It wasn’t only oil traded with Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime or the mafia-like system of extortion that provided the Islamic State (ISIS) with revenue to finance its European attacks. Part of it came from unsuspecting parents sending money to their children on the battlefield. A confidential Europol note that we’ve obtained details how one Belgian mother alone paid 65,000 euros to the terror machine.
In Portugal, a trial is ongoing against Abdesselam Tazi, a 65-year-old Moroccan who once served as an officer of his country’s police. In September 2013, he started to travel through Europe — and last year a journalistic collaboration involving reporters from Portugal, Spain, Germany, and Belgium revealed that he did so to prepare terrorist acts.
When Tazi was caught by the Portuguese police in March 2017, the cities of Brussels and Paris had already suffered from large-scale ISIS attacks. The investigation laid bare that Tazi got his orders from the very same ISIS operatives in Syria that were behind the bloodshed in France and Belgium — and that he was involved in the planning of a subsequent atrocity on European soil.
That third major blow was foiled by a string of arrests. Tazi turned out to be an organizer behind the scenes, and more importantly a money man. The German part of the investigation made clear, for instance, that he channeled 73,000 euros into the network by credit card fraud. But he also had clean financial sources.
A confidential note in which Europol detailed his dealings in November of last year shows how he got money from completely innocuous sources in Belgium. As just one example, on the 6 May 2015 Tazi obtained 1,445 euros through a Western Union office in Aveiro, Portugal. That amount had been deposited a week before in Molenbeek, the notorious municipality of Belgium’s capital where Islamists have congregated. There, the money had been left in the Western Union office at Chaussée de Gand by Salaheddine Lechkar.
When we published our first findings about Tazi and his network last year, Lechkar’s role as a financial middleman was known, but how he came by his money was not. The Europol note has answered that now. On 16 April 2015, a similar amount of money was collected by Lechkar from the Western Union office at the Place Bara in Brussels, transferred from Turkey by a man who used the name Talha Bilir and an address in the Halil Pasa street in Karaköy, said to be the hippest neighborhood of Istanbul.
That same name and that same address come up several times, and strong indications exist that Bilir has served as some sort of treasurer of ISIS’s external operations department — the branch plotting the attacks in the West and around the world. It is quite likely Bilir is a false identity since other names were involved in financial transfers from that same address.
That Bilir didn’t transfer the money directly to Tazi was surely for operational security purposes. For an important operative like Tazi, getting money from Turkey would be dangerous. Using a go-between in Brussels kept his contacts limited to Europe, which made his dealings less suspicious. As such, Lechkar must have been a low-level operative. When we inquired about his role last year, the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office told us that he was nowhere to be found, but indeed considered him a person of (limited) interest.
The crucial question now is who provided Bilir with the money that he channeled to the planners of attacks on European soil. At least one Belgian mother of a foreign terrorist fighter is the answer, it appears. Véronique Loute, who saw her son Sammy Djedou leave in October 2012, transferred at least 65,539 euros to Bilir and his accomplices in Istanbul. That happened between June 2013 and March 2015 in several separate transfers. Often they carried the message, “Pour Sammy Djedou comme convenu” (For Sammy Djedou, as agreed).
When Belgian investigators asked Loute about the money, she stated that it was solely intended to sustain her son, his wife, and their two children in Syria. She likely didn’t know back then that her son had climbed the ranks and was no longer a mere foot soldier of ISIS. According to intelligence from France and the United States, Djedou was a lieutenant of Boubaker El-Hakim, a French-Tunisian jihadi veteran, considered the mastermind behind a number of ISIS’s worldwide attacks.
Djedou was killed on 4 December 2016 in a drone attack in the Syrian town of Raqqa, at that time still the “capital” of the self-styled caliphate. The decision to kill Djedou underscores how important he was, since — as with the strike against El-Hakim a week earlier — such operations are only carried out as a last resort to stop a terrorist attack nearing execution in the West.
Djedou’s mother certainly was no isolated case. When the French ISIS operative Walid Hammam — another lieutenant of El-Hakim’s, who passed orders to the Tazi cell — was ordered in October 2016 to purchase two kalashnikovs, he explicitly stated that a quarter of the needed 4,000 euros should be collected from his own mother in France.
It is also likely that Tazi has obtained money from a Belgian father. According to the Europol note, in April 2015 he collected 3,295 euros that were transfered via MoneyGram by Chakir Haddouchi. The latter is the Brussels-based brother of Anouar Haddouchi, an ISIS operative who was living in the British city of Birmingham before he left for Syria in September 2014.
Anouar Haddouchi joined ISIS, together with his wife, a Belgian convert to Islam named Julie Maes. In documents from a court case in Britain, several witnesses declare that Maes received a monthly allowance of 500 euros from her father until October 2015. So, for the time the couple spent with ISIS in Syria, that amounts to 6,500 euros.
Haddouchi was not only channelling money to Tazi. In July 2015, 3,000 pounds from his British bank account was given to the ISIS cell behind the Paris attacks. That money was collected in person in Birmingham by Mohamed Abrini, the famous “man in the hat,” acting on orders from ISIS’s Belgian field commander, Abdelhamid Abaaoud.
The same British documents also describe how another 3,700 euros from Anouar Haddouchi’s account were transferred around that same time through Haddouchi’s brother, Chakir, and Haddouchi’s Brussels-based acquaintance, Ilyass Sakhi, to an unknown man — “slim build, in his early twenties, looking of Saudi origin but speaking with a Belgian accent” — at the Brussels Gare du Nord.
In Belgium, at least three mothers are being investigated for having channeled money to their children who had joined terrorists in Syria. Apart from Véronique Loute, they are Ghita Belhaj and Géraldine Henneghien. It may be a coincidence, but all of their sons — the brothers Zacharia and Ismaïl Iddoub, and Anis Bouzzaouit —belonged to the entourage of Abaaoud.
At trial, the mothers are at risk of ten years in jail, but this seems unlikely to be the penalty. There is only one case of a mother convicted for financing ISIS via her son. The mother of the Belgian-Kosovar Arben Imishti, who appeared as one of the beheaders of Syrian soldiers in an execution video, sent 9,000 euros to her son while he was a member of ISIS, court documents disclose. She was given a one-year suspended sentence.
An important difference is that telephone intercepts indicate that Imishti’s mother had at least some sympathy for ISIS, while in the above-mentioned cases there is no evidence the parents were aware they were financing terrorism. On the contrary, Véronique Loute has been active in the struggle against radicalization since the day her son disappeared. She insists that the money was her son’s share of an inheritance, and that she never realized it could be used to pay for terrorist attacks.
In addition, Loute’s lawyer, Alexis Deswaef, has complained about double-standards, pointing out that the French cement producer Lafarge — in which the recently-deceased Belgian billionaire Albert Frère was the largest shareholder — will likely never face charges for its payments to ISIS. Lafarge “transferred hundreds of thousands of euros directly to the terrorist group to maintain their Syrian business”, Deswaef says. “That is much worse than mothers sending money to their sons. But for the judiciary, chasing the mothers is easier, of course.”
 The result of this collaboration was published simultaneaously in August 2018 by Sábado (Portugal), El Español (Spain), Die Zeit (Germany) and Het Laatste Nieuws (Belgium). In English, it was later reported about by Nuno Tiago Pinto in CTC Sentinel.
 The most recommended reading about the French speaking operatives in charge of the Islamic State’s external operations department is Matthieu Suc, Les espions de la terreur, Harper Collins, Paris, 2018. About the elilmination campaign against these operatives, the same author wrote in detail for Mediapart.
 Tiago Pinto, N., November 2018
 The Turkish think tank SETA published a good summary in English of the Lafarge Syria case in April 2018