Just a heads-up – This podcast contains material some listeners may find disturbing, there’s violence, language, and drugs right from the start.
Early morning, March 2016….
A man is walking to work, not far from Amsterdam’s Vondelpark.
Outside the Fayrouz shisha…
…lounge, he spots something out of the corner of his eye.
There on the pavement, is a severed human head
The day before, police found a headless body, inside a burning blue minivan.
Now they’ve got the head.
It’s Nabil Amzieb, a 23-year old Dutch-Moroccan man.
A nearby shopkeeper says the head was positioned staring through the windows of the lounge.
Residents in this upscale neighborhood had been complaining about the shisha lounge for some time.
It’s a regular hangout for the Moroccan Mafia.
Flashy cars revving their engines at all hours, crowds spilling into the street.
A man was shot dead, just after leaving…
…the lounge a couple years ago.
And now this, a killing with all the hallmarks of a major player.
PAUL – when he was very young, he was, uh, quite violent already.
PAUL – He was seen as mentally ill – psychopath.
This is Paul Vugts, a crime reporter in Amsterdam.
He’s talking about the man suspected of this gruesome killing…a man known as “the Belly.”
The nickname – not very imaginative. Naoufal Fassih is a big…
People also call him Noffel.
He’s got a reputation as someone who cuts you into pieces…
One story goes that Noffel shot a guy in the leg, and was sent to prison for the shooting, came out, and shot the guy in the leg again.
Noffel’s described by state psychiatrists as…“antisocial, narcissistic, easily offended, impulsive, and has a weak conscience”.
And that was when he was a teenager.
Now it’s 2016, he’s in his mid-thirties, and is a terrifying presence on the streets.
PAUL – He was seen as street wise enough to get a good position in the underworld.
he became an important player in Amsterdam.
Noffel is a savvy operator working with some of the world’s biggest criminals… And sometimes he betrays them.
Remember Scarface, the billionaire kingpin…
…who got murdered at the start of our last episode?
Noffel was there. He might’ve even been the guy who slapped Scarface, just before he was shot.
He’s got a long list of enemies.
His downfall, though, comes not from who he kills… but from what’s on his wrist.
He has a taste for really expensive watches.
I’m Mitchell Prothero, a reporter with Project Brazen.
This is Gateway.
Episode Two – The Belly
Ridouan Taghi is running his cocaine empire from the safety of his villa in Morocco.
Taghi has an alliance with Noffel.
They’re both aiming to fill the vacancy at the top of Europe’s cocaine trade, left by Scarface’s murder…
But now, the Dutch police are onto Taghi.
Or at least they know his name, thanks to the Butcher.
They’ve started following the getaway cars…
…and have made the largest weapons seizure in Dutch history. We heard about that in the last episode.
But what they also found were the secrets of an entire operation: cash, encrypted phones, detailed kill records, and everything stored on USB sticks.
Although the police do know Taghi’s name, they don’t yet know he’s a major drug kingpin.
They also don’t know Taghi has his own informant… A lawyer…
…allegedly feeding him information from inside the investigation.
That source has told Taghi that his organisation’s been compromised.
According to his messages at the time, Taghi sounds like he’s starting to panic
TAGHI – Unbelievable…money, keys, fucking amateur shit. And they found tracking devices, and now everybody’s in for it.
Can the cops put all the pieces together, and track him down?
TAGHI – if this stops us, we’re in deep shit sir, for real.
Taghi responds – as he often does – with violence.
His target…. Anyone who has spoken to the cops.
That’s the sound of a man being shot outside his home, recorded by a witness nearby.
…victim is a Dutch-Bosnian criminal.
He’d been questioned by the cops, and was going to make a statement about Taghi.
Now, he’s silenced for good.
Next, Taghi takes aim at the state.
Koos Plooij is one of the prosecutors involved in taking down Taghi’s team.
In an encrypted message, Taghi suggests killing Plooij
TAGHI “Sir, shall we put that fucking Plooij to sleep?”
But it’s really risky to attack the state.
Taghi’s associate replies cautiously…
RICO – “Sir. Those are real ideas, but no. Wait and see if we can do it differently. We have to be sharp and tactical!”
Taghi holds off… for now.
Meanwhile, Dutch police have a puzzle to solve.
They have some of the pieces:
A series of killings across the Netherlands
A huge cache of weapons, money, and stolen cars
a severed human…
…head, dumped in central Amsterdam
And some guy named Ridouan Taghi
They wonder, what will happen next?
Across the Atlantic, one country shows what could happen in the Netherlands
In Mexico, Violence has spilled out of the cocaine trade for decades.
Cartels use their huge wealth to influence elections, corrupt officials, and attack democracy.
MATT – if you’re bringing in hundreds…
…of thousands of euros per month, then you can start to offer up the bribes that are actually at a level that potentially risks enticing higher level officials.
This is Dr. Matt Herbert, an expert on organised crime and Mexican drug cartels.
MATT – the power of the cartels enabled them to challenge the government in a way that it had not been challenged before, to create the sort of highly corrosive corruption that previously had not been the norm.
Matt understands what might lie ahead for Europe.
Because he understands how this story played out in Mexico.
MATT – So really where you have the emergence of new criminal organizations that all of a sudden are flush with money, but with limited experience, violence is the go-to answer. They don’t know what the red lines are right now.
In the early 1990s, violence escalated in Mexico, when cartels started getting paid in cocaine, not in cash.
Selling your own drugs is far more lucrative…
…than getting a cut of someone else’s.
MATT – So it’s really a sea change in how they approached their entire involvement in the trade.
Now, the Moroccan Mafia in Europe is also getting paid in cocaine…
The money is massive—billions of euros. And it turns Taghi and Noffel into two very powerful… and dangerous… players.
It’s November 2015, and Noffel’s plotting a tricky operation.
He needs to take out a rival Pjotr R, a wily veteran of the Dutch underworld…
Noffel messages his men, to pull over Pjotr’s car,
They’ll be wearing stolen police uniforms.
But it won’t be an arrest – it’ll be a kidnapping-murder.
But the plan fails.
Pjotr passes the men before they’re in position.
Noffel has a more direct Plan B…
Two days later, his men follow Pjotr as he drives his mother to the hospital.
Once Pjotr’s alone in the car, the men rush at him with Kalashnikovs.
Somehow, he manages to step on the gas.
Over 30 bullets hit the car – six strike Pjotr.
The car crashes through a hedge, then down into a ditch, next to a canal.
The gunmen follow him, still firing, til they’re sure he’s dead.
Then they walk away.
But it turns out Pjotr isn’t dead…
He’s crawled out of a broken window…
…into the canal, and is rescued by a passer-by.
Noffel can’t believe it. The team has massively screwed up. He texts furiously.
NOFFEL – “Why didn’t you burn the car in the garage? Can they find fingerprints or DNA in the car? I hope that fucking dog dies”
But the problem is more serious than a couple of fingerprints.
The police were tracking the getaway car.
They quickly round…
…up the gunmen and their encrypted phones.
One of the saved contacts is listed as: ‘Belly’
It’ll take months – and some bizarre coincidences –
but this botched job will eventually put the Belly in jail.
First though, Noffel takes a freelance job, apparently working on behalf of the Iranian government.
More after the break
Ali Motamed, an electrician, is living a quiet life in the Netherlands with his wife and son.
PAUL – he was…a man who seemed to be a normal house father
That’s the journalist Paul Vugts.
Ali seems like a shy man, he avoids most social events.
But recently, he attended his son’s high school graduation.
And a photo got posted on Facebook.
But Ali isn’t just an anonymous electrician.
He’s one of Iran’s most wanted men.
They’ve been trying to track him down for more than thirty years.
And with that Facebook photo, they have everything they need.
A fake name, but a real location.
Because Ali Motamed is not this man’s real name.
PAUL – Step by step I found out that this man was living here in a fake identity.
“Ali’s” real name is Mohammad-Reza. He was last seen in Iran in 1981.
…had been overthrown by a revolution a few years earlier, and the country was still in turmoil.
Hardline Islamist clerics were assembling a new government, led by Ayatollah Khomeini. And they were killing any of their opponents.
Mohammad-Reza was a member of a violent radical group, competing with the new regime.
In 1981, working undercover, he manages to plant a bomb at a party meeting in Tehran.
As the meeting starts, Mohammad-Reza slips out…
…of the room.
Soon after, a bomb rips through the building.
73 people are killed. The current supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, is badly injured.
It’s the deadliest attack in modern Iranian history.
Mohammad-Reza escapes to Europe and settles in the Netherlands… as Ali Motamed
The Iranian regime sentences…
…him to death in absentia.
Now, 34 years later, they’ve found their target.
To get the job done, the Iranians allegedly turn to an unconventional solution
A man who’s happy to kill for money… it’s Taghi’s close ally, Noffel, the Belly.
PAUL – how would Iran find Noffel? maybe via Hezbollah that’s one of the theories. or maybe, because if you come to Holland and you’ll ask around…
…who will assassinate people for me? They’ll direct you maybe to Noffel.
Noffel messages a hitman:
NOFFEL – “Got a nice job for you… why he has to sleep I don’t know, and don’t even want to know. Seven o’clock in the morning he goes to work,”
One cold December morning, two gunmen dressed in black shoot Mohammed-Reza point blank in the head.
They drive off in a blue BMW.
This killing baffles the Dutch media…
…who don’t know this quiet electrician’s real identity.
It’s Paul Vugts who finally reveals the full story.
PAUL – I did a lot of research on this assassination, because there was something weird with it. And, I was trying to find out who is this guy and when I published, his name was all over the world
The possibility that Noffel killed on behalf of Iran, takes the Moroccan Mafia into the realm of state-sponsored terrorism.
Watching the news with concern is Ulysse Ellian.
He’s a Dutch member of parliament.
And Mohammed-Reza’s killing happens in his constituency.
ULYSSE ELIANN – I was like, Oh, wait a minute that there’s someone murdered by the same people who are the reason I’m here in the first place.
Ellian’s father fled the Iranian regime…
So this attack is personal.
ULYSSE ELIANN – We cannot accept a foreign nation, especially, you know, a tyranny like Iran arranging murders in our country. You know, a rule of law is being attacked by these people. And there is a link between the Moroccan mafia and the Iranian regime. One thing is for sure if a Dutch criminal has these kind of connections, we all should be worried.
After the botched attempt on Pjotr R’s life, and the successful hit on Mohammed-Reza, Noffel’s laying low.
He’s in Dublin, travelling under a fake passport.
NICOLA – He was pretty relaxed here in Dublin and, uh, living quite openly as such, nobody would’ve known who he was.
Here’s Nicola Tallant…
…an Irish investigative journalist and editor with the Sunday World.
NICOLA – He went to the zoo for a day, had a few days out. He was kind of fairly settled here and was obviously wanted in the Netherlands, but the Kinahan organization offer him this safe house.
Noffel has close ties with the notorious Irish crime family, the Kinahans.
When he arrives in Dublin, he stays in a luxurious Kinahan safe house.
NICOLA – The group now known as the Kinahan organized crime group, really started out…
…here in the late nineties as street dealers. And within two decades, they have, as the US Treasury Department told us, built a nest egg of at least a billion dollars.
Accused in multiple countries of drug smuggling, the Kinahans are considered world-class money launderers.
NICOLA – they’re constantly trying to come up with new ways to make even more money. And of course the only way to do that is to join forces.
The Moroccan Mafia, the Kinahans, the Italian Camorra, and other players…
…forge a loose alliance… based out of Dubai.
NICOLA – that is a huge power. You set the price, they have their connections with the Colombians, and others that they’re dealing with. And, they have massive amounts of money and they’re pulling it all in.
Noffel gets comfortable in Ireland, but then….
NICOLA – There’s a raid on, a number of Kinahan properties – safe houses of theirs.
The Irish police have a search warrant for a luxury apartment the Kinahans…
…are known to stay at when they visit from Dubai.
But today, someone unexpected opens the door.
NICOLA – He is this, sort of, overweight Dutch Moroccan guy with a false passport. They don’t really know who he is initially.
The man says he’s visiting his girlfriend for a couple of days.
But, the large man has nearly 13,000 Euros in cash.
And on his wrist is a VERY expensive watch…
…He’s got three of them, valued at ninety thousand euros.
Then the cops look down and notice his shoes.
He’s wearing eight hundred euro designer sneakers…
The man turns out to have TWO fake IDs on him… one Belgian, one Dutch, each in a different name.
Who is this guy? And why is he staying in a Kinahan safe house?
The police pull him in for questioning.
Fingerprint checks reveal the man’s real name.
It’s one of the Netherlands’ most-wanted criminals.
Naoufal Fassih — the Belly.
NICOLA – this is a major criminal from the Netherlands, who is right at the heart and, probably at that point, he’s certainly up there in the structure as one of the boss of bosses of that organization.
The Dutch judicial system creaks to life.
Warrants for Noffel’s extradition arrive.
But Noffel is relaxed, described by the Irish police…
…as amiable and pleasant.
Not a care in the world.
But then, Noffel’s demeanour abruptly changes – he becomes agitated – A new warrant has arrived…
This one cites his involvement in the botched killing that we heard about earlier, where Pjotr R crawled into a canal to escape.
Now the Irish police know the real identity of “The Belly” and he belongs in the Netherlands
They move Noffel to their highest…
…security prison, pending extradition.
But even this place apparently isn’t secure enough to hold a man like Noffel.
NICOLA – there was a kind of an emergency plan put in place, and the Dutch sent a military aircraft into Ireland to collect him. And we waved him goodbye.
Back in the Netherlands, Noffel is tried and convicted in two different cases:
One for the attempted killing of his rival, Pjotr R.
And the other for the killing of Iranian dissident, Mohammed-Reza.
One of the most-wanted men in the Netherlands is behind bars… for life.
While Noffel’s in prison, Ridouan Taghi packs up and leaves Morocco.
Taghi needs a safer place to work, with less risk of extradition to the Netherlands.
He’s looking for somewhere the authorities will turn a blind eye.
He’s moving to…. Dubai
ALEX – you don’t have heavy handed regulators.
This is Alex Yearsley, a private investigator and expert on money laundering around the world.
ALEX – it’s very light touch. it’s a wonderful place to do business of all descriptions. It attracts a lot of interesting people
Next time on Gateway,
ALEX – Dubai did become a bit of a Mecca, for all, sorts of interesting individuals on the run
WOUTER They found a bomb under his car. It was clear that that was because of the things he put on his website.
PAUL – I need to say he was killed because of what he wrote, and that was the first time in Holland.
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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.
Executive producers are Bradley Hope, Tom Wright and Nicholas Brennan.
Special thanks to Sarah Hurtes and the whole team at Project Brazen.