By Pieter Van Ostaeyen & Guy Van Vlierden
On April 4, 2018 French media reported that the 72 year old Shaykh Bassam Ayachi was arrested in the north of France on March 27. The media portrayed him as “the oldest Belgian Jihadi”, as “the mentor of generations of Belgian Jihadi’s” and above all as “one of the main recruiters for Belgian foreign fighters who left for the war in Syria”. In 2012 Flemish newspaper De Standaard even called him “the personification of radical Islam in our country.” His actual story is a bit more nuanced however, and this brief article aims to separate the fiction from the facts.
There is no point in denying that Ayachi has played a very active role in the Jihadist scene in Belgium in the 1990’s and 2000’s. He moved from Syria to France in the 1960’s — according to some sources for his studies, while others say that he fled as an opponent of the Assad regime back then already — married there and obtained French citizenship. “I have tried to raise my children as my father taught me. For me, there is no law, except that of Allah,” he said in the 2016 France 2 documentary ‘Au nom du père, du fils et du djihad’.[i]
He settled in Belgium in 1992 after his restauarant in Aix-en-Provence went bankrupt and founded his infamous ‘Centre Islamique belge’ (CIB) in the Brussels municipality of Molenbeek.[ii] Soon this center became known as a recruitment spot for the jihad abroad. In 1996 already, the year before its official foundation, it was named as the place where the notorious ‘Gang of Roubaix’ came in touch with Balkan jihadists, and in 1997 Belgian police arrested Ayachi on suspicion of support for the jihad in Bosnia.
Four years later, in 2001, the murderers of the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud — the Taliban’s archenemy — turned out to be members of Ayachi’s entourage. In 2006, his relative by marriage Fathi Somrani — convicted in 1999 already as an accomplice of the French-Algerian GIA terrorist Farid Melouk — committed a suicide attack in Iraq. And that same year, Ayachi was named as recruiter of Ali Tabich, a jihadist from Brussels who had returned from Iraq and whose brother Brahim recently surfaced as a suspect in the Belgian Islamic State cell behind the Brussels attacks.
In Belgium, Ayachi was never prosecuted however — and a terrorist trial in Italy, where he was jailed in 2008, concluded with an acquittal. And when the first Belgian foreign fighters started to leave for the Syrian war, he pleaded against their departure: “You should not ask a Belgian youngster raised with French fries and mayonnaise to get himself massacred there. The Syrians have enough fighters themselves.”[iii] But after his oldest son Abdel Rahman had joined the ranks of the Islamist militia Suqur as-Sham (‘Falcons of the Levant’) in April 2012, he was soon followed by his French-Belgian friend Raphaël Gendron — considered as a stepson by Bassam Ayachi.
Abdel Rahman Ayachi was killed in June 2013 as a field commander of the rebel group in Syria’s Idlib province. Via one of his close friends and fellow-rebels, an unknown Syrian using the Twitter handle @SyrianSmurf, we were somehow able to document the movements of both Abdel Rahman and Bassam Ayachi after the latter had left for Syria too. That happened late in 2013, when both his son and Gendron were killed on the battlefield. Via several private conversations we had with this close associate of Ayachi we were able to follow the “Syrian” side of the story.
Bassam Ayachi also kept on using Facebook to communicate with the homefront and his followers and even allowed a number of Belgian journalists to interview him. One of his strongest statements about the recruitment of Western jihadi’s was when journalist Joanie de Rijke managed to interview him for the Belgian weekly Knack: “For the Belgian fighters I have but one message: go home.”[iv] In earlier interviews he also spoke firmly about the abundant presence of foreign fighters in Syria. He called them “amateurs” and “one-day adventurers”. The Syrians were more than able to fight their own war, he said. Nevertheless, he was joined himself by some Belgians without roots in Syria, such as his right hand man within the CIB, the Congolese born Olivier ‘Hamza’ Dassy.
Another Belgian foreign fighter who landed in the ranks of Suqur as-Sham is Mohammed Chourouhou. This Brussels based Moroccan citizen had left for Syria with his wife and some of his children in October 2013 and first joined the Islamic State. He offered his 16 year old daughter as bride to an Algerian Islamic State commander, who made her pregnant soon. It was only after all his relatives had fled back home, that Chourouhou switched sides to Ayachi’s militia. Altogether, it’s an exaggeration however to identify Ayachi as one of Belgium’s main recruiters. In the Belgian Foreign Fighters Database that we compiled, there are at most six others who have joined Suqur as-Sham.
For Bassam Ayachi, it was to his homeland that he returned. He still possessed vast stretches of land in the area under control of Suqur as-Sham, a rather moderate Islamist group without any transnational aims. As a trained and well established scholar he became one of the group’s main Shari’ members. He highly opposed fanatical Jihadist groups like the Islamic State. In the interview with Ms. de Rijke, he told: “The current situation in Syria is worse than ever. People don’t only suffer the civil war, they also have to subdue the terror of ISIS. They are monsters, I have no other words for them. They loot, torture, behead. Everybody wants them out of the country. The war against the regime isn’t their battle, they just unwantedly mingled in.”[v] The Shaykh appeared in military fatigues and a white, Sufi-like, turban, a garnment he has worn ever since.
Statements like these and his sudden disavowal of the propagation of an international Jihad made him a prime target for Islamic State and other hardline groups. On several occasions Ayachi was targeted by rivals of that kind, and in one of these attempts on his life in February 2015 he lost his right fore-arm when the car he was traveling in was hit by a bomb. On that occasion, he again pointed to Islamic State as being his main enemy , stating that it were obviously them behind the attack. Later on, he came also into conflict with Hayat Tahrir as-Sham — the successor of the Syrian al-Qaida branch Jabhat an-Nusra — and in July 2017 he was shortly arrested by that group.
His latest public appearance was in a tweet by Ahrar as-Sham, the umbrella organization under which Suqur as-Sham is operating currently. Ayachi was sitting in the front rows of what appeared to be a religious gathering or festivity. His presence was noted and brought to our attention by @IbnNabih. The pictures show an old man, dressed as a Sufi cleric, not a bloodthirsty Jihadi. For unknown reasons, Ahrar as-Sham removed the picture soon after from its Twitter feed. But obviously, Ayachi is of some importance or he wouldn’t have lasted that long in a leading position within Suqur as-Sham and later Ahrar as-Sham.
A few days after his arrest in France, Ayachi’s son Abdallah explained on his Facebook page how that capture has occurred. “He had left for Turkey in order to get an arm prosthesis, planning to return to Syria within a few days. But he was caught by the Turks, who imprisoned him during ten days for illegal entry and then decided to expel him to France instead of Syria.” In France, Ayachi was the subject of a very recent arrest warrant, alleging membership of a terrorist group due to his links with a foreign fighter who had returned in March. The outcome of an eventual prosecution looks uncertain however, since Suqur as-Sham and its umbrella group Ahrar as-Sham never have been designated as a terrorist organization by the United Nations, the European Union or the United States.
[i] In the name of the father, the son and Jihad. Available in two parts at https://rutube.ru/video/1c3e3e3bfc26b9b2677d3012bdaf7c43/ and https://rutube.ru/video/5eabc077a626ddf36265587d7ec35868/
[iv] Knack February 8, 2014