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The terror network

Revelations about Islamic State’s planning show that extremists are most likely to be radicalised by relatives or friends. To stop them we need to break those connections

Just after five o’clock on a cold, foggy afternoon in January last year, a car pulled up outside a nondescript three-storey terraced brick house on the Rue de la Colline in the centre of Verviers, a small city southeast of Brussels. Carrying a heavy parcel, a 25-year-old got out, paid the driver and knocked on the door of the ground floor flat.

Waiting for him were two veterans of the war in Syria who had recently returned to Belgium after months overseas. Sofiane Amghar, 26, and Khalid Ben Larbi, 23, had been fighting with Islamic State (IS) and were now planning a series of bombings and shootings at an airport and police stations in Belgium. According to the police, who had wired the flat with microphones and put it under 24-hour surveillance, the man who joined them was responsible for logistics. He was Marouane El Bali, a former security guard who, like the others, had grown up around the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek. El Bali was warmly greeted. “Hey, I’ve missed you,” said one of the two men. “How are you big guy?” asked the other. Backslapping and laughter followed.

The package El Bali had brought, officials say, contained an AK-47 assault rifle complete with magazines and ready for use. The weapon was one of the final elements the cell needed before launching their attacks, scheduled for the following day.

Earlier, while waiting, Amghar and Ben Larbi had discussed how they would feel when the shooting started. One had confessed to nerves. “Everyone is scared,” he said. This irritated the other man. “I’m never frightened... You’re a nutter,” he responded. After El Bali’s arrival, the conversation returned to their planned attacks. “You’ve seen much worse things over there [in Syria] and you’re scared here?” chided the alleged quartermaster of the cell, shortly after unwrapping the gun.

There was little time for further exchanges. At about 5.45pm, the men were talking about how IS had rewarded one fighter in Syria with a farm. Their conversation was interrupted by shouts of “police, police.” The door to the flat was splintered and shots fired. The authorities, having heard the references to the weapon, had decided to move in. Amghar and Ben Larbi were killed in the firefight. El Bali leapt through a window of the burning building but was still arrested. His trial began on 9th May.

One line in the transcripts of their conversations, reported by Le Monde, has a particular resonance today. The men discussed how to motivate one member of the cell who was reluctant to participate in the forthcoming attack. None had an obvious solution. “Call O,” suggested one.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s June issue: Bronwen Maddox lays out the case for Britain to stay in Europe—the position taken by the magazine. Mikhail Gorbachev explains his hopes for Russia, suggesting that the claim democracy is bad for Russia is “balderdash.” Rachel Sylvester looks at the Conservative Party and explores what might happen to the Tories after the EU referendum. Also in this issue: Nicholas Shaxson and Alex Cobham unpick the world of hidden money and what Britain can do about tax havens. Neil Kinnock argues that Labour isn’t making progress under Jeremy Corbyn and Jason Burke examines Islamic State and the networks that underpin their attacks. Plus Stephen Bayley asks was BritArt any good?