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Earlier today, an Iraqi military statement made public that the Iraqi government had provided coordinates to Bashar al-Assad’s air force, via the intelligence-sharing cell set up in Baghdad with Russia and Iran, for targets in Raqqa and al-Bukamal. One of the targets was Boubaker al-Hakim, a French-Tunisian Islamic State (IS) operative. Whether the Syrian regime’s strikes against al-Hakim were successful was not made clear. The interest here is that the U.S. announced on 10 December 2016 that it had killed al-Hakim in an airstrike near Raqqa on 26 November 2016, meaning that either the U.S. was mistaken or the Iraqis are. Al-Hakim is a very interesting figure in his own right with an extensive history in the jihadist movement and also highlights some broader trends, notably the assistance the Assad regime has provided to the IS movement.
Al-Hakim, of Tunisian background, was born in August 1983 in the nineteenth arrondissement of Paris, in the north-east of the city, and in his late teens fell under the spell of a jihadist recruiter, Farid Benyettou, with whom he developed a close relationship.
This network—and al-Hakim—gained some notoriety after the 7 January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo. Benyettou had recruited Chérif Kouachi (Abu Issen) at the Addawa mosque in 1990s, who with his brother, Saïd, had stormed the offices of the satirical magazine and murdered its staff. The Kouachis’ attack was the work of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but they had coordinated with Amedy Coulibaly, who carried out a concurrent attack on a Jewish Hypercacher in the name of IS. Al-Hakim was a mentor to the Kouachi brothers, and at least “monitored” the movement of Hayat Boumeddiene, Coulibaly’s wife, from France through Spain to IS-held areas of Syria.
A decade-and-a-half earlier, Benyettoi’s recruitment network—the Buttes-Chaumont cell—was run out of nineteenth arrondissement and sent fighters to IS’s predecessor organization in Iraq. Al-Hakim went to Iraq for the first time in July 2002, and went four more times. Whether al-Hakim was recruited by Assad’s mukhabarat is unclear, but Assad’s secret police facilitated al-Hakim’s travel into Iraq to join IS in January 2003, one service among many that Assad’s mukhabarat provided to thousands of IS jihadists over the next decade. Al-Hakim was interviewed while at a training camp in Iraq—quite possibly the famous Rawa camp—by The Associated Press, and made a specific mention of Benyettou (or Abu Abdallah) and called on others from the nineteenth arrondissement to come to Iraq. This was a short visit to Iraq, after which al-Hakim went back to France. In March 2003, al-Hakim returned to Damascus and joined the legion of foreign fighters that Assad had gathered to send into Iraq to defend Saddam Husayn during the invasion. After the fall of the Saddam tyranny, it was with the help of the old regime and their jihadi collaborators that al-Hakim managed to get back to Syria and then to France.
Benyettou retained spiritual leadership of the jihadi cell in the nineteenth arrondissement, but al-Hakim now had a store of credit from his war in Mesopotamia and he became a key figure in sending jihadists to the IS movement, particularly to Fallujah after the insurgency captured it in 2004. Al-Hakim would himself follow this pipeline between the nineteenth arrondissement and Fallujah, with his brother Redouane al-Hakim, in March 2004. Redouane was killed in Fallujah on 17 July 2004. Boubaker got out of the city in August 2004 and was arrested after he returned to Syria. Al-Hakim was deported to France on 3 May 2005 and officially arrested there three days later, along with Mohammed al-Ayouni.
Al-Hakim’s arrest effectively collapsed the Syrian end of the Buttes-Chaumont facilitation network, though this did not end the flow of foreign fighters. Cherif was arrested with Thamer Bouchnak in January 2005 as they tried to board a plane for Syria. Bouchnak had previously travelled to Syria in July 2004, but did not get to Iraq; instead he studied at the Abi Nur mosque run by Ahmad Kaftaru, Assad’s Grand Mufti who had called for a jihad as Coalition forces crossed into Iraq in March 2003. Bouchnak had given up on jihad in Iraq, gone back to France, and performed the pilgrimage to Mecca. It was Benyettou who pushed Bouchnak to retry joining IS in Iraq.
In prison, Cherif would come under the guidance of Djamel Beghal (Abu Hamza), who had connections with the Finsbury Park mosque in London and had tried to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris in 2001. Upon release, Cherif retained contact with Beghal—getting involved in a Beghal-led plot to break Smaïn Aït Ali Belkacem, convicted of the 1995 subway bombings, out of prison—and came into contact with an even more dangerous man, Salim Benghalem, currently a very senior operative in IS’s foreign intelligence service, the Amn al-Kharji, that has guided so many of the foreign terrorist attacks. Benghalem and al-Hakim have worked closely together on IS’s external operations.
In March 2008, after a lengthy trial, al-Hakim and a number of others from the Buttes-Chaumont cell were convicted of terrorism offences. Benyettou was sentenced to six years in prison for his role in recruiting terrorists; al-Hakim and Said Abdellah, a recruiting agent, were sentenced to seven years because of their operational role in recruiting terrorists; Bouchnak, Cherif, and al-Ayouni were given three years each; and Nacer Mettai was sentenced to four years for forging documents to facilitate terrorism.
Al-Hakim was released in January 2011, and soon went to Tunisia. As part of the amnesties in the wake of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s overthrow, some Salafist, Islamist, and jihadist prisoners were released. One such was Sayfullah Benhassine (Abu Iyad), the former leader of al-Qaeda’s Groupe Islamiste Combattant Tunisien (Tunisian Islamic Fighting Group or GICT). Benhassine immediately began organizing the rebranded al-Qaeda presence, Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia (AST), and al-Hakim was tasked with developing its military wing. AST led the attack on the U.S. Embassy in September 2012.
Al-Hakim joined IS in 2013, and has been personally implicated in the assassinations in July 2013 of two Leftist politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, which was claimed by IS and nearly derailed Tunisia’s democratic experiment. When exactly al-Hakim migrated from Tunisia to Syria is unclear, though it can be assumed to be soon after this as the state cracked down.
Once in the caliphate, al-Hakim formed part of a cadre of French-speaking jihadists—his friend Benghalem and the Belgians Najim Laachraoui and Abdelhamid Abaaoud are prominent examples—that gathered around Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer) in Aleppo as the early groundwork for IS was being laid in Syria, and who were later trusted enough to be made part of the amniyat, the security apparatus. Benghalem, Laachraoui, and Mehdi Nemmouche—the attacker at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014, one of the first IS foreign attacks—were prison guards in Aleppo in 2013, for example. The amniyat eventually evolved and specialized into various branches, among them Amn al-Kharji, into which all these men would move. The head of Amn al-Kharji was—and perhaps still is—a Frenchman, Abdelilah Himich (Abu Sulayman al-Firansi), though the final approval of foreign attacks rested with Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani). Falaha was, by the time he was killed in August, the caliph’s deputy, the IS governor of Syria, and IS’s official spokesman, a personal testament to the importance of IS’s media apparatus and the “mission creep” of that department in IS’s workings. Al-Hakim was connected to Falaha.