Tag Archives: Salah Abdeslam

A fanciful government story on international terrorism and Jobbik

Yesterday a newly revived internet news site, zoom.hu, published a “sensational” news item. Information received from an unnamed person with close government ties revealed that Salah Abdeslam, the man behind the Paris terrorist attack of November 13, 2015, in addition to the three trips he made to Budapest between August 30 and September 17, 2015, visited Hungary a fourth time in the middle of January 2016, two months before his arrest in Brussels. During this visit Abdeslam allegedly conducted negotiations with members of a far-right Hungarist group called Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal (Hungarian National Front/MNA). I covered the October 2016 shooting incident connected to MNA that took a Hungarian police officer’s life. The head of the group, István Győrkös, wanting to prevent the policeman’s entry into his house, shot him dead. As you can well imagine, a story that connects “migrant terrorism” with a home-grown group that allegedly had ties to Jobbik is hot stuff, especially for pro-government media outlets.

In December 2015, when Belgian authorities discovered that Abdeslam had visited Hungary, it was clear to me that the Hungarian secret services knew nothing first-hand about his presence in Hungary. He came and left three times without anyone noticing it. Most of what the Hungarian police, the anti-terrorist organization, and the national security offices subsequently learned about his movements in Hungary came from Belgian and later French sources.

Abdeslam’s first trip on August 30 was uneventful. His two comrades arrived in Hungary and phoned him to come pick them up. He arrived with legal Belgian papers and brought two fake Belgian IDs for the new arrivals. They got into a car and headed west without any trouble. Practically nothing is known about his second trip. But the Hungarians unearthed quite a bit of information about his third trip, in September 2o15, for the simple reason that the three newly arrived terrorists, who later all died in the Bataclan terrorist attack, had to wait at least a week in Budapest for Abdeslam to pick them up.

In October 2016 Népszabadság reported that Hungarian authorities, working together with Belgian and French counterterrorist units and police forces, were seeking locals who had helped ten ISIS-trained terrorists hide in Hungary and who assisted them in reaching Belgium. The paper claimed that a number of people were actually arrested. Nothing was known about their number or their citizenship, and we learned nothing about them afterward. It may have been “fake news.”

Abdeslam’s name also came up a couple of days after he was arrested on March 18, 2016 in the Molenbeek area of Brussels. On March 23 the Austrian tabloid Kronen Zeitung published an article about a woman who claimed that she had seen Abdeslam with another Arabic-looking man in Café Harrer, a famous confectionary in Sopron. The Austrian woman reported this sighting to the Eisenstadt police station, but it seems that the Austrian police were not impressed. It is likely, however, that the Austrians did get in touch with the Hungarians, who also ignored the case.

The mysterious appearance of Abdeslam in Sopron is at the center of zoom.hu’s story. From the article an incredibly professional Hungarian national security service emerges, which was watching Abdeslam’s every move in close cooperation with its Austrian, German, Belgian, and French counterparts. The clever cops “didn’t even try to arrest Abdeslam, they only followed and watched him. They tried to find out the reason for his visit to Hungary. They documented all his meetings.”

Where Salah Abdeslam was allegedly spotted in Sopron

This excellent police work brought “staggering results.” Hungarian right-radicals had and perhaps still have contacts with international terrorists. An investigation is ongoing with the assistance of the other countries’ national security services. According to zoom.hu’s informant, while Abdeslam was talking with the leaders of Győrkös’s Hungarian National Front, “the Hungarian, Austrian, French, and Belgian authorities had time to organize and follow the French-Belgian terrorist’s every move.” But then, we must ask, why didn’t these national security services arrest him right there on the spot at the Café Harrer in Sopron? Gy. Attila Fekete, formerly of Népszabadság, who wrote the article, could find only one possible explanation for the delay. Perhaps they were hoping to find more associates by allowing Abdeslam to remain free. I must say that, given the danger a man like Abdeslam posed, such a strategy is pretty unimaginable.

But that’s not all. At the end of October 2016 the Hungarian police tried to enter István Győrkös’s house looking for weapons but, as the article points out, the police investigation into the Hungarian National Front had actually begun ten months before the fatal encounter between Győrkös and the police officer. How convenient. The article suggests that there is a direct relationship between Abdeslam’s fourth visit to Hungary on or around January 19 and the beginning of the investigation into Győrkös’s clandestine activities.

With this we arrive at cast-off Slovak weapons that had been legally deactivated but could easily be made usable again. Such weapons were used during the attack against Charlie Hebdo and in other terrorist attacks in France and Belgium. They also found their way to Hungary. For example, such weapons were found in the possession of the two older men who allegedly wanted to assassinate Viktor Orbán. Even Gy. Fekete calls their organization, Magyar Nemzeti Hadsereg (Hungarian National Army), a joke. At the time, in 2015, I even doubted that they wanted to kill Orbán. Their targets seemed to be Jews. In any case, the theory is that Abdeslam came to Hungary to negotiate the purchase of these deactivated but readily reusable weapons for his terrorist activities.

Of course, pro-government organs like Origo love the story. One of their journalists pointed out that Márton Gyöngyösi, an important Jobbik politician, was seen in the company of an MNA member and that Gábor Vona attended a public event in the company of Győrkös’s son. Moreover, the kind of weaponry used in the terrorist attacks, which was also in the possession of a Hungarian right-wing organization, is proof that there is a connection between international terrorism and Jobbik.

Pestisrácok.hu, however, seems to have more sense and suggests that the story someone dropped into Gy. Fekete’s lap may be nothing but a hoax.

One wonders what is behind this leaked material, which surely comes from government and/or national security sources. Gy. Fekete is a responsible journalist who must have gotten his information from a source that he considered to be credible. Is this part of Fidesz’s attempt to further discredit Jobbik by coupling its name with international terrorism? This is what the Origo article suggests. The story might get further embellished or it might be dropped, depending on its reception. For the time being there are skeptics even on the right of the political spectrum.

November 14, 2017

Terrorists in Hungary? Three days to the referendum

Who would have thought that almost a year after the Paris terrorist attacks the Hungarian media would be full of the old story of Salah Abdeslam, who made several trips to Hungary to pick up fellow conspirators returning from Syria? Abdeslam’s job was to travel to Greece, Italy, and Hungary to transport the terrorists who had taken advantage of the mass migration from Turkey and northern Africa.

The Hungarian anti-terrorist unit knew nothing about the trips Abdeslam made to Hungary until the Belgian federal prosecutor announced on December 4, 2015 that Abdeslam had twice gone to the Hungarian capital sometime before September 9, where he picked up two men whom he supplied with fake Belgian IDs. The two men were subsequently identified as Mohamed Belkaïd and Najim Laachraoui, both killed in the police raid following the terrorist attack at the Brussels Airport. This bare bones story was then embellished in Budapest thanks to the combined efforts of the Hungarian secret police, the incompetent MSZP chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, and members of the Hungarian government. It became a tale of high drama, serving the government’s anti-refugee propaganda. The most unreliable story came from János Lázár, who tried to convince the public that Abdeslam “visited the Keleti station, where he recruited a team from among those who refused to be registered.” Oh, yes, this is precisely how one collects instant terrorists.

Since early December of last year we heard almost nothing about Abdeslam’s trips to Hungary. Then yesterday Magyar Idők, after receiving a hot tip, offered a new take on the old story. It was in Budapest, they wrote, that the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks were hatched.

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From the style of Magyar Idők’s article it is pretty clear that the paper received the information it made public yesterday straight from TEK and other secret service agencies, most likely on the order of the “propaganda ministry” of Antal Rogán. The Hungarian authorities know about three trips Abdeslam made between August 30 and September 17, but the paper gives details only of the first and the last trip.

During the first trip on August 30 Abdeslam picked up Bilal Hadfi, who later died in the attack at Stade de France, and Chakib Akrouh, who was killed during the police raid in Saint-Denis. The two crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border and moved on to Kiskőrös, where they purchased cell phones that they allegedly left behind. The Hungarian authorities claim that they later found these cell phones and “ascertained that on the basis on the information available on them it was the Islamic State’s Syrian center that directed the operation.” This meeting, like the others, was organized to provide fake ID cards or passports to the arrivals and to transport them to Belgium and later to France.

Magyar Idők describes Abdeslam’s third visit to Budapest in a separate article, the title of which is enticing: “The Paris mass murderers were waiting and organizing in Budapest,” giving the false impression that the details of the Paris attacks were worked out in the Hungarian capital. According to the Hungarian sources, Abdeslam arrived on September 17. His co-conspirators–Omar Mostefai, Samy Amimour, and Foued Mohamed-Aggad, who all died in the Bataclan terrorist attack–had been waiting for him for at least a week. Shortly after Abdeslam got to Budapest, he turned around and drove the newly arrived terrorists westward, most likely to Belgium.

Magyar Idők says nothing about the second trip, but I assume it occurred shortly before September 9, as the Belgian federal prosecutor stated. Thus, seven terrorists who subsequently were involved in the French and Belgian terrorist attacks traveled through Hungary.

Szilárd Németh, the Fidesz deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, announced his decision to call the committee members together to look at the documents the national security authorities have on Abdeslam’s visits to Hungary. While he was at it, Németh said that the secret service should also investigate those civic organizations that are being financed by George Soros because some of the Hungarian NGOs are mentioned by name on the DC Leaks site. Some of these so-called independent organizations are actually heavily involved in anti-government activities, he claimed.

At first blush it would seem that dredging up this old story serves no purpose save to frighten the population further and boost turnout for the referendum. But Népszabadság learned that a new investigation is underway. The paper was told that in the last few days Belgian and French anti-terrorist units have been working with TEK, the police, and members of the prosecutor’s office in Budapest in search of local connections to the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. Apparently, they are looking for people who in 2015 assisted at least ten terrorist suspects to escape detection in Budapest and who were instrumental in smuggling them abroad. The authorities naturally are tight-mouthed about the investigation, which has been going on for weeks. But the paper seems to know that the French-Belgian-Hungarian investigative team identified and arrested several people who “belonged to Abdeslam’s circle and who were responsible for the travel arrangements of other Islamic terrorists recently [közelmúltban],” which indicates that the cases might be of recent vintage. This information was later reaffirmed by György Bakondi, Viktor Orbán’s personal adviser on domestic security.

I wonder how much we will ever learn about these alleged new developments. The parliamentary committees concerned with national security and police affairs have not yet been informed of the ongoing investigation. And whatever information the government shares with the public will undoubtedly be received with a large dose of well-founded skepticism. The Hungarian public is already suspicious of the timing of the information leaked by Magyar Idők as well as the release of select details of the super-secret French-Belgian-Hungarian investigation.

September 29, 2016

Recruiting terrorists in Budapest among the refugees: The Hungarian version

Those of you who subscribe to Google Alerts must have noticed that practically all English, German, and French articles on Hungary in the last few days dealt with a trip that Salah Abdeslam, the suspected organizer of the Paris terrorist attacks, made to Budapest. There he picked up two men who later had a role to play in the Paris bloodbath. The revelation of the Hungarian connection made headlines because it “put the spotlight on the question of whether jihadist militants have concealed themselves in a huge flow of asylum seekers passing through Eastern Europe.”

What do we know about this trip with a fair amount of certainty? The Belgian federal prosecutor announced on Friday that Salah Abdeslam had made two trips to the Hungarian capital in a rented Mercedes Benz, but only one trip is mentioned in the articles dealing with this particular part of the investigation. According to the reconstructed story, Abdeslam traveled to Budapest sometime before September 9, where he picked up two men whom he supplied with fake Belgian IDs in the names of Samir Bouzid and Soufiane Kayal. We know that at on September 9, at the Austro-Hungarian border, the Austrian police checked their travel documents, but it was a routine affair: after all, on the basis of their papers they were all EU citizens. We also know that the three men headed toward Brussels because on November 17, at the Western Union office in Brussels, “Bouzid” transferred 740 euros to Hasna Aitboulahcen, the French woman who was killed by security forces in St.-Denis. “Kayal” was also in Belgium because his ID card was used to rent a house in Auvelais, a town south of Brussels.

Initial media reports claimed that the two men had been killed in the police raids in St.-Denis, but the information was incorrect. They are on the run and “believed to be armed and dangerous.” The Belgian police have released the two men’s pictures.

So, let’s see how this bare bones story was transformed in Budapest thanks to the combined efforts of the Hungarian secret services (which may include TEK, the anti-terrorist force), the incompetent MSZP head of the parliamentary committee on national security, and the members of the Hungarian government.

Pesti Srácok, the strongly right-wing mouthpiece of Fidesz, was the first to discover the story, and its reporters got in touch with Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), chairman of the committee on national security. People who are unfamiliar with the Hungarian parliamentary structure may wonder why an opposition MP is chairing a parliamentary committee. By tradition the head of this particular committee always comes from the opposition. Unfortunately, Molnár is not the sharpest knife in the drawer; moreover, there is some suspicion about his relations with Fidesz.

Here is the story that emerged from Pesti Srácok‘s description of the interview with Molnár, who naturally only repeated what he had heard from representatives of the secret services. Molnár found the timing of Abdeslam’s trip to Budapest no coincidence. “It was at the time when Germany and Austria opened their borders to the refugees, who could thus cross the borders without any control. It was this situation that Abdeslam and his two companions took advantage of.”

Let’s stop right here for a second. First, we ought to note the implicit accusation that the culprits are Germany and Austria, the two countries that opened their borders. Perhaps if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t have had a terror attack in Paris. Second, Abdeslam, Bouzid, and Kayal didn’t have to register. Abdeslam had a valid Belgian passport and the other two had fake Belgian IDs that it seems no one questioned. So they weren’t taking advantage of the opening of the borders to refugees. Molnár also informed Pesti Srácok that the Austrians had registered them, which “could have happened easily since they didn’t have to show any identification.” Of course, no one registered them. The Austrians stopped the car at the border crossing and, after seeing the Belgian documents, let them continue their journey undisturbed. “The whole affair points to the weakness of the Schengen border defenses, the lack of registration, and the absence of a common European anti-terrorist service.” Yes, the third is a problem, but the first two alleged weaknesses are irrelevant to this case.

Molnár also revealed that TEK, which only learned about Abdeslam’s visit to Budapest from western sources, suddenly discovered that “Abdeslam had been recognized at the Keleti Station.” I assume this is not what Molnár actually wanted to say. Rather, in the last few days some aid workers who were at the Keleti Station seemed to remember him once they were shown his picture. Such identifications are always suspect. Thousands and thousands went through the Keleti Station, and it is highly unlikely that anyone actually remembered him. Moreover, as you will see, I doubt that Abdeslam hung around for any length of time at the station, if he was there at all.

The official Hungarian government version came from János Lázár on Thursday, December 3. The first thing that caught my eye was the following sentence: “The chief organizer of the Paris terror attacks according to our knowledge and supposition did visit the Keleti Station, and there he recruited a team from among those who refused to be registered. He left the country with them.” For starters, we either know something or simply suppose something, not both at the same time. Second, the very idea that Abdeslam went to the crowd that camped out at the station and “recruited” would-be assassins is too bizarre for words. Only a few days ago a story surfaced about two migrants in Germany who turned out to be fighting on the side of ISIS and who were caught because their fellow asylum seekers reported them to the authorities. So, I can well imagine what would have happened to Abdeslam if he stood in the middle of the crowd in Budapest trying to entice people to blow themselves up in Paris. Third, by that time Lázár had to know that Abdeslam left Hungary with only two men, yet he talked about “a team.”

Zoltán Kovács and János Lázár announcing the government version of the recruitment of terrorists in Budapest

Zoltán Kovács and János Lázár announcing the recruitment of terrorists in Budapest

The Associated Press picked up Lázár’s description of Abdeslam’s trip to Budapest, which naturally included his presence at the railroad station. However, the AP chronology doesn’t seem to support TEK’s and Lázár’s claim about Abdeslam’s presence at the station. Let me quote the appropriate passages:

Thousands of refugees had congregated at Keleti over the summer, seeking to board trains bound for Austria and Germany. The situation escalated after Sept. 1, when Hungarian authorities temporarily shut down the station as the flow of migrants grew difficult to control.

This led to protests by migrants, many of whom had valid tickets, demanding to be let on the trains. On Sept. 4, thousands began walking on a highway to Vienna. The Hungarian government then began sending migrants at the station and those on the highway to the Austrian border by bus.

May I remind everybody that Abdeslam and his two companions crossed the border on September 9. By that time trains regularly took asylum seekers to the Austro-Hungarian border where Austrian buses were waiting for them.

Perhaps one day we will learn about this trip in greater detail, but I suspect that the real story went something like this: the two men, perhaps Belgian nationals returning from Syria, got in touch with Abdeslam as soon as they arrived in an EU country, in this case Hungary. Abdeslam showed up in Budapest with the fake IDs and picked them up. And from there it was an easy trip to Belgium. The chain of events was most likely that simple.