The Olympian and the Terrorist A Story of Two Belgian Brothers
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.
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.
- Part 1: A Story of Two Belgian Brothers
- Part 2: 'You Weren't the One with the Bomb'