Paris: Made in Libya, not Syria
By Peter Lee
November 24, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "Asia
Times" - Using the criterion cui
bono (who benefits?) to the Paris outrage, one notes an apparent
shortage of “bono” to ISIL, unless the thinking of the leadership
runs to: “It would be an excellent idea to focus the fury of the
West upon us here in Iraq instead of laying low and letting the West
go along with the GCC/Turkish plan of quagmiring Russia in Syria.”
Doesn’t make too much sense. Which is why, in my opinion, is why you
see a lot of metaphysical hand waving that the real motive for the
attacks was to erase the Muslim “grey zone,” provoke a fatal
over-reaction from the West, contribute to the agonies of the Syrian
refugees in Europe, rend the time-space continuum and thereby bring
the Crusaders to their knees, etc.
analyst coverage appears determined to overlay a profitable
traffic-building and mission-enhancing narrative of “Western
civilization under attack by ISIL,” and ignore the factors that
point to the attack as a murderous local initiative, not by ISIL or
the mythical immigrant threat, but by alienated Muslim citizens of
the EU. The rhetoric of righteous, united fury against a
monstrosity committed by the external “other,” perhaps, is easier to
digest than the awkward theme of national minorities committing
extreme acts of violence against societies they believe oppress and
So we get lots about the horrors of ISIL and
relatively little about the, to me, rather eye-opening statistic
that while 8% of the population of France is Muslim, it is
estimated that 70% of the prison population is. I suppose it
would be churlish to explore the issue of blowback from French penal
and social policies at this juncture. But there is some interesting
data that places the alleged and now apparently deceased mastermind,
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, in context concerning the degree of his
allegiance to ISIL.
Abaaoud, a citizen of Belgium of Moroccan descent,
was well known as a violent radical miscreant linked to an Islamic
cell in Verviers, Belgium, that did all sorts of mean, murderous
crap. As far as Belgian and French authorities were concerned, he
had been an item long before Paris.
In an article with the, in
retrospect, bitterly ironic title “Second Paris averted by hours”
(the “first Paris” referencing the Charlie Hebdo murders), the
Daily Mail reported in January 2015 on a raid in Verviers,
Belgium, the one Abaaoud famously evaded.
The Belgian terror cell linked to the Islamic
State (Isis) group, which was raided by police overnight, was
plotting to either take a passenger bus hostage or behead a member
of Belgian authority such as a policeman or a magistrate, according
to local media reports.
So, in January Abaaoud was going to behead a
policeman, or maybe hijack a passenger bus.
was linked to the Paris outrage, the Verviers activities were
retroactively upgraded to “major terrorist attack”:
Abaaoud was the main target of a major police
raid on a terrorist cell in Verviers, Belgium, in January in which
two jihadists were killed. It was carried out within days of the
Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, though police said the two events
were not linked.
In July he was sentenced to 20 years in
absentia along with 32 other jihadists. The Belgian cell was said to
have been planning a major terrorist attack, including abducting and
beheading a prominent law enforcement official and posting a video
of it online.
Police believe Abaaoud helped arrange a
terrorist attack on an Amsterdam to Paris train on August 21, which
was thwarted by four passengers including British businessman Chris
Norman. The French newspaper Liberation claimed he was in contact
with Ayoub El-Khazzani, the man who opened fire in a carriage of the
train before he was overwhelmed by passengers.
For some perspective on whether or not the
November outrage in Paris could be ginned up locally, as opposed to
orchestrated out of Raqqa, the January Daily Mail article
reminds us of how the Charlie Hedbo attackers acquired their gear:
Police said earlier this week that automatic
weapons and a rocket launcher used in the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher
supermarket attacks in Paris were purchased from Belgian gangs.
The Scorpion machine gun and the Tokarev
handgun used by Amedy Coulibaly during his attack on the kosher
supermarket which resulted in the deaths of four Jewish Parisians
came from Brussels and Charleroi.
And the Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers used
by the Kouachi brothers to attack the offices of the Charlie Hebdo
magazine, killing 12, were purchased by Coulibay near the Gare du
Midi in Brussels for less than 4000 English pounds.
Yes, apparently you can go down to the train
station in Brussels and purchase a rocket launcher.
A recent Reuters story
back-of-the enveloped costs for the November Paris murder spree at
perhaps US$7500. So, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, radicalized Euro-thug of
Moroccan descent, or ISIS’s chosen instrument for the destruction of
The indispensable first stop is the blog of a
Belgian researcher, Pieter van Ostaeyen. He writes about
radicalized Belgian Muslims. Back in January,
he had a post that mentioned Abdelhamid Abaaoud:
It seems fair to state that there is a rather
strong connection between an important part of the Belgian ISIS
fighters and the supposedly Libyan brigade of ISIS.
After the foiled attacks in Verviers in
Belgium on January 8, 2015, it became clear that the main suspect
Abdelhamid Abaaoud can be linked directly to this group. His little
brother Younes (aged 14 and hence probably the youngest foreign
fighter in Syria) has been portrayed multiple times in the ranks of
Libyan fighters in Syria.
Van Ostaeyen has a lot of interesting pictures
from social media about the “supposedly Libyan brigade of ISIS,”
which goes by the name “Katibat al-Battar al-Libi.” The pictures
make fighting in Syria look like Spring Break for radicalized
Islamic bros, with the advantage that you get to blow things up and
kill people, and the disadvantage that people can kill you.
Van Ostaeyen’s most remarkable get is a photograph
of a list of martyrs from the brigade including the names of eight
fighters surnamed “el-Belgiki,” presumably because they were
ex-Belgium. That’s about 20% of the fatalities listed.
Van Ostaeyen’s also
quoted in a post-Paris NYT backgrounder. It provides an
interesting insight on why Abaaoud might fall in with a Libyan
Abdelhamid Abaaoud is suspected of being a
leader of a branch of the Islamic State in Syria called Katibat
al-Battar al Libi, which has its origins in Libya. This particular
branch has attracted many Belgian fighters because of language and
cultural ties, said Pieter van Ostaeyen, who tracks Belgian
Many Belgian Muslims are of Moroccan origin,
he said, and speak a dialect found in eastern Morocco that is
similar to a Libyan dialect. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who studies
jihadi groups at the Middle East Forum, a research center in
Washington, said there was no evidence yet that the Paris attacks
had been ordered by Adnani or the Islamic State’s overall leader,
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
But he added that the soldiers at Libyan
branch that includes Abaaoud has played a prominent role in
exporting violence. One of their tasks he said, has been to organize
plots that “involved foreign fighters, sleeper cells in Europe that
were connected with an operative inside of Syria and Iraq, usually
in a lower to midlevel position.”
At the end of his January blogpost, van Ostaeyen
links to a piece by Aymenn al-Tamimi (who’s also quoted in the
Times piece above) on Joshua Landis’ website. You go there
and you find a brief 2014 piece about Katibat al-Battar al-Libi:
This group, which has existed at least since
the summer of last year, is the Libyan division of the Islamic State
of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), despite false rumors that the battalion
had defected to Jabhat al-Nusra. Libya itself has been a big source
of muhajireen in both Iraq and Syria over the past decade, so the
fact that there is a battalion devoted to recruiting Libyan fighters
should come as no surprise. The existence of Katiba al-Bittar
al-Libi as a front group for ISIS perhaps reflects a wider pro-ISIS
trend across central North Africa with the Ansar ash-Shari’a
movements in Tunisia and Libya.
This military formation, which Abaaoud fought
with, predates the emergence of ISIS by at least a year.
The Carnegie Endowment for Peace, in a
March 2015 report discussed the formation as “the Battar
Brigade,” and indicated that it was rather deeply embedded in the
Islamist social, political, and financial matrix of post-Gaddafi
Libyans had already begun traveling to fight
in Syria in 2011, joining existing jihadi factions or starting their
own. In 2012, one group of Libyans in Syria declared the
establishment of the Battar Brigade in a statement laden with
anti-Shia sectarianism. The Battar Brigade founders also thanked
“the citizens of Derna,” a city in northeastern Libya long known as
a hotbed of radical Islamism, for their support for the struggle in
Later, the Battar Brigade fighters in Syria
would pledge loyalty to the Islamic State, and fight for it in both
Syria and Iraq, including against its al-Qaeda rivals. In April
2014, the Battar Brigade announced the “martyrdom” of 25 of its
fighters in a Nusra Front suicide attack on an Islamic State
In the spring of 2014, many Battar Brigade
fighters returned to Libya. In Derna, they reorganized themselves as
the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC). In September, an Islamic
State delegation, including the Yemeni Abu al-Bara al-Azdi and the
Saudi Abu Habib al-Jazrawi, arrived in Libya. After being received
by the IYSC, they collected pledges of allegiance to the Islamic
State’s self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, from
IYSC-aligned fighters in Derna. They then declared eastern Libya to
be a province of the Islamic State, calling it Wilayat Barqa, or the
Katibat al-Battar al-Libi, in other words, was
formed as a rather bloody piece of outreach by Libyan Islamists to
share Libya experience in insurrection and revolution with Syria.
After IS arose and became a dominant military and financial force,
the “KBL” threw in their lot with ISIS, and members of the brigade
subsequently returned to Libya to establish an IS beachhead.
July 2015 study by Small Arms Survey confirms the autonomous
character of Katibat al-Battar al-Libi.
While the uncertain relationship between JAN
and IS was being clarified, Libyans stayed ‘outside’ the fray,
remaining in their own units and not integrating into other IS
hierarchies or command structures. In Latakia for instance, Libyans
kept their own separate battalion (The Daily Star, 2013). As the
split between JAN and IS deepened, Libyans chose IS but remained
apart, forming the Katibat al-Battar al-Libiya (KBL) (The Libyan al-Battar
Brigade), under the auspices of IS. Since its formation, the KBL has
been active in eastern Syria, notably in Al Hasakah and Deir az-Zor.
The battalion maintained links with Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, an
early and prominent supporter of IS. Ansar al-Sharia proved to be an
excellent recruiting tool and played a role in the arrival of many
Libyans in Syria prior to 2014.
And who is Ansar al-Sharia in Libya? Via
Washington believes the group is responsible
for the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed the
ambassador and three other Americans.
In November, the United Nations blacklisted
Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi and its sister group, Ansar al-Sharia Derna,
over links to Al-Qaeda and for running camps for the Islamist State
So there you have your soundbite. The Paris
outrage: Made in Libya. Not Syria. And brought to us by the people
who killed Christopher Stevens in Benghazi.
I am sure that Hillary Clinton is grateful to the
French police for botching the raid to capture Abaaoud and pumping
5000 rounds into his apartment instead of capturing him; otherwise,
he might have become a lively topic of interest and curiosity and
the right wing could have cooked off the Benghazi! munitions through
election day. For that matter, it seems unlikely that the
governments of the West, or the media cheerleaders thirsting for a
rousing good vs. evil narrative, are very interested in exploring
the morally fraught issue of blow back from the spectacular Libyan
To sum up: the alleged and now reportedly deceased
architect of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, did not fight
“for IS.” He fought “with” Katibat al-Battar al-Libi, a Libyan
outfit whose presence in Syria predates that of ISIS. Even after
Katibat al-Battar al-Libi decided to pledge allegiance to ISIS, it
retained its independent identity. And it would appear unlikely
that Abaaoud, as a European of Moroccan descent, would be a central
figure in the brigade, whose personnel, funding, and mission seem to
have largely emanated from Libya.
Despite his seemingly junior status in an
autonomous militia, it is possible that Abaaoud was recruited by
al-Baghdadi to commit the Paris outrage. But foreign fighters flock
to Syria not only to accumulate general jihadi merit, but also to
acquire skills they could apply in their own struggles. And Abaaoud
may have gone to the Syrian war zone to hook up with an extremely
capable Libyan outfit and acquire the experience and connections to
fulfill his own ambitions for mayhem in Europe, and not necessarily
to support the global or even local objectives of the IS caliphate.
So it is by no means axiomatic that Abaaoud returned to Europe with
the mission to execute a high-level ISIS strategy.
Instead, Abaaoud might have been an angry guy with
the skills, resources, and inclination to commit mass murder on his
own kick. The police were already after him big time after the
Verviers raid in January (we are now told that Abaaoud was “on” or a
“candidate for” a spot on the drone assassination assignment list,
but I wonder if this is post-hoc ass-covering). So maybe
he and his friends decided to pull the pin, and go out in a big way.
I doubt we’ll ever get the full story. But
“Paris: Made in Libya” is an honest hook.
runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US
policy with Asian and world affairs.
The opinions expressed in this column are the
author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.
Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited