VERVIERS, Belgium: An alleged key figure of the November 2015 terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris had slipped away from Belgian police 10 months earlier, when they stormed an apartment and shot to death two of his jihadist confederates in this historic Walloon city.
Verviers is a town of 55,000 people in eastern Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. It lies on the river Vesdre, not far from the German border.
Situated at the eastern end of the sillon industriel, a belt of industrial towns stretching across Wallonia, Verviers has a long history of textile manufacturing. When the Industrial Revolution arrived on the European mainland, it was at Verviers. In 1799 the English entrepreneur William Cockerill began manufacturing machines here that spun and carded wool for the cloth manufacturers.
Verviers boomed. The prosperity was to last for decades, and its results can be seen even today. In some ways, walking around Verviers feels like a trip into history, with art nouveau, neo-classic and neo-gothic architecture on display. The old buildings give the town a certain Walloon charm. Most tourists to the area, however, head instead to nearby Spa, known for its mineral water.
Labour conditions in the textile industry were miserable. Verviers and the neighboring municipality of Hodimont – across the Vesdre – became home to a radical labour movement. In the 1870s it was something of a centre for anarchists, and in 1872 the great Russian anarchist Piotr Krapotkin visited incognito, under the name Levashóff. “I could compare the centralized political agitation at Brussels with the economic and independent agitation that was going on amongst the clothiers at Verviers,” he wrote in his memoirs, noting that his journey to Belgium only strengthened his anarchist views. “These clothiers were one of the most sympathetic populations that I have ever met in Western Europe.”
That same year, the calligrapher Corneille Gomzé gave Verviers its anthem, in the Walloon language: “Ah! Por mi dju so fîr, qwand dj’so-st-a l’etrandjîr, D’aveûr sutu hossí, èn on trô come a Vervî” [I’m so proud of myself, whenever I’m abroad, that I was rocked in the cradle, in a hole like Verviers].
The radicals of Verviers believed in revolution. A bloody series of strikes and lockouts from 1896 to 1906 resulted in only minor reforms. “Change crawled so painfully slowly that only desperation could keep people believing,” writes the Belgian-American author Luc Santé, who was born in Verviers, in his 1998 book Factory of Facts.
And then times changed. “Verviers continued to be a one-industry town until the 1950s,” writes Santé, “when it began turning into a no-industry town.” As many of the Vervietois moved out , however, immigrants started moving in.
“Verviers appears as if it is no longer within the Belgian borders,” the important Flemish weekly Humo has written. “Whole areas in the centre of town, such as Hodimont, are controlled by organized crime.” That is overdramatizing things, a all-too-common media practice these days.
At my hotel near the railway station, I spoke with a Flemish woman who travels to Verviers regularly. “It seems like a divided town,” she said. And divided it is. The southern side of town – the traditional centre – has a distinctly Walloon feel, although it also feels post-industrial. Hodimont, across the river, however, is an immigrant neighbourhood with the makings of a ghetto. It is a poor district, one suﬀering from organized crime. A parallel black economy exists there, quite visibly.
And, for years, Verviers has been mentioned in connection with radical and extremist groups from other parts of the world, ranging from Kurdish separatists in the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, to the ultranationalist Turkish Grey Wolves and Islamist groups such as Hamas, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group and Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front.
Humo called Verviers “Jihadstad”, or jihad town, in a January 2015 article. It was yet another bit of hyperbole, and yet, the drama here is real enough. “You will never hear me saying that there are no problems in Verviers,” Marc Elsen, then the mayor of the town, told Humo. “It would simply not be believable. You will ﬁnd hard cores of fundamentalists and of Islamist extremists there, that could grow if nothing is done.”
Elsen points to difficult socioeconomic circumstances, including high unemployment and poverty, and says there is a connection between the parallel economy and l’integrisme, fundamentalism: “The one is strengthening the other.”
Verviers is home to a number of recruits to forces of the self-declared Islamic State. When the international limelight fell on Verviers in January 2015, it was not because of any Vervietois.
Just a couple of hundred meters from the town hall in Verviers lies Rue de la Colline, or “Hill Road”. It is a short, unassuming street, seemingly peaceful, a row of brick buildings, a brasserie, a newspaper kiosk, a parking lot; a typically Walloon street near the N61 thoroughfare.
In mid-January 2015, Belgian police raided an apartment on the street, targeting a group of men believed to have been planning an attack on Belgian soil. Two of the suspects – Souﬁane Amghar and Khalid Ben Labri, also known as Abu Khalid al-Belgiki and Abu Zubayr al-Belgiki, were killed in a gun battle with the police. A third man, Marouane El Bali, who had been visiting, was arrested.
The apartment had been under surveillance for weeks, following tips to the Belgian security services by an informant with connections to the Verviers cell – a man later furnished with a new identity and resettled abroad.
The investigation had involved numerous suspects, including the two men in the Verviers apartment and a number of suspects who, like the two who died, were from Brussels. Many came from the immigrant-heavy neighbourhood of Molenbeek.
The police had been wiretapping phones. A few days prior to the raid, they had also been able to place a listening device within the apartment itself. They could listen in to the conversations between Amghar and Ben Labri.
“Tomorrow, we will make history,” one the men in the apartment told the other, just hours before the police raid.
The police were convinced a terrorist attack was imminent. Their investigation suggested a plot involving an attack on police stations, possibly including one in Molenbeek. Another plan involved kidnapping and beheading a high-ranking police officer (one name mentioned was that of Catherine De Bolle, General Commissioner of the Belgian Federal Police). A villa in Denderleeuw had been rented where the murder would take place. Everything would be ﬁlmed, and published online.
Following the 10-minute shoot-out, police searching in the Verviers apartment found several guns, ammunition, a considerable amount of money, chemicals suitable for bomb production, phones, walkie-talkies and police uniforms.
“We have averted a Belgian Charlie Hebdo,” a police source quoted by the regional newspaper La Meuse said after the police raid in Verviers.
A number of people were arrested in connection with the Verviers raids, and some are still believed to have been part of a terrorist cell. One man, however, got away. According to numerous media reports, wiretaps revealed that the Verviers cell had been receiving orders from a man called Abou Omar, an alias for Abdelhamid Abaaoud.
Like Souﬁane Amghar and Khalid Ben Labri, Abaaoud was from Molenbeek. Like them, he had fought with the self-declared Islamic State in Syria.
But Abdelhamid Abaaoud escaped Belgium, using fake identity papers. He went to Greece, where he is believed to have been helped by an Algerian called Omar Damache, who was later arrested and extradited to Belgium, where he denies having played any role in the Verviers plot. Greek police were never able to arrest Abaaoud. He disappeared again.
This is part 1 in a series of articles on the Belgian and French jihadist scenes, and the terror attack in Paris. Read Part 2: The Life and Death of a Terrorist