Last year Mourad Laachraoui became a European Champion in Taekwondo. Two months before the biggest win of his his career, his brother Najim blew himself up in Brussels Airport. This is their story.
The bombs went off at 07:58 local time. A red flash scorched the departure hall of Brussels Airport before a cloud of white smoke began filling the terminal. Seventeen people were dead. Sirens blared as emergency personnel rushed passed fleeing survivors and towards the chaos. Footage of the carnage quickly leaked onto news networks. Among the clips; a woman, with torn clothes, staring through the camera lens. Her exhausted, silent expression asking, ‘why?’ as blood trickled down her dust-caked forehead.
An hour after the airport attack there was another explosion; at a nearby metro station. Fourteen more people were killed. More images of victims flooded the news. Then, a picture of the alleged attackers surfaced. CCTV footage from the airport had captured three men pushing carts of what looked like luggage. Two wore gloves on their left hands, perhaps hiding detonators. They were Ibrahim El Bakaraoui, Mohamed Abrini, and Najim Laachraoui. The metro bomber was later named as Khalid El Bakraoui. He was Ibrahim’s brother.
The media scrambled to learn all they could about the suspected bombers. It was quickly reported that they were all Belgian nationals of North African descent. And that all were known to authorities for having connections to extremist organizations. But news outlets wanted more. On March 24th, two days after the bombings, a young man was brought before a throng of reporters. He was wearing the colors of the Association Belge Francophone de Taekwondo (ABFT). His name was Mourad Laachraoui, a rising star in Belgian combat sport. His brother, Najim, was one of the bombers who died at the airport.
Mourad looked gaunt. His eyes were raw. In a short statement the twenty-year-old offered his condolences to victims of the attacks and then expressed the shock he and his family were experiencing. Mourad then fielded questions from the crowd. He was asked what he thought of his now infamous older brother. “He was a nice, intelligent guy,” managed Mourad. “I couldn’t believe [he would do this]” The press probed Mourad’s relationship with Najim. Shuffling uncomfortably in his seat, Mourad said: “When we were younger we were close, but as I became more passionate about sport – we grew apart.’“
Najim Laachraoui was born in 1991, in Aydir, Morocco. As a child his family moved to Belgium, where Mourad was born in 1995. The Laachraoui family lived in Schaerbeek; a municipality, within Brussels, that is home to a large Moroccan community. Schaerbeek and the similarly migrant-heavy municipality of Molenbeek form what is referred to as the “poor croissant” of Brussels. Both areas are rife with unemployment and petty crime. They’re also labeled as hotbeds for radicalization. In January, 2016 one half of the poor croissant was featured in the CBS News documentary Molenbeek: Terror recruiting ground.
The Laachraoui family sent their boys to the Institut de la Sainte Famillie d’Helmet, a Catholic school. In Belgium it’s common for Muslim families to send their children to Catholic schools. They’re thought to be more conservative than state schools, as well as academically superior. Najim attended Sainte-Famille between 2003 and 2009. Reportedly, he was a good student who never failed a class. However, throughout high school Najim seemed to struggle with his identity. That’s according to his religious studies teacher Bruno Derbaix, who spoke to The New York Times. “We [were] faced with a person who was in search of his Islam,” said Derbaix. Najim’s former teacher claimed that after initially expressing moderate views, Najim began practicing increasingly conservative forms of worship. During his senior year Najim wore traditional Islamic clothes and grew out his beard. He also declined to shake hands with women.
While Najim was shaping his religious identity, Mourad was in the gym trying to figure out what kind of martial artist he wanted to be. When he was ten, Mourad’s karate school went bankrupt. After that the nearest martial arts school was a Taekwondo studio. “And this is how my Taekwondo adventure started,” said Mourad to Bloody Elbow (as translated by Andrew Kachaniwsky). However, Mourad wouldn’t have gotten this far without his biggest fan: his father.
“My dad first introduced me to martial arts,” revealed Mourad. “He liked the ‘martial arts spirit’, but also wished I could be able to defend myself. I would have loved to play soccer too, as I did for the majority of my youth, but one can not defend themselves with a ball.” Once Mourad dedicated himself in the high-kicking Korean martial art, he was soon noticed by the ABFT. “Then I benefited from high-level training,” he said.
The ABFT could see that Mourad was a special kid. His lanky frame and long legs were ideal for swinging roundhouse kicks and his work ethic made him a darling of his coaches. With their support Mourad knew, if he persevered, that he was good enough to reach the very highest levels of the sport. “Everything happened naturally, even though it took a great amount of work and effort,” said Mourad. “But I loved Taekwondo immediately. It’s a complete sport. You have to be fast, strong, enduring, patient, strategic… This sport brings together a lot of qualities that one must have and practice to become successful.”
As Mourad was finding himself in the gym, Najim was struggling to fit in. Before graduating high school Najim got a job at Brussels Airport. Then he enrolled at Universite libre de Bruxells to study engineering. He switched universities after a year, joining Uni Catholique de Louvain, to study electromechanics. Najim left school for good a year later. He quit his job at the airport in 2012. And it was around this time that authorities believe Najim met the man who would turn him into a terrorist.
Khalid Zerkani, nicknamed Papa Noel (Santa Claus), was a street preacher – with a criminal record – who hung around Molenbeek. Along with delivering radical outdoor sermons exalting the most violent and archaic interpretations of Islam, Zerkani was eying young men who not only listened to what he had to say, but believed it enough to die for. In Najim, he found one such person. As Zerkani was stoking the fires of extremism in Najim (and many others) the world was beginning to boil.
In 2011 the Arab Spring ushered winds of change throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Ignited by the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor, a wave of mass protests swept through nations which had long been ruled with iron fists. Some of these protests swelled to rebellions and even revolutions. By early 2012 the Arab Spring had felled regimes in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and Libya. Out of those protests, there also came war.
In 2012 Syria was well on its way to becoming what one witness would later deem “living hell.” The country’s ruler Bashar al-Assad had responded to dissent with extreme-violence, just as his father did a generation before. Mass arrests, executions, and massacres were followed by an armed uprising that turned most the country into an active war zone. Militias sprouted from every corner of Syria. Some backed Assad, others cried for his head. Foreigners also flocked to Syria; to fight against the regime. Among the incoming groups were al-Qaeda cells, which would eventually form the most feared forces in the region.
In Syria Jihadist groups saw an opportunity to wage war, seize land, and administer it according to the most draconian interpretation of Islam possible. These cults also viewed Syria as the ideal place to kick-start a battle that had the potential to trigger the end times, where all would be judged and sent to either heaven or hell. However, to do all this, they needed bodies. Lots of them.
Khalid Zerkani was responsible for delivering some those bodies to Syria. After preaching to young men on the street corners of Brussels, Zerkani picked out the most zealous and match-made them with smugglers who could funnel them into the war-torn country.
In 2013 the Laachraoui family moved from Schaerbeek to a new neighborhood, one which did not have a large Muslim community. Some have speculated that the reason for the relocation was to put distance between Najim and Zerkani. During the awkward press conference, two days after the airport bombings, Mourad revealed that Najim disappeared during the family’s move away from Schaerbeek. After Mourad, his parents, and two little brothers were settled into their new home they received a phone call. It was Najim. He was in Syria.
Thanks to Zerkani’s connections, Najim was now under command of Abu al-Atheer; a hardened Syrian Salafist and a survivor of Assad’s jails. Atheer led al-Majlis Shura Mujahideen (MSM), a group which operated from Homs to Aleppo. After Najim joined up with Atheer, MSM was absorbed by what had just been declared The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Atheer was one of the first influential jihadists to throw his support in with ISIL and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The formation of ISIL went against the wishes of al-Qaeda, who had previously backed al-Baghdadi. In response the al-Qaeda network, and especially their Syrian offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra (or Al-Nusra Front), declared war on ISIL.
Atheer, a specialist in recruitment and propaganda, became a key member of the Shura Council – ISIL’s highest political body. Some outlets claimed he was head of the group’s media council, as well. Atheer was also dubbed ‘kidnapper in chief’ by the United Nations. This was because of his involvement in kidnapping journalists; something Najim would become very familiar with.
If Mourad wanted a distraction from where his brother was, and what he might be doing, he found it in Taekwondo. In 2013 he began competing on the world stage. He spent most the year traveling to and from international tournaments. In March he competed at the Dutch Open in Eindhoven. In April there was the Belgian Open in Lomel. In July he went to Pueblo, Mexico for the World Championships, and in September he competed at the Junior World Championships in Porto, Portugal. Though he was active in the sport, he wasn’t finding much success. In 2013 he lost all but one of his internationally ranked matches. His lone win saw him advance to the last sixteen of the World Championships, in the 54kg weight division.
In 2014 Mourad entered just a single tournament: the Under-21 European Championships, which were held in Innsbruck, Austria. He was bounced from the competition in only the second round. The year was far more eventful for Najim.
According to the Associated Press, Marie-Laure Ingouf – lawyer for French journalists (and former ISIL captives) Pierre Torres and Nicolas Henin – Najim was working as a prison guard for the terror group in 2014. Ingouf also alleged that Najim kept watch over the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Foley and Sotloff were beheaded that year. The videos of their executions were widely circulated on both the internet and international news channels. The French former captives claimed that Najim used the name Abu Idriss. Since that name means ‘father of Idriss’, it’s likely that Najim was married at this time and had at least one child. There’s no information available regarding how this came about. However, ISIL’s practices of recruiting young women to be brides for their fighters and capturing women to be sold as sex-slaves is well documented.
In 2014 Najim also spent time fighting on the front lines. In July, the 22-year-old was involved in a battle between against Nusra Front for control of the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor. During the battle Najim was shot in the leg, a wound that would cause him to limp for the remainder of his short life. ISIL would best Nusra in that conflict and claim most the province.
In the following year both Najim and Mourad were on the move. For Mourad, his travels in 2015 were a sign that something grand and positive was happening in his combat sports career. For Najim, he was driving towards the edge of an ideological cliff. His fall was inevitable.
After an inactive 2014, Mourad strived to compete more than ever. He got off to a flying start, winning a gold medal at January’s Fujairah Open in the United Arab Emirates. That same month he won a bronze at the Bosnian Open in Sarajevo. Then in February he lifted gold again, this time at the Alexandria Open in Egypt. While in Egypt he also picked up a bronze at the Luxor Open before returning to Europe to win bronze at the Swiss Open in Montreaux. The Universiade (a tournament for university students) and World Championships came a few months later. At the Universiade in Gwangjiu, South Korea Mourad reached the final, but had to settle for silver. At the Worlds, in Chelyabinsk, Russia, Mourad advanced through the first two rounds but fell short in the quarter finals, losing to Stanislav Denisov by just two points.
On September 7th, Mourad added another gold to his 2015 medal haul, at the Israel Open in Ravula. It was around this time that his brother Najim made his return to Europe, with a fake passport and plans for multiple mass murders.
Within the now-named Islamic State (IS) Najim, who had a year of studying both engineering and electromechanics, was reassigned from prison guard duties to bomb-making. After he’d learned how to outfit a suicide vest, Najim was viewed as a prime candidate to carry out attacks in Europe, something which had become a sudden priority for the group in 2015. William McCants of the Brookings Institution told The New York Times that year that IS had “definitely shifted their thinking about targeting their enemies.” The decision to strike targets abroad might have been due to the increased international action taken against IS in the wake of their killings of journalists and the long list of widely reported war crimes that followed. Whatever their reasoning, by the middle of 2015, IS had deployed dozens of operatives to carry out attacks outside of Syria and Iraq.
Najim used a passport bearing the name Soufiane Kayal as he traversed his way through Turkey, the Balkans, Austria and Germany before reaching France and Belgium. With him was Salah Abdeslam. In Molenbeek Najim and Salah reconnected with Zerkani the street preacher and other IS operatives – including Salah’s older brother Brahim. This cell, under the leadership of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, began setting in motion an attack which would result in the highest loss of life in France since the Second World War.
While Najim was wiring together suicide belts in an apartment in Molenbeek, Mourad was embarking on the 2015 Taekwondo Grand Prix. That event saw him compete in Turkey, England, and Russia. Mourad failed to place in the Grand Prix and then lost his opening bout at the European Championships in Latvia. Even so, his 2015 run had put him on the radar of the Belgian Taekwondo Association; who were beginning to consider him as a candidate to represent the nation at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Although, this was before the association (and the world) knew that Mourad’s brother was a terrorist. It wouldn’t be long before everyone knew the truth.
On November 13th Bilal Hadfi, a 20-year-old Frenchman, tried to enter Paris’ Stade de France during a soccer game between France and Germany. He was wearing explosives, likely constructed by Najim. A guard turned him away. Hadfi detonated his bomb, killing himself and a bystander. As fans – and players – inside the stadium wondered what the noise was, a second blast rocked the streets outside. Another suicide bomber had exploded, but no one else was killed. Six minutes later other members of the Belgium Cell walked up to Le Carillon (a bar) and opened fire with AK-47s. After killing a number of patrons, they fled in two vehicles. Less than ten minutes later a separate cell member opened fire outside of Cafe Bonne Biere, killing more people. Four minutes after that, gunmen attacked another restaurant, Le Belle Equipe. A moment later Brahim Abdeslam walked into Comptoir Voltaire and detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and wounding fifteen diners. With the city on edge, three cell members walked into the Bataclan theatre.
After the Bataclan massacre, the total death toll stood at 137 (including seven attackers). Europe was put on high-alert and a continent-wide manhunt was launched for a man believed to be one of the assailants, who did not die during the attack. It was Najim’s travel partner: Salah Abdeslam. On November 15th, Mohamed Abdeslam, brother to Salah and the deceased Brahim, made a plea on public TV for Salah to turn himself in. It was around this time that Belgium authorities made contact with Mourad and his family. According to Mourad, the police told them that Najim might have been involved in the Paris attacks. The police also asked the family whether they had had any contact with Najim. The family said they hadn’t heard from Najim since the 2013 phone call alerting them he had moved to Syria (which they had already told the police about).
In February, 2016 Belgian authorities convicted Najim in absentia for his involvement with Khalid Zerkani’s terror network. The courts gave Najim, who was still at large and hiding in Molenbeek, a sentence of 15 years. That same month Mourad won a gold medal at the US open in Reno, NV, and bronzes at the Canada Open in Montreal and Fujairah Open in the UAE.
On March 4th Mourad headed to Egypt, a happy hunting ground for him in the past. Despite the revelation hanging over him, that his brother was a convicted terrorist in hiding, he defeated both his opponents at the Luxor Open and added the fifth gold medal to his growing collection. Back at home the police were zeroing in on Najim.
On March 15th Belgian police raided a flat in the Brussels suburb of Forest. During the raid Mohamed Belkaid – a suspected accomplice of the Paris attackers – was killed by a police sniper. Belkaid died creating a diversion that allowed Salah Abdeslam and another individual to escape across some rooftops. Brothers Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui also escaped capture during the raid. Like Najim, they would blow themselves up in Brussels less than ten days later. On March 18th, police conducted another raid – this time in Molenbeek. After a brief gun battle Salah was arrested, along with five others. But Najim was still unaccounted for. Thanks to DNA gathered at the flats, which housed the Paris attackers, the police knew he was in town.
On March 21st Belgian authorities appealed to the public for information on Najim’s whereabouts. 24-hours-later, Najim, and two others, strolled into Brussels Airport and murdered seventeen people. At the press conference that followed Mourad said he and his family were overwhelmed by what had happened. When asked by a reporter how his parents felt, Mourad snapped back “How do you think they feel?” The Olympic hopeful bit his lip and pulled at his tearing eye throughout the awkward set-up. Before it had ended, he reminded reporters that, “You can’t choose your family.” He also insisted that, at that moment, he did not want to try to understand why Najim had become a terrorist. Instead, he wanted to “turn the page” and move on.
Mourad went into isolation and turned to Taekwondo once again for a distraction. The European Championships in Montreaux, Switzerland were just two months away. His performances at the Euros over the last three years had been terrible. He had just one win at the competition and had never advanced past the last eight. During those years, thoughts of his brother walking out on his family and committing war crimes in a foreign land had dwelled at the back of his mind. Now Najim was dead.
On May 19th Mourad had his first bout of the 2015 European Championships. It was a tense affair versus Vadim Dimitrov of Moldova. The close fight ended in a 4:3 victory for Mourad. Next up he faced Spaniard Jorge Canales. Mourad beat him handily, winning 12:3. In the semi-finals, he faced Denisov. It was the first time Mourad had faced the Russian since narrowly losing to him in the quarter-finals of the 2015 World Championships. This time Mourad got past Denisov to earn a gold medal match against another fighter he had history with: Jesus Tortosa of Spain. Mourad first faced Tortosa in the final of 2015’s Luxor Open. He lost to him that day, 9:8.
The two men had met again months later, in the semis of the Israel Open. That time Mourad won 6:5. This, their rubber match, was the most important fight of Mourad’s career. In a confident performance – punctuated by two flush head kicks – Mourad bested Tortosa 6:3 to win gold. “This final against Tortosa was my payback,” said Mourad, who added that he’s looking forward to the next time he and his rival lock horns.
Getting one over on Tortosa was nice, but the medal would have been special regardless of whom he beat in the final. “This was very important to me,” said Mourad. “Even if I win a World Championship, or a medal at the Olympics, this victory will be the most important to me because of the events that have passed prior. Even if I was ready physically, it was the most emotionally charged competition I’ve experienced.”
The win was also a triumph for his parents, according to Mourad. “They are proud and happy for me. It allows them to forget some of the hardships that they have experienced lately.” He also recognizes that his victory is a grand achievement for Belgium, a country that he loves. “I am proud to represent Belgium abroad. I am part of a great team and we are all happy to defend the colors of our country.”
After his success at the European Championships, Mourad did not compete for Belgium at the Rio Olympics. Though, he did travel to Brazil. There he performed as sparring partner for his compatriots Si Mohamed Ketbi and Jaouad Achab. Mourad stated that he is now focusing on the 2017 World Championships which are to be held in Muju, South Korea between June 22nd and 30th. After that he hopes to compete at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. He is also pursuing a degree in electrical engineering.
Whatever Mourad does though, he’ll do it as a Laachraoui, despite the burden his name has come to represent. Speaking to Belgian newspaper Le Soir Mourad revealed that some people had recommended he changed his name to avoid association with Najim. “For me that’s not the solution,” said Mourad – who is now 21-years-old. “It’s my name, it’s my father’s name, there’s no question of taking another one.”
It’s likely that, no matter what Mourad does with it, the name Laachraoui will remain associated with that day of murder and chaos in Belgium for a very long time. It will follow Mourad, by choice, and may bring with it prejudice and suspicion. However, his name is not the only thing that might cause him trouble. Mourad’s burden is not just that he was related to Najim, it’s how he was related.
The brothers El Bakraoui died with Najim on March 22nd. Salah and Brahim Abdeslam carried out the Paris attacks together. Brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi massacred the staff of Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committed the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. According to Mia Bloom and John Horgan at the University of Massachusetts’ Lowell Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) enlisted several teams of brothers for terror attacks back in the 1960s. “There’s an echo chamber between siblings,” said Bloom to VOA News. “They bounce radical views off each other [which makes them more radicalized].”
Bloom’s studies have shown that as many as a third of the people who carry out terrorist attacks come from the same family as someone else who has done something similar. Bloom has also noted that when it comes to brothers, they are often sent to different locations during an attack. Salah and Brahim Abdeslam were separated in Paris, as were Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui in Brussels. “The reason for this is the fear that if the siblings are sent to the same location, one might convince the other to defect, because of the love of their sibling,” said Bloom to The New York Times.
Still, Bloom’s research shows that the majority of people who have a terrorist in their family do not commit terror attacks as well. “While brothers and sisters may be involved, and there are significant reasons why terrorist groups like to use them in attacks, it is important to emphasize that at the end of the day, people choose their own individual path,” wrote Bloom and Horgan for The Daily Beast in 2016.
Mourad and Najim grew up in the same house, but their paths in life lead to drastically different places. And according to Mourad, what his brother did – and why he did it – will not control the choices he makes going forward. He refuses to be defined by Najim, while recognizing that his brother’s story will cling to him like a shadow throughout his life and career. Whether he keeps trying to avoid it, or attempts to exorcise it, he doesn’t know yet. But his plan for now is a simple one, “I will remain sincerely and humbly myself, Mourad Laachraoui.”
Khalid Zerkani: In 2016 Zerkani, a Moroccan national and resident of Belgium, was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail for his role in recruiting operatives for the Islamic State. Authorities described him as a criminal turned street preacher who became the “biggest recruiter of candidates for jihad” in Belgium.
Salah Abdeslam: It is alleged that Abdeslam, a French national, rented a car which he used to drive attackers around Paris during the November 2015 attacks. Police, citing physical and DNA evidence, claim that Abdeslam removed his suicide belt during the attacks and dumped it before fleeing. After being captured in the March 2016 raids Abdeslam was charged with, “participation in terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist organization.” He was also charged with attempted murder in connection to the shootouts that occurred during the March raids. He was extradited to France in April, 2016 and charged with terror offenses there as well. He is considered innocent until proven guilty.
Mohamed Abdeslam: Older brother to Salah Abdeslam and Brahim Abdeslam (who died in a suicide bombing in Comptoir Voltaire during the Paris attacks), Mohamed was highly visible on French news stations in the aftermath of the attacks. On air he plead that Salah turn himself into authorities. Abdeslam gave numerous interviews in which he insisted he had no idea of what his brothers were planning.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud: After fighting with the Islamic State in Syria it is thought that Abaaoud, a Belgian national, was the ‘mastermind’ of at least the Paris attacks. Abaaoud was killed after French police raided an apartment he was staying at in the Saint-Denis suburb of Paris. Some outlets have stated that Abaaoud was hand picked by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to operate as the link between IS leadership in Syria and their network of terror cells in Europe.
Mohamed Belkaid: Belkaid was shot and killed during the Brussels raid of March 15. Reportedly, he created a diversion – which apparently involved firing an AK47 at police – that allowed Salah Abdeslam to escape. According to a report in the New York Post Belkaid went to Syria in 2014. That report states that In his application to join the Islamic State Belkaid listed his profession as ‘candy maker.’ Belgian police alleged that Belkaid traveled with Abdeslam from Syria to Europe and that he was planning to carry out a suicide attack.
Mohamed Abrini: Belgian national Abrini is alleged to have accompanied Najim Laachraoui and Ibrahim El Bakraoui into Brussels Airport on March 22nd, 2016. He has been named as ‘the man in the hat’ in CCTV footage which shows Laachraoui and Bakraoui moments before they detonated bombs in the airport’s departure hall. It is alleged that after the two bombs went off, Abrini was able to flee. He was arrested on April 8th, 2016 in Schaerbeek. It is reported that he confessed to involvement in the airport bombings. He is considered innocent until proven guilty.
Abu al-Atheer aka Amr al-Absi: Atheer lead al-Majlis Shura Mujahideen (MSM) before merging his group with what would become the Islamic State (IS) in 2013. Najim Laachraoui is alleged to have been a member of MSM and to have worked under Atheer as a soldier, prison guard, and eventual bomb-maker. On April 13th, 2016 IS released a statement saying that Atheer had been killed in an airstrike in northern Syria.