The Olympian and the Terrorist: A Story of Two Belgian Brothers
SPOTLIGHT, 25 Jul 2016
The older brother detonated a bomb at the Brussels airport. The younger one is representing his country at the Olympic Games in Rio. The story of two Belgian siblings who long ago parted ways.
20 Jul 2016 – He was standing in the laboratory of his university, tightening a screw on a crane made of plastic parts when a fellow student passed his smart phone over to him. “Take a look.” A breaking news alert was on the screen: “Explosion at Brussels-Zaventem Airport.” It was the morning of March 22. The skies were gray and it was 7 degrees Celsius.
The airport is located only a few kilometers away from the Haute Ècole, the College for Business and Technology where Mourad Laachraoui studies. Other students in the class began grabbing their smart phones from their bags. Breaking news: Deaths reported in explosion. Breaking news: The authorities believe it was an attack.
Mourad had been hoping to go to practice later that day, but at around midday that the next breaking news flashed onto his screen. One of the four bombers had been identified, it said. The man was 24 years old. Then Mourad read the name: Najim Laachraoui.
At that moment, there was a further explosion — inside Mourad’s head.
At first he didn’t say anything to the other students. But they too had already read the alert. “Hey, Mourad,” one of the students in the lab shouted. “He has your name — is it a cousin perhaps?” It was intended as a joke.
This is how Mourad Laachraoui tells the story. He has taken a seat in a restaurant in Brussels on a sunny day in May, two months after the attack that killed 35 and injured over 300. Mourad is wearing a gray cardigan and a white shirt. His black hair is shorn on the sides and long and thick on top. When you shake his hand, you notice the long scar on the back of it. He’s a taekwondo fighter, a member of the Belgian national team and a few years ago he broke his metacarpal bone during a match. “I first noticed after the fight,” Mourad says, “because my glove was full of blood.”
‘It Was Unimaginable’
It took several weeks before he agreed to this meeting and it has been agreed that the interview can be stopped at any time, but he answers all the questions. When the topic moves to that of his older brother, Najim Laachraoui, the suicide bomber, his voice changes and he begins biting his fingernails. “We had an extremely difficult time in the past weeks — my parents, my two small brothers and me. In the past, when something bad happened in my life, I was always able to quickly suppress and forget about it. But this here is different. It was unimaginable to me that my brother could do something like this.” Mourad pauses and clears his throat. “We were advised to change our last name. But that’s no solution either. It is my name, the name of my father.”
The story of Mourad and Najim Laachraoui is one of two brothers who parted ways long ago. One is competing for Belgium at taekwondo matches and will soon be traveling to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The other detonated a nail bomb on March 22 on behalf of Islamic State (IS) at the Brussels airport.
How could it have come to this? Why didn’t he notice anything? These are questions Mourad was supposed to answer just two days after the attacks. As a well-known athlete, he had to give a press conference. But he didn’t have any answers — no explanation or even words. “I hadn’t had the time yet to grasp everything. But I had no other choice — I had to do it. The questions had to stop.”
But will the questions ever stop?
Two hours after the meeting at the restaurant, Mourad is training in a gymnasium in southern Brussels. Dancehall and hip hop music pound from the speakers and the smell of sweat lingers in the air. He’s fighting a fellow member of the national team. In taekwondo, only hits to the upper body and the head of the opponent count. With each of his attacks, Mourad groans like a tennis player.
Leonardo Gambluch leans on the wall bars next to the mat. He calls out “Keep your hands up, guys!” Gambluch, a 42-year-old with a round face and designer stubble, is Argentinian. He’s Mourad’s coach, but since March, he’s actually been a lot more than that: He has served as his protector, psychologist and spokesman. Gambluch says he told Mourad two things after the attacks. First, “No one can choose his brother.” Second: “You have to get back to training as quickly as possible.”
Five days after the bombings, Mourad could once again be found standing in front of a life-sized rubber dummy inside the gymnasium. The dummies are used in taekwondo training and the guys call them “Bob.” On that day, “Bob” had to withstand quite a few blows. He took a two-hours long drubbing at the hands of Mourad. There were side kicks, elbow strikes and jump kicks. “He beat his negative emotions right out of himself, like a wild man,” says coach Gambluch. “After that he was quiet — it was good for him.”
Growing Up with Taekwondo
Mourad and Najim Laachraoui grew up together in the same house in the Brussels’ Schaerbeek neighborhood, which is home to a large number of immigrants. Their father, who came from Morocco, loves films with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. He didn’t want his sons loitering on the streets, so he sent them to taekwondo. “The sport was my upbringing,” says Mourad. “You always had to be on time, you had to respect the rules and that became part of my life.”
Taekwondo isn’t just about beating your opponent. The sport demands that its fighters devote themselves to values like integrity and fairness. Taekwondo offers training for life. It worked with Mourad, but not with Najim.
Mourad began competing at the age of 14. Najim, who was already 18 by then, had quit the sport. He grew a goatee and stopped shaking hands with women. He often visited the Ettaouba d’Evere Mosque in northern Brussels, where he became radicalized, as indicated in court documents from a case in which Najim Laachraoui had been tried in absentia in connection with 30 other jihadists.
“He read books about contemporary politics,” says Mourad, “but also books by Victor Hugo. We didn’t see each other as often anymore because I was often at practice. But when we did meet at home, there was always something to laugh about. He was not at all unhappy. He lived well and had no problems.”
Najim enrolled in college in 2011 and chose electromechanics as his major, the same area of study pursued by Mourad today. Najim worked as a cleaner in the European Parliament and later got a job as a temporary worker on the taxiway of the same airport where he would detonate a bomb years later. He had contact with a Moroccan who recruited followers for the jihadist fight in the notorious Molenbeek neighborhood. On Feb. 17, 2013, Najim boarded a flight from Brussels to Antalya, Turkey. A day later he called his parents from a Syrian telephone number. Two weeks after that, his father went to the police to report that his son had traveled to Syria.
There, Najim joined an Islamist group and lived north of Aleppo, fighting for IS on the front. Later he was promoted to oversee hostages, guarding journalists who had been captured by the terrorists. Some former hostages would later report that Najim had been less brutal than others, but that he “wouldn’t have delayed for a second if someone had ordered him to perform an execution.”
Najim once posted from Syria on Twitter that, “Muslims live in a situation of total war.” Belgian justice authorities issued an international arrest warrant for him in March 2014.
“We were afraid for him,” Mourad says. He attempted to contact his brother, but he was no longer able to find him on Facebook. Every now and then, Najim would get in touch with his father, but it was always from a different telephone number.
‘You Weren’t the One with the Bomb’
In 2015, Najim returned to Belgium with an assignment. He was to kill as many people as possible in the name of IS. He rented a house in the small town of Auvelais, which became the base of a new terrorist cell that was to rock Europe. Najim was part of the group that perpetrated the attacks on Paris last fall. He had been trained as an explosives expert in Syria and investigators found his DNA on bombs that were detonated in the November 13 attacks in Paris — one in front of the football stadium in the suburb of Saint-Denis and the other in the Bataclan concert hall.
He also lived in Brussels again and prepared the bombs for the March 22 attack in a building in the Schaerbeek district. The apartment was located only 400 meters away from the college that Mourad attends.
Mourad says he last saw his brother in 2013. Did he know he had been living in Brussels again? “I didn’t know that. We didn’t know anything at all until the attack,” says Mourad.
His own brother lived in the same part of town without him ever realizing it or running across him on the street? Mourad is now fighting back tears. “Even if you run into each other, you can’t always know what the other is currently up to.”
As Najim planned the attacks, Mourad was busy traveling around the world from tournament to tournament. He competed in Russia, the United Arab Emirates and South Korea. In Reno, he won the US Open, even posting a picture of his gold medal on Facebook. He wrote: “It was great, but I will be even better next week in Montreal. Inshallah.”
Then came March 22. Shortly before 8 a.m., Najim Laachraoui and his accomplices Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and Mohamed Abrini entered the airport, pushing the suitcase bombs on baggage carts in front of them. El-Bakraoui was the first to detonate his bomb. Witness reports and footage from security cameras suggest that Najim attempted to run between the fleeing people, but his suitcase rolled off the cart and exploded earlier than planned. Abrini, the third perpetrator, fled, leaving behind his undetonated bomb.
A few minutes later their accomplice Khalid El-Bakraoui blew himself up inside a train at the Maelbeek Metro station.
It is often siblings who perpetrate Islamist attacks. Wail and Waleed al-Shehri hijacked a plane together used to crash into the World Trade Center Building on Sept. 11, 2001; Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev planted bombs in 2013 during the Boston Marathon; and Saïd and Chérif Kouachi stormed the editorial offices of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015. All were brothers — both in life and in their hatred of the West. IS recruits most of its new fighters from the circles of friends and families of the jihadists.
This poses a problem for Mourad, who must not only accept that his brother turned into a monster, but must also prove to the world that he isn’t one himself. For the past four months, he has been telling people that he isn’t dangerous, that he does not carry any anger in him. He knows he will likely have to do so for the rest of his life.
In the weeks after the attack, a few students from Mourad’s university avoided him. No one verbally hassled him, but he could sense the glances and whispering. The police sent an email to his instructors and professors asking that they make sure that Mourad wasn’t harassed.
‘We Had To Protect Him’
Mourad says that the bombs were never an issue at practice and that people had stood by him. “It’s like a family,” he says. For Mourad, the sport is a sanctuary and Gambluch, his coach, had long conversations with Mourad. “I told him: None of this was your fault. You weren’t the one with the bomb. You’re the opposite — you’re one of the best athletes in this country and you are a role model for society.” He says Mourad understood him. “He’s a smart guy, he listens.”
Gambluch is a coach who cares about more than just winning. When he travels to competitions around the world with Mourad, he makes sure that they see more than just sports centers. In Alexandria they visited the library, in Luxor the temple and in Mexico the Teotihuacán sun pyramid. Afterwards they would always discuss the places together.
After the attacks, Gambluch read articles and comments where some tried to hold Mourad’s family accountable for Najim’s crime. Gambluch was afraid that someone who had lost a family member in the bombing might seek revenge against Mourad. He organized transportation for Mourad, with the father of a teammate taking him to and from practice. For a while, he no longer allowed his charge to travel by tram. “We had to protect him,” Gambluch says, “and he had to protect himself.”
Mourad created a new Facebook page that included only photos from training and meets and nothing personal. A short time ago, he wrote on the page: “Taekwondo taught me how to respect other human beings.” He also posted a small red heart as well as a photo of him hugging his opponent after a fight.
This is his way of distancing himself from his brother without demonizing him.
A ‘Strange Feeling’
It’s difficult for Mourad to travel around Brussels. Soldiers with machine guns patrol streets in the city — he can see them on the street corners, in train stations and in shopping centers — and he knows that his brother is responsible. At the airport as on the way to international competitions, Mourad says a “strange feeling” creeps over him. Many areas have been closed since the attack and there are fences all over the place, covered in black tarps. Inside the terminal, plywood walls separate the site of the attack from the rest of the building. Mourad always tries to make his way to his check-in counter as quickly as possible.
It’s mid-May and Mourad has traveled to Montreux, Switzerland, for the European Championships. Around 400 athletes from 47 countries are competing in the Salle Omnisports du Pierrier arena. Mourad looks pale. He has hardly eaten anything in the run-up to the tournament so that he can compete in his weight class. He’s 1.8 meters (5’11” inches) tall and had to starve himself down to 54 kilograms (119 pounds).
It’s Mourad’s first competition since the attack. The Belgian flag has been affixed to his taekwondo uniform; his challenger is from Moldova. A taekwondo fight has three rounds, and during the breaks Mourad’s coach presses a bag of ice into his neck. He wins 4:3 before biting into an energy bar. Mourad is in good form and also wins his subsequent bouts. By evening, he manages to make it into the final, eight weeks after the bombings.
Has he since come up with an explanation for his brother’s actions?
“I have thought a lot about it, but not much has come of it,” Mourad says. “I don’t know what happened and I probably never will.”
In the stands of Montreux arena, fans shout, “Belgium, hey! Belgium, hey!” as Mourad dons his red helmet. His opponent in the final is from Spain. During the first two rounds, the fighters feel each other out, circling like tigers. There are few strikes and no points. During the third round, the Spaniard attempts a spin kick, but Mourad is able to avert it by swinging to the side. “Go on the offensive,” Gambluch calls out from next to the matt. A kick. Mourad hits the Spaniard in the head with his foot. The score is 3:0. With 30 seconds to go, Mourad manages another strike to the head, and the Spaniard staggers. The clock is ticking, with only four seconds to go. Mourad begins running — away from the Spaniard until the time runs out.
The score is 6:3 and Mourad has done it — he has become the European champion.
He roars and then hops over to Gambluch and embraces him. Tears are running down the coach’s cheeks. Their pent up emotions come pouring out.
During the medal ceremony, Mourad closes his eyes as the Belgian national anthem is played. He flashes his gold medal for the cameras, signs autographs and gives interviews. He says he is dedicating his victory to his family.
In a few weeks, Mourad will travel to Rio de Janeiro to the Olympic Games, even though it is unlikely he will compete for any medals. Only four of the eight weight classes in taekwondo are part of the Olympic competition and Mourad’s is not among them. But as a sparring partner, he is still part of the Belgian team and he has also been nominated as a substitute should anyone on the team be injured.
Mourad says that he has often asked himself in the past several weeks if he is allowed to cry for Najim — for a man who brought so much suffering to others, but who was his brother nonetheless. Mourad pauses for a moment before saying, “Yes, I have grieved for him and i still haven’t overcome the sadness.”
Is he angry with Najim?
“No. It’s terrible what he did, but I am mostly angry at the people who led him to do it.”
Does he miss Najim?
“I miss him as a brother. But I do not miss him for what he did.”
Mourad has decided that he will continue to love his brother while at the same time scorning him as a murderer. But he doesn’t yet know if that will work.
With reporting by Petra Truckendanner.
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