By Patrick BAHZAD
In last week's piece ("Going after the masterminds"), we focused on the environment in which the Paris attacks of November 2015 had taken place: a gradual increase in the threat level, combined with a number of failed or thwarted attempts at causing havoc through "lone gunmen" attacks all across Western Europe, in France in particular. Based on a couple of "open source" articles, we also considered the prospect of a French national being the IS executive in charge of organising and overseeing the Paris carnage and – possibly – its Brussels' spin-off. This week's piece is going to look more closely at details regarding this alleged mastermind, analysing information about his possible identity and assessing its credibility.
While the nom de guerre "Abu Suleyman al-Faransi" has most definitely been the subject of extensive research by various intelligence agencies, it has now made it into MSM headlines with a new piece by "The Daily Beast". A big question mark doesn't always make for a good title, but when you're asking about the "Frenchman Running IS Terror Networks in the West ?", you're already making quite a statement. Before turning to new and sometimes contradictory evidence, let us first look into how the name "Abu Suleyman" first appeared on the IC and media radar.
As previously explained, ISIS inspired or influenced individuals have been trying to stage attacks in the West ever since early 2014, with most attempts failing out of the sheer incompetence of their would-be authors, or because they were foiled in due time by law enforcement. The most dangerous plots were definitely the work of Syria returnees, with Mehdi Nemmouche being the most "successful" (4 people killed at the Jewish Museum of Brussels, in May 2014). On the other hand, there was also a much larger number of failures by so-called "self-radicalized" individuals having never left for the Middle-East, and some of these botched operations have been quite embarrassing to IS leadership in Iraq and Syria.
The Paris Attacks as the work of IS' "Security Office"
To the spokesman of the "Islamic State" in particular, Mohammad al-Adnani, this must have felt like a slap in the face. On September 22nd 2014, he had called onto his followers to kill Western "disbelievers", especially the French, in any possible way, yet the result of this call remained discouragingly poor, until the night of November 13th 2015. What Adnani and members of the IS Security Office ("Maktab al-Amni") had probably failed to recognize, was that Western recruits with no prior experience from Middle-Eastern training camps or frontline fighting lacked even the minimal expertise to stage what IS would have considered a successful strike, i.e. one that could attract sufficient media and government attention to allow for a huge propaganda stage and Jihadi media campaign.
Mehdi Nemmouche, himself an ISIS member and Syria returnee, was a significant exception to the amateurishness displayed by characters such as the would-be Thalys train shooter, whose weapon jammed when he was upon to fire on passengers in the Amsterdam to Paris high-speed train, prompting two US servicemen to overpower him as they saw him struggle with his AK-47. There were other examples illustrating the clumsiness of the IS inspired "lone gunmen" or demonstrating the ability of the IC to foil plots as rudimentary and crude as those. To members of Europe's counter-intelligence however, early success against such poor attempts didn't bode well for the future: sooner or later, someone would manage to carry out an attack, or the IS would be able to recruit an individual determined and skilled enough to pull it through.
As it happened, both these threats materialized in the Paris attacks of January 2015, when three individuals who had been on French terror watch lists without ever going to fight in the Middle-East killed a total of 17 people. One of the attackers, Amedy Coulibaly, even acted on direct order of an IS executive based in Syria, whose identity is still being investigated to this very day. What must already have been clear to "Islamic State" planners, was that a truly large scale attack, one that would echo for days and weeks in the Western media, would call for a much stronger input in manpower and resources from the organisation itself. Testimony obtained from a number of ex-IS members suggests that preparations for such a centrally organised attack started quite early and were probably given the go ahead when the ineptitude of the "domestic terrorists" in the West became all too apparent.
The department within the "Islamic State" that was tasked with the planning, preparation and implementation of the attack was the aforementioned Security office, or rather one of its four directorates, the "Amn al-Kharji" (office for foreign operations). Having grown gradually out of Amni's other three directorates, the office for foreign operations had gained such importance within the IS, that a number of foreign operatives were recruited as mid-level executives within its ranks. Most of them obviously had a European background, and some were North-Africans (Tunisians in particular) with a good command of the French language.
By the time the preparations for the Paris November attacks were underway, the top man in the "Amn al-Kharji" was a Tunisian who was later dispatched to Libya and who went by the nom de guerre "Abu Abderahman al-Tunsi". Now, the aliases Jihadis pick to mask their real identity combine both an actual name ("Kunya"), in this case "Abu Abderahman", together with a place/nation/ethnic group of origin ("Nisba"), in this instance "al-Tunsi", meaning "the Tunisian". As we shall see, this detail is important in order to distinguish various fighters featuring a similar "Kunya".
Planning the Attacks
As far as we can tell, the plan for the Paris attacks may very well have been designed by the man everybody is now looking for, the elusive "Abu Suleyman al-Faransi". The operation definitely bears the hallmark of someone familiar enough with the layout of Paris and a couple of subtleties of the areas and places that were targeted. the But even though "Abu Suleyman" was probably involved in the planning, the "green light" came from much higher up, namely from al-Adnani himself, probably after a vetting process that involved "Caliph" al-Baghdadi as well, either directly or through one of his close associates.
As an organisation used to conducting clandestine operations, the IS had no trouble dividing the various organisational tasks among individuals it had hand-picked for that purpose. One of these figures was Frenchman Salim Benghalem, on the United States list of "Special Designated Global Terrorists" since September 2014, an ex-IS interrogator and now executive in one of Amni's other directorates, who was in charge of picking likely candidates. However, it was up to "Amn al-Kharji" to do the proper selection.
This is where Abdelhamid Abaaoud came into play, the operational leader of the Paris November attacks. With two of Adnani's closest associates, both of them Tunisian nationals with a good knowledge of Western and French culture in particular, he assessed the suitability of each potential attacker. The final say was Adnani's, in his quality as IS top executive in Syria, media "head honcho" and influential figure in the security apparatus of the organisation.
Adnani, one of the first Syrians who had joined ISIS predecessor organisation AQI under Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, is also considered to be well-read and knowlegeable in religious matters, which could have its importance when it comes to designating the French individual going by the name of "Abu Suleyman". Be that as it may, the attempt at putting a face and name onto this alias will be a difficult task. No doubt, intelligence agencies working on this case have suspicions and evidence, but the IS has proven it had a few tricks up its sleeves when it comes to confusing foes about the men within its ranks.
For those with an eye for that kind of detail, it won't come as a surprise that Abubakr al-Baghdadi's predecessor as head of ISIS, the now forgotten "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi", was long considered to be non-existent by US intelligence, a fictional character established by the terror organisation to allegedly mask the fact it was being lead by a council of senior members only. Similarly, it was recently discovered that two of ISIS' most important figures, Abu Ala al-Afri and Abu Ali al-Anbari were one and the same person, and that a number of details regarding Anbari's alleged bio were nothing more than inventions aimed at hiding the true identity of ISIS' number 2, i.e. Abdulrahman Mustafa al-Qaduli by his real name.
Beware of IS' intel tricks
While the "Islamic State" has not acknowledged the fact it had tried to confuse Western intelligence about this issue, it has now admitted both these figures' death, which kind of settles the issue as far as they are concerned. However, what this anecdote undeniably demonstrates, is that whatever comes out of the black hole that is the "Islamic State" should be treated with utmost caution, regardless of the source. In similar fashion, it should also be noted that IS members changed their nom de guerre or were provided with an additional one, as they took on new tasks within the organisation. The aforementioned al-Qaduli for example was known to have as many as 7 different aliases, and members of the organisation who were sent to Libya over the course of the last months were also provided with new names, in addition to their previous one.
This brings us back to the actual issue at hand, namely the hunt for the mastermind behind the Paris attacks, "Abu Suleyman al-Faransi". The reasons why this individual is considered with such interest are manifold. On the one hand, there is human intelligence coming from allegedly former IS members. The piece by "The Daily Beast" for example relies on such information. Testimonies such as these emphasize Abu Suleyman's role in planning the attacks and confirm his subsequent promotion to IS leader in charge of terror attacks in Western Europe.
Other than this human intelligence, there is also a direct link to the Paris attackers themselves. As surviving witnesses told French investigators, the men who stormed the "Bataclan" concert hall on the night of Novembers 13th 2015, killing 130 people as they shot indiscriminately into the crowd, uttered the name "Abu Suleyman" when they seemed confused about what to do next, as the siege was dragging on. Although they didn't manage to get in touch with this man, mention of his name certainly triggered interest among the investigative team, given that the attackers had also established mobile phone communications with the logistics team that had stayed in Brussels during the attacks.
If the "Bataclan" team was in touch with accomplices coordinating the multipronged assaults on various locations in the French capital, why would they get in touch with yet another individual, unless he was higher up the IS food chain and could provide for clearer guidance about how to proceed ? Furthermore, references to the same figure were made in audio files found in a computer belonging to one of the Brussels suicide bombers. Therefore, the notion of a Frenchman being in charge in IS operations in the West came out of piecing together this evidence with the human intelligence obtained in Syria – or Turkey for that matter.
Evidence pointing to "Abu Suleyman"
Taken as a whole, these assumptions make for a rather convincing case, but when it comes to identifying the man behind the alias of "Abu Suleyman al-Faransi", you got your work cut out for you! Even people involved in the investigation got confused by the number of "Abu Suleyman" aliases existing in IS ranks in general, and in the Paris/Brussels cell in particular.
Before making a call as to the reliability of information pertaining to a French IS emir going by such a nom de guerre, you need to make sure all other possibilities are actually non-starters. As things stand, there are two sources of confusion in this case: one is French national Charaffe al-Mouadan, a 27 year old IS member who had personal links to one of the "Bataclan" attackers, as well as operational connections to the Paris ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Al-Mouadan's nom de guerre was indeed "Abu Suleyman", but he does not fit the profile described in any of the "open source" pieces and, furthermore, he was killed in a US airstrike at the end of December 2015.
The other individual connected to the same alias is one of the two el-Bakraoui brothers who blew themselves up in Brussels, in March of this year. In the latest edition of its French language magazine, IS revealed his nom de guerre to be "Abu Suleyman" as well, adding however that he was "al-Belgiki", not "al-Faransi". Finally, it should be noted – for the record – that IS still has a another prominent member going by the name of "Abu Suleyman", but he already has a high-up position as their "Defense Minister" and does not provide for a viable option as a likely suspect either.
Having exhausted all other known possibilities, the question that begs to be asked is how credible is the human intelligence about this alleged "French IS emir" ? This is where the search gets real tricky as the information available varies depending on the source. What all pieces written about this man seem to agree on however is that he is in his mid-thirties, French educated and married to a French woman, with two children, all living in Northern Syria. These pieces of evidence alone should enable law enforcement to cut down the list of likely suspects to reasonable size.
Genuine information regarding his identity ?
Other information seems pretty sketchy however, and even contradictory: according to some, Abu Suleyman is a convert who joined ISIS some three years ago. According to others, he's a pale skinned French national of North African extraction, who used to work as a gym manager (or coach) and whose father was an imam. Obviously, he can't be all of this at the same time and maybe none of these alleged features bear any truth. Why French intelligence, which is arguably in the best position to confirm his true identity, won't provide any further details is difficult to comprehend. Given the publicity given to his story in sites such as "The Daily Beast" and "The Daily Mirror", or intelligence newsletters such as "TTU", there is no doubt people in Raqqa know somebody is onto "Abu Suleyman".
Other than difficult to maintain OPSEC regarding the ongoing investigation, one rationale for the continued silence of French officials is that they might be confused themselves about the intelligence they received, or – worse – they are embarrassed by what they have found out about the identity of the man in question. On the one hand, it is totally plausible that the IS has been trying to protect the identity of this high level operative by spreading both truths and falsehoods about him, thus making sure all this information reaches Western media and intelligence, providing for an overall picture that is hard to decipher. IS has done so in the al-Afri/al-Anbari case for years, quite successfully, and they might want to do it again here.
On the other hand, the IC may already have a pretty good idea about the identity of "Abu Suleyman" but refrain from making it public for fear of further embarrassment after a number of faults came to light in various terror related cases of recent times. While this possibility is in no way the most likely, it cannot be dismissed out of hand, as several pieces of evidence regarding the mastermind of the Paris attacks point to a network going back to the mid-2000s, when France was confronted with a previous wave of Jihadi cells funnelling fighters and money into Iraq, most of the time through Syria.
While none of the individuals involved in those networks attempted to carry out an attack on French soil at the time, they formed the hard-core of the Jihadis who joined IS a few years later. Two groups in particular, the so-called network of the "Buttes-Chaumont", going by the name of a park in Paris where some of these would-be fighters used to train in 2004-2005, and the "Artigat" group, a Salafi community established in the countryside south of Toulouse in the early 2000s, strike the eye as the perfect suspects and background to the yet elusive "Abu Suleyman". As we shall see in part 3 of this piece, chances are, he is a man who was part to either one of these groups.