A Frenchman Directing the Islamic State’s Foreign Attacks

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on November 23, 2016

Abdelilah Himich (Abu Sulayman al-Firansi) [image source]

The United States released sanctions yesterday that confirmed the identity of Abu Sulayman al-Firansi, a senior commander in the external operations division of the Islamic State (IS). Abu Sulayman is Abdelilah Himich, a French citizen, as was first reported last month. Among the interesting aspects of this are the revelation that a European made it to a very senior position within the structure of IS’s foreign intelligence service, the amn al-kharji.

The first mention of a French IS operative called Abu Sulayman as a key conceiver of the Paris and Brussels attacks came at the end of March 2016 in the TTU newsletter. According to TTU, Abu Sulayman—a separate man to Charaffe al-Mouadan, an IS operative who was struck down in December 2015—was promoted by the caliph, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), as a reward for the “success” of the Paris atrocity.

Prior to his promotion, Abu Sulayman had been a “low-level agent in the ISIS security services”, an IS defector told Michael Weiss, and he presented his plan for carnage in Paris to al-Badri through Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani). When Falaha was killed in August, he was not just the official IS spokesman, he was the caliph’s deputy, the governor of Syria, and had an indistinct role in approving foreign attacks.

Western intelligence caught onto Abu Sulayman’s trail through the computer of Ibrahim al-Bakrawi, one of the homicide bombers at the Zaventem Airport in Brussels on March 22, 2016, according to TTU. Al-Bakrawi’s laptop contained audio recordings of Abu Sulayman that spelled out his role in that attack. Two of the IS murderers at the Bataclan in November 2015 had also mentioned “Abu Sulayman”.

Syrian sources told TTU that Abu Sulayman was based in northern Syria, where he lived with his wife, also a French citizen, with whom he had two children. Weiss refined this (and the Treasury confirmed it): Abu Sulayman was based in al-Bab, a hub for IS’s security apparatus in general and its foreign attacks division in particular.

The first public identification of Abu Sulayman as Himich came on October 19 by Sebastian Rotella at PBS. According to U.S. counterterrorism sources, Himich is a 26-years-old Moroccan citizen. Treasury sanctions identify Himich as being born in Rabat in November 1989. Himich came to France as an adolescent and lived in Lunel, a small southern French town that is historically a Jewish cultural centre and is now a largely-Muslim zone after immigration from North Africa beginning in the 1960s.

Himich joined the French Foreign Legion in November 2008, Weiss wrote in a profile of Himich last month. Himich went to serve in Afghanistan, with some distinction, “serving for six months in the hardscrabble Surobi region, where, [in August 2008], 10 French soldiers had died in a single ambush that scandalized their country”, Weiss reports. In 2010, Himich deserted in order to attend the funeral of his father.

Trying to make up the income lost because he had gone AWOL, Himich turned to crime. Himich was arrested on 13 December 2011 “arriving on a train from Amsterdam at the Gare du Nord station in Paris … carrying a backpack containing 2.6 pounds of cocaine with a street value of about $55,000”, Rotella reports. Himich “also tested positive for cocaine and marijuana.” Convicted in late 2012 and sentenced to three years in prison, Himich had a year suspended for time spent in jail while awaiting trial and then served about five months in prison, being released in April 2013.

Lunel had become a hub of Islamist extremism, centred around the Baraka Mosque, run by adherents to the Tabligh Jamaat current of Islamism. Himich showed up within this web, identified as a sniper. Before leaving France, Himich “underwent intense military training in the … Cévennes mountains”, Weiss notes, a fairly strong indication that he had decided on the path he would soon take. A flow of Frenchmen to the Levant was underway by early 2014 and Himich joined that flow, travelling by car to Italy, Greece, Turkey, and thence Syria. It seems Himich joined al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, initially, and then moved into IS.

Despite his youth, Himich’s military experience made him valuable to IS, Rotella’s sources say. By August 2014, Himich had become a unit emir for IS. Himich was injured in his calf at one point in late 2014 but soon recovered. Himich engaged in the gruesome aspects of IS, allegedly participating personally in the crucifixion of two people.

Externally, Himich’s knowledge of the French scene made him crucial in putting together the infrastructure that enabled the Paris attacks. A cadre of Francophone jihadists—Fabien and Jean-Michel Clain, Rachid Kassim, and Salim Benghalem, among others—have bolstered IS’s European attacks campaign. As European security agencies have picked up the pieces after a series of IS-guided terrorist strikes across the continent—the attempted attack on American troops in Luton, the stabbing on the Würzburg train, the Ansbach suicide bombing, an attempted suicide attack in Strathroy, the Normandy church atrocity, and on and on—the structure of IS’s foreign operations has become a little clearer.

Rotella writes: “The predominantly Arab leaders of ISIS have given senior and mid-level European fighters considerable autonomy to select targets and decide details of plots in their home turf, according to Western counter-terror officials. Nonetheless, the ISIS unit that plots attacks overseas is also quite bureaucratized, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The unit exerted increasingly direct control over plots in Europe starting in 2015, according to Western counter-terror officials, and is part of an ISIS intelligence structure known as the Enmi.” (The nomenclature gets a little confused: emni or amni describes the individual member of the amniyat or security services. The foreign branch of these interlinking intelligence agencies is amn al-kharji, and the word khaar is allegedly used to describe its operatives.)

The State Department sanctions buttress the essentials of this reporting, confirming that Abu Sulayman is Himich, that “Himich created the Tariq Ibn Ziyad Battalion in 2015”, which perhaps numbered 300 jihadists at one stage, and that Himich had a role in “planning” the Paris and Brussels attacks.

There have been rumours that Himich turned himself over to Turkish authorities over the summer. There is no evidence for this yet, and U.S. and French intelligence are distinctly sceptical, believing Himich remains in Syria.