FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT OF ONE OF THE BELGIUM JIHADISTS

The reporter for EL PERIÓDICO Marc Marginedas describes his kidnapping at the hands of one of the Brussels terrorists

Marginedas remembers Najim Laachraui as the friendly jailer

He derived no pleasure from other people's pain, and chatted to the hostages

Najim Laachraoui.

Najim Laachraoui.

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Marc Marginedas
Marc Marginedas

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The night was cold and dry, a typical mid-January night in northern Syria. The formidable convoy, organized by the militias of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after their expulsion from Aleppo in early 2014 by their former allies – the moderate Syrian rebel factions – had made a stop on what would be an arduous journey lasting several days to Raqqa province. Abu Idriss, or rather, Najim Laachraui, one of the terrorists who blew himself up at Brussels airport on March 22, was on guard at the rear of one of the trucks making up the convoy, a battered pick-up filled to bursting with supplies and material. And there, bundled awkwardly in the spaces between in the crates, constantly struggling to find a comfortable position, were three pairs of scrawny hostages, handcuffed in pairs and dressed in orange overalls. They hadn’t been given a bite to eat since the beginning of the journey to make sure the expedition wouldn’t be slowed down by the need to empty their bowels.

‘Where are we we going?’ I asked Abu Idriss / Najim Laachraui, my head covered with a blanket and chained to a prisoner with a French passport.

‘I don’t know, Iraq maybe,’ replied the Brussels suicide bomber, coolly and with a hint of sarcasm, making no attempt to be convincing.

Iraq was the name we dreaded, the place from hell, the border we must never cross. We knew that if, in our desperate and hurried departure from Syria’s second city, we ended up entering the neighbouring country, the kidnapping would drag out for years rather than months, and that our British and American colleagues would have no chance of ever again becoming free men. But Abu Idriss / Najim Laachraui, unlike the British kidnappers we nicknamed ‘The Beatles’, didn’t want to put the fear of hell into us. Rather, his little joke implied that he wanted to dispel what was our greatest concern at that moment.

THREE-WAY CONVERSATION

The three-way conversation continued, touching on Islam, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Muslims in France and Europe. It could have been a discussion among friends, cordial in tone, in which we almost managed to forget that two of the people involved were hostages, and the third, a jailer who might receive the order to execute us at any moment. At one point, we were even allowed to remove the heavy, uncomfortable blanket covering our heads so we could breathe in the cool desert air for a few moments.

i wanted to talk to him about my years as a correspondent for EL PERIÓDICO  in the Maghreb in the nineties, about my struggles with the Algerian government, in the hope that he might have some connection with the North African country and feel contempt for the ruling regime there. At one point in the discussion, I switched from French to Arabic, and Abu Idriss / Najim Laachraui encouraged me to continue, perhaps unaware that my verbal skills in the language of the Koran were diminishing as the conversation became more complex. Later, when we stopped at what appeared to be a launderette from the quantity of clothing piled up there, he came into our room with his face covered by a mask and stroking a white dove. ‘I want to introduce you to the latest prisoner,’ he told his audience of male hostages, all unnerved by the journey and worried that the executions might begin, given the logistical difficulties of transporting and feeding such a large group of prisoners in a country at war.

The Brussels suicide bomber was by far the most articulate, intelligent and pensive of the French-speaking jailers who had guarded us from October 2013 to the end of December of the same year, in a dungeon near Aleppo. Subsequently, we were placed under the jurisdiction of the three British jihadists that we nicknamed ‘The Beatles’, led by the sadist dubbed Jihadi John by the British press and his two associates, with similar psychopathic tendencies, who were preparing a Guantanamo-like fate for us in a house far from the city. Unlike the three Englishmen, Abu Idriss / Najim Laachraui derived no pleasure from observing the pain of others, nor from inflicting it without prior provocation. When he was in charge, food would arrive punctually, twice a day. This was in stark contrast to his fellow jailers, who sometimes forgot about us and would leave us without food for entire days. One winter’s night, when he noticed that the vegetable purée accompanying our meager rations of rice was cold, he offered to heat it up. 

That said, not one of us doubted for an instant that Abu Idriss / Najim Laachraui would kill us without hesitation should he receive the order.

‘Don’t make the biggest mistake of your life,’ he warned a French prisoner who came close to seeing his face on one occasion.

We knew that looking at the face of any of our jailers would cost us dearly; it meant the instant loss of any chance of freedom.

The last time I saw the man who two years later would kill dozens of people by blowing himself up at Brussels airport was in a building near Raqqa. It was towards the end of January 2014, once the extremely complex logistical operation of transferring almost two dozen hostages there had been successfully completed. He was in an adjoining room, where he called us in one by one. He asked me for some details about my family, then demanded the password of my Facebook page, which makes me think that he was the one who later accessed my account and changed my name (Marc Marginedas) for an Arabic one. Believing, wrongly perhaps, that I had managed to establish some kind of emotional bond with him – or, who knows, maybe I’d succumbed to Stockholm syndrome – I made a final request.

‘What do you want?’ he inquired.

 ‘Not to be separated from the Spanish hostages,’ I said boldly.

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Abu Idriss / Najim Laachraui replied that he didn’t know where we were going, but that he would visit us often and make sure my request was granted. I never saw him again.

Translated by: Tracey Owen.