Just a heads-up – This podcast contains material some listeners may find disturbing – there’s violence, strong language, and drugs right from the start.
It’s dawn on a cold January morning in 2017.
Nabil B’s phone buzzing wakes him up.
He sees nearly a dozen missed calls and messages.
Something has gone badly wrong overnight.
And things are about to get a lot worse.
The day before, Nabil arranged a killing on behalf of Ridouan Taghi.
A man gossipping about Taghi to a rival gang.
The hit should have been a normal gig.
But, scrolling through his messages, Nabil realizes the terrible news.
The team killed the wrong guy.
Even worse – the victim is a close friend of Nabil’s…
…a man known as Illie.
They grew up together.
They went to each other’s weddings.
And now Nabil has Illie’s blood on his hands.
Illie’s family has a notorious reputation in the Dutch underworld. They’ll find out who’s responsible. And they’ll take revenge.
Then, a message from the boss himself.
Nabil reads it anxiously.
Taghi tells Nabil…
TAGHI VO: Convince the family the killing was done by a rival gang…
…not by me.
It’s Illie’s family.
Somehow, they already know Nabil is involved.
Nabil knows – either way – he’s a dead man.
It’s just a question of who kills him first… Illie’s family… or Taghi’s men.
This is not a great way to wake up.
I’m Mitchell Prothero, a reporter with Project Brazen
This is Gateway
Episode Four – The Crown Witness
Rewind back to 2006. It’s late one evening in a Dutch shisha lounge.
A much younger Nabil is playing chess, against a tough opponent.
It’s the first time they’ve played together.
The man on the other side of the chess board… is Ridouan Taghi.
At this point, Taghi is on his way up – he’s known as a hash smuggler, moving between the Netherlands and Morocco…
But he has yet to make the big jump into cocaine.
Taghi’s a decade older than Nabil, but they have a lot in common –
Their families are from the same town in Morocco – And they both like to play chess.
Nabil tells Taghi his own story…
His brothers are successful businessmen…
But the legit route of employment hasn’t worked out for Nabil.
He’s failed his school exams, and now he grows weed.
Taghi’s recruiting for his hash smuggling empire.
He needs people to do the dirty work…
Young men struggling to find their way are ideal targets.
They’re often from immigrant backgrounds, like Taghi himself.
WOUTER – in Holland, we’ve got a saying, when you are born as a nickel, you will never become a dime. And the drugs enables them not to become dimes, but to become hundred dollar bills
This is Wouter Laumans, a crime reporter with the Dutch newspaper, Het Parool.
WOUTER – I talked to a guy, he said his dad came from Morocco, broke his back in Dutch society…
…cleaning hospitals and working at a chicken farm.
And this guy said: Okay, so I’m destined to break my back in a chicken farm. I don’t think so. I’d rather take my chances, and might become a millionaire.
NADIA – Ridouan Taghi is not a stupid guy. He’s a dangerous guy.
Here’s Dr Nadia Bouras, an expert in Moroccan migration to Europe.
NADIA – he’s a businessman. He’s an entrepreneur who saw opportunity within…
NADIA – so these gangs are affiliated through friendship and proximity where they lived.
Taghi offers Nabil a route away from his life as a nickel – and soon Nabil joins the gang.
In the decade that follows, Nabil’s responsibilities gradually increase.
When Taghi’s group moves from selling hashish into trafficking cocaine, everyone’s profits go up.
By 2016, Nabil can see Taghi living the dream, controlling his empire from Dubai. But Nabil’s view from the Dutch streets, shows the real dangers.
His jobs include surveilling Taghi’s kill targets, arranging getaway cars. And he witnesses multiple executions.
Nabil joined Taghi just to make some quick money…
…Murders were not what he signed up for.
BRS – some kids are like coerced into it, you know, they’re like threatened, like, Hey, you did this one time. If you’re not gonna do it again, I’m gonna go to your mom’s house or I’m gonna get your little brother.
This is the musician and activist, Blackrockstar.
Like Nabil and Taghi, he grew up in the Netherlands to immigrant parents – Nabil’s ancestry is Moroccan, Blackrockstar’s is Afro-Caribbean.
BRS – It’s like some kids, they think, Okay, I’m gonna do it once and I’m gonna step out…
…But they’re like, No man, you’re not going anywhere.
Nabil is too deep in the game now. There’s no way out.
Things come to a head for Nabil in January 2017.
He’s smoking shisha in his favorite joint, the Platinum Lounge, and running surveillance for a hit Taghi’s ordered.
The gang uses the lounge as a base… recruiting new foot soldiers, and keeping tabs on the street.
Nabil sits opposite his best friend, Mo, whose younger brother owns the lounge.
They’re playing Parchis, a Moroccan version of a board game like Parcheesie.
Tonight, Nabil’s surveillance work is pretty easy – his target Khalid sits in the lounge, just a few tables away.
Khalid’s been leaking intel about Taghi to a rival gang.
Nabil’s phone pings with a message from Taghi.
TAGHI VO – “the dirty whore child … must be taken out”
Nabil keeps an eye on Khalid, and messages the gunmen…
…outside to get ready.
Next, a man who looks a lot like Khalid leaves the lounge.
The hitmen follow the man. And sure enough, he heads straight for Khalid’s flat.
They think they’ve got their man.
But it’s not Khalid. It’s Illie, who happens to be Khalid’s flatmate.
The gunmen are waiting for him at the doorway of his flat.
Multiple bullets strike Illie, killing him instantly.
The assassins speed away in a stolen Audi that Nabil had arranged.
They toss the weapons in a canal nearby, then torch the car… destroying any DNA evidence.
It’s a textbook Taghi operation.
In his bedroom, the morning after the killing, Nabil has finally read all the messages.
There’s no escape – either Illie’s family kills Nabil, in retribution.
Or Taghi does.
What’s Nabil going to do?
Nabil makes a radical choice… and it might just save his life.
He agrees to meet Illie’s suspicious cousin the next day.
They meet at a gas station.
Nabil tells him Illie’s killing was a huge mistake.
But it had nothing to do with the rival gang.
The shooters were following Taghi’s orders.
News of the meeting soon reaches Taghi… who messages Nabil’s friend, Mo…
TAGHI: “Little brother, where is that Nabil? Why isn’t he responding?”
TAGHI “He knows we’ll let everyone sleep on him if he has mentioned my name.”
But Nabil is nowhere to be found…
That’s because after meeting with Illie’s cousin, Nabil walks into a police station in Amsterdam.
It’s past midnight when he tells the bewildered duty cops…
“I know about the killings… I want to become a crown witness.”
Over the next few months, Nabil unspools the whole story of his time working for Taghi.
By the time he’s finished, the police have over fifteen hundred pages of transcripts.
Nabil’s former lawyer called it: “a book without beginning or end.”
In exchange for all this information, prosecutors offer Nabil protection.
But it comes at an enormous cost.
In the years ahead, many of the people closest to Nabil will be murdered.
More after the break
Nabil isn’t Taghi’s only problem.
Taghi thinks a rival kingpin, Mustapha, has stolen one of his cocaine shipments.
Something has to be done…
It’s a quiet evening in November 2017.
Mustapha – known as Mous – is relaxing on the terrace of the popular cafe he owns in central Marrakech.
It’s a lively place, with a view of the…
…city’s iconic central mosque, lit up against the night sky.
After Scarface’s killing, it’s Mous who sweeps in to seize control of his cocaine kingdom.
Mous also inherits Scarface’s playboy lifestyle.
He hangs out with celebrities and models.
His Bentley is decked out in gold leaf, a starry sky painted on the ceiling. Pure class.
Mous considers Morocco a safe place: Shootings are rare.
Anyone caught with a gun is considered a threat to the King.
And violence is dealt with harshly by the Moroccan security services.
But Taghi is angry…
You can’t steal his shit and get away with it.
Mous must die.
Taghi sends an encrypted message to his team on the ground with instructions to kill…
TAGHI – Make it very clear to the heads to give it to that man fully sir. Fully. They can’t screw up, sir.
At the cafe, Mous is…
…wearing a pristine white t-shirt.
He finishes his tea, gets up and leaves the terrace
A fateful swap takes place.
A younger man and his girlfriend take the table Mous just left.
The man is also wearing a bright white t-shirt.
Across the street, two men in motorbike helmets have been casually keeping an eye on Mous.
But they never notice him walk away from the table…
They signal each other. It’s time.
They run at the terrace with automatic weapons.
There are screams from the crowded terrace.
The young man in the white shirt is dead.
A stray bullet injures his girlfriend.
And the two shooters speed off on a moped.
The dead man slumps back in his chair, his phone and a glass of mint tea still untouched in front of him.
The King of Morocco is working in his office.
His Private Secretary enters the room.
He’s got terrible news.
It’s about the shooting at the cafe.
The dead man was a medical student.
And the son of one of the King’s best friends, a powerful federal judge.
The King is furious. People do not get gunned down like this in his kingdom.
NADIA – Moroccan society, public opinion is not very appreciative…
…of, uh, these criminals coming to Morocco and using Morocco as, you know, a wasteland.
Here’s Dr Nadia Bouras.
NADIA – they use Morocco as a hideout. Even though the Moroccan authorities don’t tolerate it. Leave your business in your country. Cuz we’ve seen what happens when the rivalry extends to Morocco. They kill innocent people.
The gangs know the rules – no liquidations in the motherland.
But Ridouan Taghi doesn’t follow the usual rules.
None of his Moroccan foot soldiers would take on the kill in Marrakech.
He had to outsource the job to two Dutch men he’d never worked with before.
And it cost him.
The King gets an update.
The two gunmen are in custody.
Firing weapons in central Marrakech makes you conspicuous.
Especially when you kill the son of a judge.
Mous, the guy the gunmen were supposed to kill, is picked up in Casablanca.
He’ll get 15 years in prison for drug trafficking.
But the King wants more answers – who ordered the hit? Who’s in charge?
The police have a chief suspect… Ridouan Taghi.
But after attending Daniel Kinahan’s wedding in Dubai earlier in the year, Taghi’s fallen off the map.
The Moroccans think he’s still in the UAE, but they’re not sure where.
The King however, is a King.
And he has good relations with another King, Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai.
Surely he can help bring Taghi in?
Dubai touts itself as a great holiday and business destination.
Crucially for Taghi, the UAE has very few extradition treaties… and no formal agreement with The Netherlands.
It’s early one Monday evening in December 2019.
Taghi is lounging on his large grey sofa, with a glass of red wine, watching TV.
His mansion sits in a wealthy neighbourhood in Dubai.
From the outside, it looks abandoned.
Curtains closed. No sign of life.
This is deliberate.
Inside, it’s a mess.
But Taghi isn’t expecting any visitors.
On the table… an array of phone chargers, computer keyboards and Dutch news magazines.
Since the King of Morocco’s request, Dubai authorities have been following men linked with Taghi.
They’ve seen occasional visits to the house.
And now, the cops are ready.
A police SWAT team smashes through the front door.
For three days, Taghi’s blind-folded, and beaten senseless by men with Moroccan accents.
In the end, the Sheikh of Dubai takes care of the King of Morocco.
A photo of a battered Taghi emerges a few months later.
Two black eyes, the imprint of a boot on his forehead, Taser marks on his shoulder, and a broken nose.
But while his arrest surprises Taghi, what happens next is even more unexpected.
He’s bundled into a private plane that takes off from Dubai.
But it doesn’t land in Morocco
Instead, a secret deal has been struck. And the plane lands in the place Riduoan Taghi left years before… the Netherlands
Taghi’s the prime suspect in the largest criminal trial in Dutch history…
And the man who brings him down is chess partner from years before…
…The Crown Witness, Nabil B…
Taghi can see where this is heading… he says to the Dutch cops…
“Just tell the judge give me life in prison, it’ll save you a lot of money…”
Next time on Gateway…
WOUTER – it’s like. You are walking in a swamp, you look around and you figure, Shit, I’m in the middle of a swamp.
PETER SCHOUTEN – prosecutors were naive in the Netherlands…
…So they basically thought on the level of maybe you will get a brick through your window, instead of your own brother is going to be killed.
Thanks for listening. You can hear the next episode right now by subscribing to Brazen+ on Apple Podcasts.
You’ll get access to episodes a week early, along with ad-free listening, and bonus materials from the show.
Do you have stories or tips you’d like to share? Let us know at email@example.com
And finally, leave us…
…a rating and review… it helps others find our reporting.
GATEWAY is a production of Project Brazen in partnership with PRX.
It’s reported and hosted by me – Mitchell Prothero.
Additional reporting and production by Dontxupinazo Productions
Editing and fact-checking by Georgia Gee.
The executive producers are Bradley Hope, Tom Wright and Nicholas Brennan.
Special thanks to Sarah Hurtes and the whole team at Project Brazen.