When Belgian police arrested two brothers in Anderlecht, the media were quick to point out that both were members of a biker gang with previous connection to Islamist terrorism.
The Kamikaze Riders had gained international notoriety in 2015 when two of the group’s longest-serving members were jailed for planning attacks on Brussels.
Composed of about fifty members, this group of bikers is notorious for riding en masse through the heavily trafficked avenues of Brussels and its surrounding neighbourhoods, causing havoc and annoying drivers as they perform stunts on their bikes.
Usually congregating near the Atomium, one of the most famous midcentury landmarks in Brussels, the Kamikaze Riders came together as an unofficial group in 2003 after its founding members started to publicly experiment with motorcycle tricks and train young men from the area interested in motorcycle and ATV stunt riding.
Now fourteen years old, the Kamikaze Riders call each other family. The group’s Facebook page, filled with group shots on Yamaha motorbikes and photos from summer barbecues, shows a corps of men with a passion for motorcycling, sharing different religious backgrounds and who come from many parts of the world.
“There are Christians, Africans. It’s not just Arabs and Muslims. Basically, we’re a family, and we’re here to do fundamentally good works. We make video clips, we hold motorcycle rallies, and we even work to help out disadvantaged schools,” said Ludovic Ansel, a member of the Kamikaze Riders since 2003, in an interview with Belgian broadcaster RTL.
Far from clandestine, the Kamikaze Riders are highly active on social media and even sell merchandise online. Their logo, a samurai with an upright katana in his left and right hands, aligns with the group’s self-description as “street samurai” (“les samouraïs du bitume” in French).
There is no formal path to membership besides owning a motorbike and being accepted by the members of the group, who meet weekly in the outer communes of Brussels and the Flemish city of Vilvoorde.
“We don’t have a charter, or a formal paper that you sign what says you’ve become a Kamikaze. To be ‘Kamikaze’, if you like, it’s an ésprit, you see? It means that we like to mess around, we don’t care if we brush up against danger,” said Zahir, 41, one of the founding members of the Kamikaze Riders.
Many Kamikaze Riders recall training for stunts on skateboards or bicycles when they were young. Moving up to motorcycles was part and parcel of chasing after the next adrenaline high, they said.
“When we started the Kamikaze Riders, we were… well, we were crazy. There were no limits. We needed adrenaline, we need to make ourselves scared by crashing into the pavement,” said Zahir.
A handful of members have died while riding.
According to some members, the Kamikaze Riders’ notoriety has grown for the wrong reasons since 2015, after two of its founders, Saïd Saouti and Mohamed Karay, were sentenced to three-year prison sentences for belonging to a terrorist organization and plotting terrorist attacks on landmarks in the Belgian capital.
Saouti was the unofficial leader of the Kamikaze Riders, famed for his reckless driving and keeping the spirit of the group in check for nearly twelve years.
“He left a pretty big impression on us. Motorcycles, ATVs – it didn’t matter. He was the master of whatever he touched! There are few people who can ride a wheelie on a GSXR 1100, and Saïd, he could lift it as if it were a bicycle,” said Mohamed, a long-time member of the Kamikaze Riders in an interview with Belgian magazine The Word.
Much like America’s Hell’s Angels, members of the group have distanced themselves from all ties with criminal or paramilitary activities.
Hardly a group of radicalized thugs, they argue that this so-called “terrorist gang” is a community of men who congregate together because of shared interest in automotive sport and a search for community.
Uploaded videos of the group’s activities onto YouTube, usually filmed on a camera phone and mixed with trap beats and hip-hop, also share no obvious connection with radical Islam.
“All this, it’s not us. Everyone has a private life, and you don’t know what happens behind closed doors. On Facebook, [Saïd] Saouti did write a lot about the Koran, but I never saw hateful messages from either Saïd or Mohamed,” said Ansel to RTL in 2015.
“It does me to hear the name of our club tarnished in the media. Just because someone screws up doesn’t mean that the others should have to suffer. But I’m not going to distance myself from the two of them and I won’t publicly condemn them – my group is my group, that will not change.”
Last week’s arrests in the commune of Anderlecht implicated Saïd’s two older brothers, Akim and Khalid, who were detained after police seized detonators, AK47s, and stolen police uniforms in a storage unit rented by the brothers.
They were accused of preparing a terrorist attack on Belgian soil and are being held in police detention before facing charges in court, a sentence that could carry up to sixteen years in prison in solitary confinement.
By Alexander Saeedy