorism: "The French jihadist killings in Belgium: This is just the beginning", June 2, 2014.