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memri
November 30, 2018 No.
1426

The Yasmine Atid Affair: Belgian Child's Custody At The Center Of Political And Ideological Conflicts Among Syrian Rebel Factions

By: MEMRI JTTM Staff

 

The following report is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here.
 

Introduction

On November 26, 2018, four-year-old Yasmine Atid and her mother Hajar Chaoui from Brussels, were reunited in Turkey, after a Shari'a court in the Idlib province of Syria ruled in favor of the mother, who had sued to regain custody of her daughter. This report sheds light on the Yasmine Atid affair, beginning with her kidnapping by her father in 2017, and clarifying events that placed her at the center of political and ideological conflicts among Syrian rebels in the last main pocket of resistance to the Assad regime.


Mehdi Atid with his daughter Yasmine in Syria

Four-year-old Yasmine Atid was kidnapped from her mother in Brussels, Belgium and taken to Syria by her father, Mehdi Atid, in May 2017. Mehdi Atid, who was on probation at the time and wearing an ankle monitor, joined the Firqat Al-Ghuraba (FG), Al-Qaeda-aligned, French-speaking fighters under the command of Omar Omsen aka Omar Diaby, a French-Senegalese national. Diaby is listed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the U.S. State Department, under Executive Order (E.O.) 13224.[1] The entire affair is colored by the personality of Diaby, a charismatic Al-Qaeda member who is best-known for his prolific production of French videos which preach Al-Qaeda ideology and have been instrumental in the recruitment of dozens of French-speaking jihadi fighters.[2]

The FG group is based in North Syria near Harim in the Idlib Governorate, and has sent its fighters to the frontline to participate in battles alongside other rebel forces. FG fighters took part in combat missions under the general command of the Al-Qaeda-aligned Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), allied to other Syrian rebel groups. Several FG fighters were killed in action,[3] and such was the fate of Mehdi Atid, who died shortly after he arrived in Syria in December 2017.


Notice announcing the disappearance of Mehdi Atid and daughter Yasmine

The Father's Will

Upon her father's death, Yasmine remained with the members of FG, under the guardianship of Diaby, as her father had requested in his will. An eight-minute audio message, which was presented to the Shari'a court, features the voice of Mehdi Atid aka Jundallah reciting his will so that a recording would survive him should he be killed in combat. Most of the message concerns his daughter Yasmine, to whom he addresses some of what he says. The will clearly states that Mehdi Atid entrusts the guardianship of his daughter to Diaby, to be raised in Syria among the jihadi fighters. He states that should he die he wishes his death to remain secret, and not to be publicized as is customary for martyred members of jihadi groups, to prevent his ex-wife from attempting to regain custody of their daughter. He claims that the mother is an unbeliever, stating: "I educated you [Yasmine], I protected you from unbelief. You know you have no mother, because your mother was an enemy of Islam, she was fighting Islam and she did everything to make you stray into idolatry. And I took you here in blessed lands, in lands of Islam." These claims made in the father's will were the main arguments cited by Diaby when he refused to surrender the child to her mother after her father's death.

Mehdi Atid's will was kept secret until November 26, 2018, the day when Yasmine was released. The poignant, tearful declaration of the father, praying that his daughter not be sent back to her mother, was made public by the members of FG and distributed on Telegram.[4] The audio message may have been released to exonerate Diaby to jihadi supporters. Indeed, Diaby had been portrayed as a kidnapper by supporters of opposing factions and by the media, due to his refusal to send the girl back to her mother and the reports of the extortion that he subjected her to. As far as jihadi supporters are concerned, the claims made by the father that Yasmine's mother is an unbeliever and an "enemy of Islam" are clear justifications for Diaby's behavior, including the extortion.


Yasmine's father, Mehdi Atid, in a video released by Firqat Al-Ghuraba

Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham Shari'a Court Ruling

In August 2018, Western news sources[5] reported on the efforts made by Yasmine's mother, with the help of Belgian Intelligence and in collaboration with Turkish Intelligence, to negotiate the return of her daughter. These efforts led to the case being referred to an HTS-controlled Shari'a court in Idlib. The Shari'a court ruled in favor of the mother, ordering Diaby, the emir of FG, to send the child back to Belgium. During the weeks of the trial Diaby leaked details of the court proceedings, for which he was imprisoned, allegedly for disobeying the judge's order not to disclose such details until the final decision was rendered.[6] The arrest may have also been linked to the release of a video produced by FG, depicting Eid Al-Fitr celebrations in its camp,[7] which featured a few seconds of footage showing Yasmine Atid, dressed up and wearing makeup for the occasion.[8] These were the last images of the girl which were made available by FG, and their release triggered her mother's public demand via Western news agencies that the jihadi group release her daughter.


Yasmine Atid in a screenshot from a video released by Firqat Al-Ghuraba on July 28, 2018

Diaby's Arrests By HTS

Diaby's first arrest by HTS should be understood in the context of the growing tensions between the jihadi groups in Syria aligned with Al-Qaeda's global jihadi agenda, and the HTS leadership, which is supported by Turkey and moving toward a nationalist agenda.[9] Since its inception, Tandhim Hurras Al-Din (THD) has claimed the leadership of the jihadi factions in the Syrian revolution, and attempted to unite loyal Al-Qaeda fighters and groups under its banner.[10] In addition to the fact that Diaby is the emir of a group of foreign fighters, many of whom defected from HTS to join THD after accusing the former of oppression,[11] Diaby's argument for keeping the girl is a focal point of the ideological conflict between the groups. Diaby argued that the child should remain in Muslim territory and not be sent back to her mother in Belgium, which is considered to be a land of unbelief where he claims she cannot live as a true Muslim. Moreover, Al-Qaeda fighters believe that the HTS Shari'a court is serving Turkish interests, and this is one of the main points of conflict between the jihadis and HTS.


Firqat Al-Ghuraba fighters training in northern Syria (Source: 19HH media).

The dire situation of the rebels in Syria and the tactical importance of retaining the highly-motivated-Al-Qaeda fighters – many of whom are foreigners who came to fight the regime driven by a sense of religious duty – has put great strain on the HTS effort to unify the rebellion while maintaining its pro-Turkish position, which was one of the main reasons for the creation of the group in the first place.[12] It is likely that Diaby's release by the Shari'a court judge was partly intended to maintain the loyalty of the FG group to HTS, but more importantly to ease the pressure on HTS from allied jihadi factions and prevent additional fighters from defecting to THD.

With respect to the fate of Yasmine Atid, Western media quoted her mother, who revealed that the HTS Shari'a court had ruled in her favor on May 16, 2018, and reported that Diaby had refused to obey the court order to transfer Yasmine to HTS custody.[13] When contacted by Belgian journalists, Diaby stated that "Her [Yasmine's] destiny is in the hands of an Islamic court." Following Diaby's release from HTS custody on August 18, 2018, FG published a communique confirming that Diaby had been held by the court.[14] The communique downplayed the disagreement with HTS and did not disclose any details of the case. However, Diaby still refused to release the child, which led to his second arrest, on October 29, 2018, according to reports and chatter on French, pro-Al-Qaeda Telegram channels.[15] When this report was released, Diaby was still being held by HTS.


Firqat Al-Ghuraba emir Omar Diaby

November 15-16 Incident

Following an incident that occurred on November 15 and 16, 2018, the dispute over Yasmine's custody swelled to new proportions. The case which pitted Omar Diaby and the French Al-Qaeda fighters of FG against Turkish-backed HTS security forces acting on the orders of the Shari'a court in Idlib, escalated with the intervention of the Al-Qaeda-aligned THD group. HTS security forces moved in to Harim, in the Idlib Governorate, to arrest several members of FG and take Yasmine by force. Several FG members resisted arrest, and were quickly encircled by HTS fighters. The incident apparently did not result in any casualties, but is likely to have led to a fire fight or at least to a standoff between the two armed groups. Conflicting reports were released by opposing factions as to the exact events of the incident. However, all agree that the crisis came to an end with THD and HTS agreeing to work together to find a solution to the conflict. The FG fighters, ideologically close to THD, surrendered the girl to that stronger jihadi group. It is likely that they hoped and believed that THD would be more inclined to support their claim to the girl's custody, and favorably consider the religious arguments put forth by Diaby.

THD's intervention in the conflict attracted the attention of jihadi supporters worldwide. By involving the Al-Qaeda pledged group, the French FG fighters succeeded in shifting the focus to the religious and ideological aspects of the affair, in an attempt to garner support for their position, which opposed the HTS Shari'a court ruling. HTS scholar Abu Harith Al-Masri issued a fatwa or religious opinion on November 18, 2018,[16] which stated that Yasmine was being unlawfully held. This ruling sanctioned the use of force against the "kidnappers." On November 20, 2018, the eminent pro-Al-Qaeda Salafi-jihadi cleric Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi issued a response to Al-Harith's opinion,[17] firmly rejecting his arguments and demanding that he revoke his fatwa, and also declaring that the child was safe in the hands of THD.

Negotiations between the parties led to an agreement on November 20, 2018, to convene a Shari'a committee comprised of judges from HTS and from THD, as well as mutually agreed upon neutral judges, to avoid bloodshed and come to a final decision in the case of Yasmine Atid.


Yasmine Atid reunited with her mother (Source: Syrian Salvation Government media, November 26, 2018).

Diaby Accused Of Extortion And Kidnapping

According to posts by HTS cleric Al-Zubayr Al-Ghazi and other HTS supporters on Telegram, HTS security forces had arrested Diaby along with another French fighter by the name of Abu Waqqas Al-Faransi, in an attempt to enforce the ruling of the Shari'a court that Yasmine be returned to her mother.[18] Al-Ghazi claimed that the THD intervention to protect the "kidnappers" had led to the fighting between the groups. Along with these claims, HTS supporters shared a picture of Yasmine and a video of a phone playing an undated audio message in Arabic in which a man believed to be Abu Waqqas Al-Faransi (aka Abu Benyamin) addresses Yasmine's mother. In this message, the man claims he can attempt to rescue Yasmine from Diaby's group in exchange for €20,000. He explains that the operation would be dangerous and would involve the use of weapons. The money, he states, would go to him and four other accomplices to enable them to flee with the girl to Europe. He adds that he will recognize Yasmine based on pictures he has seen on Facebook. Abu Waqqas is identified by HTS supporters as a member of THD and an associate of Diaby's. The HTS claims which were shared across several pro-HTS channels state that the FG group originally demanded €50,000 in ransom money for the girl, but that the mother was only able to give them $5,000, so the group reduced the ransom. The report of ransom money being transferred to the FG group was corroborated by Western reports from August 2018, which stated that Yasmine's mother had attempted to retrieve her daughter by all means, including by transferring thousands of euros to the group in Syria.[19] The screenshot together with the audio message constitute clear evidence that Diaby and his men had attempted to blackmail Yasmine's mother, and manipulate her so that she would send more money. This evidence was further corroborated by the testimony from Yasmine's mother.


Screenshot from the HTS video shows a phone message from Abu Waqqas, an alleged member of THD, to Yasmine's mother, offering to rescue the child in return for €20,000 euros

The Mother's Letter

On November 21, 2018, a French-speaking source on Telegram[20] believed to be close to HTS, posted several new messages concerning the custody of Yasmine Atid. The posts included a copy of a letter signed by Hajar Chaoui, Yasmine's mother, in which she tells her version of the story and accuses Diaby's group of having demanded money in exchange for the girl's release. This document caused consternation and controversy among French-speaking jihadi supporters, because the allegations suggesting that they are a group of greedy criminals seriously tarnish the image of religious piety which Diaby and FG attempt to project.


Concluding section of the letter hand-signed by Yasmine's mother Hajar Chaoui

In the letter, which is signed by hand, Yasmine's mother states that she is a faithful, practicing Sunni Muslim and that she appealed to the HTS Shari'a court to regain her daughter with the help of Belgian and Syrian contacts in the rebel-held area. She wrote that she provided the court with evidence of the blackmail attempts by Diaby and his group, as well as testimony from family, friends, and imams, in Syria, Belgium, and Morocco, endorsing her piety. She also stated that members of Yasmine's deceased father's family also testified to her piety. Chaoui's letter divulges the information that she paid about $5,000 in ransom money and that Diaby's men demanded $50,000 for a video made by Saleem Al-Omar, "a Syrian journalist close to the group of Omar [Diaby]." The price for the video was later reduced to $16,000.[21]

HTS-THD Joint Shari'a Committee And Final Decision

On November 24, 2018, the special Shari'a committee created when HTS and THD agreed to collaborate to rule on the custody of Belgian four-year-old Yasmine Atid released its final decision. On a designated Telegram channel,[22] the committee published its ruling that Yasmine's mother should be granted legal custody of her child, since the father's claim that she was an unbeliever could not be proven. The court withdrew the kidnapping charges against Diaby, who had disobeyed the decision of the first court and refused to surrender Yasmine. However, the court ruled that Diaby had acted in good faith with respect to Yasmine's father's behest to him. The judges ruled that Diaby acted out of "ignorance" and an "unacceptable interpretation" of Yasmine's father's will when he demanded money from her mother.


Document posted on a specially designated Telegram channel presents the decision of the joint HTS-THD special Shari'a committee about the custody of Yasmine Atid

The final court decision states that the mother could not be proven to be an unbeliever and thus is legally entitled to be her child's guardian, despite what the father claimed in his will. Thus, the court ordered the child immediately be returned to her mother.[23] On November 27, 2018, several Syrian media outlets, including the HTS Ebaa media outlet, released pictures and videos of the moment when Yasmine was finally reunited with her mother.[24] The girl was transferred from Syrian-held areas to the Turkish authorities.


Yasmine being brought to the Syrian-Turkish Border (Ebaa news).

Aftermath

Although the return of Yasmine to her mother concludes this specific case, the issues raised are far from solved. Firstly, the future of the FG group and its leader Omar Diaby is uncertain. Diaby remains in HTS custody, and he is still to be tried for other allegations which have been brought against him. According to several sources, he has been accused by former members of his group of unlawfully marrying couples and of ruling on divorces. The group, which is believed to be pledged to Al-Qaeda through the personal pledge of its emir Diaby to the A-Q leader, is currently of uncertain affiliation. While the group was fighting in the ranks of TIP, it may well have switched allegiances to THD, which today claims to be the only true representative of Al-Qaeda in Syria.

Moreover, the court's decision, which was followed by the timely release of the father's will, triggered numerous reactions from jihadi supporters online. Although Diaby's supporters now state that they respect the decision of the Shari'a court, the ruling has left many jihadis with a bitter taste in their mouths. The critics of the decision focus on the fact that Yasmine will now be raised in non-Muslim lands, and that the decision is a bad precedent for other offspring of foreign fighters who want their children to remain in Syria even if they are killed. Several supporters prayed for the soul of the little girl, and for her faith to be preserved by Allah "like Moses raised in Egypt," while she is growing up in non-Muslim lands. This issue is of great importance to foreign fighters who consider it a religious obligation to leave the West and fight jihad on the frontlines. Although the consensus is that the obligation does not extend to women and children, the issue of living in non-Muslim lands remains a serious religious question which divides parts of the jihadi movement.

Finally, in the current context of tensions among rebel factions, and in light of the anticipated final push from the Assad regime forces to reconquer the Idlib area, the case appears to have served as a catalyst for the exposure of the ideological differences which divide the factions. At the same time, it strengthens the possibility that the rebel factions may agree to unite, given the peaceful resolution that was achieved in a joint Shari'a courtroom.

 

[1] State.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/266482.htm.

[2] See for instance MEMRI JTTM report French Al-Qaeda Video Praises Perpetrators Of Charlie Hebdo Massacre, July 10, 2017.

[4] Telegram, November 26, 2018.

[5] Het Lastste Nieuws, August 13, 2018.

[10] See MEMRI JTTM report, New Merger Of Al-Qaeda Affiliates In Syria, February 28, 2018.

[12] The main element which constituted HTS was originally fighters from Al-Qaeda's Jabhat Al-Nusra, which was "re-branded" as Jabhat Fath Al-Sham. For more information see MEMRI JTTM report, Jabhat Fath Al-Sham And Four Other Groups Join Forces To Form New Umbrella Organization, January 30, 2017.

[13] Het Lastste Nieuws, August 13, 2018.

[15] Telegram, October 29, 2018.

[16] Telegram, November 18, 2018.

[17] Telegram, November 20, 2018.

[18] Telegram, November 18, 2018.

[19] Rtl.be, August 13, 2018.

[20] Telegram, November 21, 2018.

[21] For a translation of the letter see MEMRI JTTM report, Mother Of Belgian Child Held In Syria Accuses French-Speaking Jihadi Group Of Extortion, November 22, 2018.

[22] Telegram, November 23, 2018.

[23] For more information and for a translation of the court decision, see MEMRI JTTM report, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS)-Hurras Al-Din Joint Committee Rules Belgian Child Held By French Jihadi Fighters Be Returned To Her Mother, November 25, 2018.

[24] Telegram, Ebaa, November 26, 2018.