Only a small handful of Portuguese citizens joined Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. Fifteen people have already been identified, eleven of them men and four women. Some of them have already returned to Europe or died in IS territories. It is difficult to verify the exact number of casualties but it is expected that perhaps half of them have died, along with their wives and children.
According to European intelligence agencies, the Portuguese jihadists may have been few in number but they were influential inside the IS machine.
Among them we find Nero Saraiva, aged 31, a recruiter, a propagandist, a financier of IS, and, most notoriously, a jailer associated with videos that show the beheading of Westerners and the British executioner Jihadi John.
Another is Edgar Rodrigues da Costa, aged 35, whose war name is Abu Zakaria Andalus. He is a strategist who shares privileged communications with hundreds of IS supporter cells across Europe.
Edgar’s younger brother Celso Rodrigues da Costa, aged 31, along with Fábio Poças, aged 25, are jihad’s cover boys.They appear in several propaganda videos and photographs and publicly reveal their close relationship with German rapper Deso Dogg, one of the strongmen from Al-Hayat Media Center, a Daesh propaganda outlet. Dogg was reportedly killed in an air strike in Syria in January 2018.
Together, Nero, Edgar, Celso and Fábio made up the Leyton cell in East London, where they had emigrated. Later they were joined by Sandro Monteiro and Sadjo Ture. The cell created a network for the recruitment and dispatch of British jihadists to Syria through houses in Sintra, Portugal. There is a warrant for all of them, issued by the Portuguese authorities in early 2015.
The remaining Portuguese, all of them children of emigrants in European countries, are not in the radical army’s hard core, but they remain a concern for security services.
Steve Duarte, aged 28, grew up in Luxembourg, where he recorded a hip-hop album in 2011. He was a member of the large video production team that promotes the jihadi cause in social networks. He also appeared in an IS propaganda video in February 2016. He killed one prisoner.
Mickäel dos Santos, aged 26 and of Portuguese descent, was at some point considered by the French authorities as one of the Westerners who beheaded 21 Syrian soldiers and the American Peter Kassig in November 2014. Dos Santos has an outstanding warrant of arrest for being a member of the Champigny-sur-Marne terrorist cell, which is suspected of recruiting youngsters for jihad and preparing terrorist attacks on French soil.
Mikel Batista, aged 24 and owner of a Portuguese passport as well, was also a member of this group. He was killed in a coalition air strike in Kobane, near the Turkish border, in January 2015.
Ângela Barreto is being investigated in the Netherlands. She fled her mother’s home in the outskirts of Utrecht in August 2014 and married IS member Fábio Poças in Syria. They have two children. Security services suspect that she may have helped three teenage Dutch girls, aged between 15 and 16, to join IS in February 2015.
Besides Ângela, three other women joined the war in Syria: Joana, Melanie and Catarina. The first two have already returned home. Catarina remains in Syria. She went there for her son, Dylan Omar. When she failed to convince him to leave IS, she joined the Western contingent.
The Portuguese cohort may have suffered four casualties since the beginning of the conflict. José Parente, aged 23, blew himself up in a car bomb in Iraq in May 2014. Sandro Monteiro and Mikael Batista may have been killed in air strikes by the US-led coalition in Kobane, near Turkey, in 2014 and 2015. In March 2015, ISIS announced that another Portuguese jihadist, known as Abu Jwairiya Al-Portughali, had also been killed in combat.
A Closer Look at the Leyton Cell
No other Portuguese terrorist group has been investigated as closely as the Leyton cell. Its members Nero, Edgar, Celso, Fábio, Sandro, and Sadjo, in addition to secondary elements that remain in London, has connections to Islamic radicals from the UK, including the preacher Anjem Choudary.
These Portuguese jihadists have the strongest ties to Portugal, having grown up around the Lisbon-Sintra line, in Mem-Martins, Massamá and Monte Abraão, and moving separately to England to study and work.
By chance, they all moved to East London, home to a large Muslim community. Their paths crossed in the Leyton and Walthamstow neighborhoods. They rapidly converted, one by one, to radical Islam.
Between 2012 and 2013, they all shared an apartment in Leyton, located between Dawlish and Sidmouth Road, which is a rather calm area. They didn’t have a television, only computers. On the computers they watched extreme jihadist internet videos for days on end. Classes at the University of East London in Stratford and work in hotel bars or clothing stores, including Harrods, were put on the backburner.
They grew beards, started wearing long, wide vests, and switched Super Bock beer for Sumol juice (both of them of Portuguese origin) in local Portuguese cafés and restaurants, such as Oceano or Cascais. Most of them married young British Muslim girls, of Asian origin, who wear niqab and don’t look at the men they cross paths with.
When they left for Syria, Nero Saraiva and Fábio Poças left their women and children in London. Celso, Edgar and Sandro took their families with them.
Before going to jihad, they created and managed a network for the recruitment and transit of youngsters to Syria. The journey began in London, went through Lisbon and Istanbul, and ended in IS-controlled territory.
Between the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2014, at least ten British jihadists passed through network houses in Massamá, Monte Abraão and Mem Martins.
In London, the Leyton cell gathered mujahedeen candidates in Islamic circles where followers of Islam’s most radical version could be found. Most of them met in the mosques of East London. But they also found each other at football matches and in London’s underground hip-hop scene, which the Portuguese loved.
In Lisbon, Edgar and Celso would pick them up, one by one, from the airport and drive them to the area of Sintra, where they would remain hidden for several days or sometimes weeks, until it was safe to travel to Turkey. They were given food and clean clothes; their stay was paid for and they were never left alone.
On the day of departure, they were driven to Portela Airport, where they would catch a direct flight to Istanbul. Edgar and Celso would only leave the airport when the flight took off.
The route to Syria through Lisbon drew less attention, considering that the British authorities were scrutinizing departures from London’s airports at the time. But they didn’t know that their movement was already being carefully watched by the Portuguese authorities.
In March 2014, in its Annual Report on National Security, for the first time the Portuguese government issued a warning about the presence of Portuguese youngsters among extremists in Syria, where the fight against President Bashar Al-Assad’s dictatorship had turned the country into a jihad zone.
The document read: “It has come to our attention that national citizens have travelled to jihad’s war zones, namely to regions where Al-Qaeda and its affiliates look to strengthen their position, including Syria”.
For another indicator, the report turned to Portugal’s Judiciary Police. This force alone had received more than 60 requests for assistance and terrorist alerts issued by Interpol and Europol, an unusually high number.
The warnings had been building up for some time. In 2012, the Portuguese authorities were alerted by the British secret services about Portuguese citizens in war zones in African countries, including Mali, Somalia and Tanzania, as well as Syria. They were receiving military training from fundamentalist militias close to Al-Qaeda.
In fact, Nero Saraiva and the brothers Edgar and Celso Rodrigues da Costa flew from London to Africa, where they joined the terrorist group Al-Shabaab for two weeks in order to prepare for the war in Syria.
Then they returned to London, where they seemed to resume their lives at university and in insecure jobs. They were in fact preparing to leave for Syria, via the air route through Lisbon.
Nero stands out. He may have been one of the first Portuguese to join the army of immigrants, led by Chechen Omar Shishani, near the border with Turkey. “He currently holds a relevant position and is influential inside the organization; he’s far from being a mere foot soldier who went to fight and die in Syria”, claim sources from the Portuguese intelligence services.
He may have been a right-hand man to the British executioner Jihadi John and it is suspected he was involved in the production of beheading videos. His knowledge of privileged information regarding executions was suggested in a post he wrote on Twitter on 10 July 2014: “Message to America. The Islamic State is making a new video. Thank you for the actors.”
Thirty-nine days later, a video was released on YouTube showing the execution of the journalist James Foley. It was titled ‘Message to America’. The “actor” victim was American. Scotland Yard stepped in. At least six of Nero’s family members were investigated in Angola, Switzerland, the UK, and Portugal by the Portuguese and British secret services and Interpol. Their accounts on social networks were also scrutinized and private content was accessed.
Nero is also associated with a failed terrorist attack in Kenya in 2013, planned by the group Al-Shabaab with al-Qaeda supplying weapons, money and specialized strategic knowledge. According to the indictment, Nero was directly associated with the terrorist group. The trial began in Tanzania in the summer of 2014 and is still ongoing. But Nero Saraiva will not be in the dock as he is still living in the self-proclaimed Caliphate.
This record makes Nero the top Portuguese concern for European secret services and Interpol. The risk of him carrying out terrorist operations if he returns to Europe is extremely high. He is simultaneously a recruiter, part of the ISIS propaganda machine, and an Islamic scholar.
He is also a husband and a father. He married an Australian woman in Syria and may have other wives, who have already given him four children. One of his children remained in London – Nero left when the child was just one year old.
Celso Rodrigues da Costa’s profile is also particularly alarming. In April 2014, he appeared in an 8-minute video released on YouTube, armed, with his face covered, and speaking about holy war. At that
time, he was already in Syria.
Celso speaks in English in the video, with a clear Portuguese accent, and calls himself Abu Isa Al Andalus. He appeals to his “brothers from around the world” and tries to convince them to join the army fighting the Syrian government. This is part of his pitch:
“If you have family members in infidel (kafir) countries, it is more likely that you don’t have control over your children. In some countries, you have to place your children in infidel schools. Who is going to teach your children? The teacher is probably gay, a drug dealer or even a pedophile. It’s very important that you protect your children from those animals, those dirty people. Allah says they are the worst creatures on Earth. So, do you prefer living among those creatures than among the Mujahedeen?”
The video became viral. The British intelligence services analyzed the fighter’s accent and reached a conclusion regarding his identity – he was Celso Rodrigues da Costa. For the first time, the participation of a Portuguese citizen in the Syrian jihad was being noted worldwide.
For his part, cell member Fábio Poças became the most popular of the Portuguese jihadists in both the Portuguese and British media. This may be due to the fact that he is the youngest and most handsome of the group or because he publishes pictures of himself with his face showing.
Fábio left Mem-Martins and went to London at the age of 19. He wanted to become a professional footballer in the Premier League. He was a talented striker who had played in neighborhood clubs throughout the Sintra area. It was all or nothing. Cristiano Ronaldo had made it, so he could at least try.
Fábio rented a bedroom in the Leyton neighborhood. He spent his time in the football fields, at the gym, where he did Muay Tai, in Portuguese cafés, and studying arts. Then he met a new group of friends: Celso, Edgar, Nero and Sandro, who had also grown up in Angola. Since they were older and knew London better than Poças, they became guides.
Fábio called them his brothers. With them he found company, support, food, even money. They all ended up living together. They spoke about Islam and the footballer became interested in the religion. He had never been a religious man, but he was convinced to read the Qur’an and the football dream began to fade way.
Although he was a shining star at the UK Football Finder FC, an amateur talent-spotting club, he never made it to professional football.
His coach, Ewemade Orobator, still struggles to believe that the talented Portuguese footballer became a jihadist. He was “completely focused on the goal of becoming a professional football player”, Orobator said in an interview with BBC. His quickness earned him the nickname Fernando Torres. In 2012, he helped his team win the third division championship, but failed to make it to the first one. It wasn’t enough for Fábio, and returning to Portugal wasn’t an option.
Instead, he converted to Islam and radicalized, becoming Abdurahman al Andalus. His Facebook page shows he was already in Syria in October 2013. At first, he joined the Kataib al Muhajireen foreign fighters brigade, an ally of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as IS was then called. Celso and Nero were by his side. He shared a detailed description of those days through social networks. Nowadays, he is forbidden from joining Facebook and Twitter because of his promotion of terrorist activities.
Fábio also married Ângela Barreto in Syria.
Today no cell members publish tweets or posts on Facebook and they have cancelled all public accounts on the social networks.
The Ongoing Threat
Some Portuguese jihadists are still alive and in Syria. This group includes Fábio Poças and his wife, our sources have confirmed for us in 2017 and 2018. But others such as Nero Saraiva and the brothers Edgar and Celso could be dead or out of Syria. It is hard to believe that one day they could return to Portugal. All of them lived in London or in other European cities before going to fight in Syria and their roots are closer to Muslim brothers in those cities than their family members outside Lisbon. But who can be sure about what is going through their minds?
*with Raquel Moleiro (also reporter from Expresso and co-author of the book ‘The Portuguese Jihadists’)