A former hostage of the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria says he recognizes the man suspected of carrying out the deadly attack at the Jewish Museum of Belgium as one of his captors who would regularly torture prisoners.
The revelation, if true, lends further weight to concerns voiced by European officials over the dangers of homegrown Islamic radicals returning to the West after traveling to the Middle East to fight alongside extremist militant groups.
The testimony of French journalist Nicolas Henin offers a rare glimpse into the Islamic State’s managing of hostages, which to now has been documented mostly in images posted online by supporters of the militant group.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Henin was abducted by the Islamic State and held along with American reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff who were subsequently beheaded.
Henin said that Mehdi Nemmouche, the 29-year-old French national suspected of killing four at the Jewish museum in May, repeatedly beat him and other hostages in an Islamic State prison in Aleppo that had previously served as a hospital.
"I encountered him several times during my six months of captivity in Syria," Henin said on Saturday. Prisoners knew Nemmouche only by his nom de guerre "Abu Omar."
Henin told reporters that he recognized Nemmouche when he was shown a video as part of an investigation about which he provided no further details.
"After beating me up, he would show me his gloves. He was very proud of his motorcycle gloves. He told me he had bought them especially for me," Henin said, according to Reuters. "I do not know if other Western hostages were mistreated but I could hear him torture Syrian prisoners."
French journalist and former hostage in Syria Nicolas Henin gives a press conference at Le Point newspaper headquarters on September 6, 2014 in Paris. Henin claims that Mehdi Nemmouche, alleged killer of the Jewish museum in Brussels, was one of his guards when he was detained in Syria. (Photo: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)
Le Point, a French weekly news magazine, on Saturday published an article by Henin detailing his experience as a hostage for ten months after being kidnapped in June 2013.
"When Nemmouche was not singing, he was torturing," Henin wrote in Le Point, Reuters reported.
“He was part of a small group of Frenchmen whose visits would terrify the 50-odd Syrian prisoners held in the cells nearby,” Henin wrote according to AFP. "Every night the blows would start raining down in the room, where I was also interrogated. The torture lasted all night, until dawn prayers."
A police source confirmed to AFP that the freed French hostages recognized the Belgium shooting suspect from photographs.
"Nemmouche was one of his jailers,” Henin's layer Marie-Laure Ingouf told AFP. "All the hostages confirm this. They lived alongside him for several months."
The suspect’s lawyer, Apolin Pepiezep, would not comment to the Wall Street Journal about the allegation that Nemmouche had been at the Islamic State prison and questioned if the French journalist was in a position to recognize his client.
Nemmouche, a French citizen of Algerian descent, is scheduled to appear in court in Belgium on Friday.