From Belgium to ISIS – Ben Taub/The New Yorker
Why are teen-agers joining ISIS?
In 2009, a fourteen-year-old Belgian named Jejoen Bontinck slipped a sparkly white glove onto his left hand, squeezed into a sequinned black cardigan, and appeared on the reality-television contest “Move Like Michael Jackson.” He had travelled to Ghent from his home, in Antwerp, with his father, Dimitri, who wore a pin-striped suit jacket and oversized sunglasses, and who told the audience that he was Jejoen’s manager, mental coach, and personal assistant. Standing before the judges, Jejoen (pronounced “yeh-yoon”) professed his faith in the American Dream. “Dance yourself dizzy,” a judge said, and Jejoen moonwalked through the preliminary round. “That is performance!” Dimitri told the show’s host, a former Miss Belgium named Véronique de Kock. “You’re gonna hear from him, sweetie.”
Jejoen was soon eliminated, but four years later, when he least wanted the attention, he became the focus of hundreds of articles in the Belgian press. He had participated in a jihadi radicalization program, operated out of a rented room in Antwerp, that inspired dozens of Belgian youths to migrate to Syria and take up arms against the government of Bashar al-Assad. Most of the group’s members ultimately became part of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, joining more than twenty thousand foreign fighters engaged in the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Today, ISIS controls large parts of both countries. With revenue of more than a million dollars a day, mostly from extortion and taxation, the group continues to expand its reach; in mid-May, its forces captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and, last week, they took control of Palmyra, in Syria.
About four thousand European jihadis have gone to Syria since the outbreak of war, in 2011, more than four hundred from Belgium. (It is estimated that at least a hundred Americans have joined the fight.) The migration of youths from seemingly stable and prosperous communities to fight with radical Islamists has bewildered not only their families but governments and security forces throughout Europe.
Tens of thousands of Muslim civilians and moderate rebels, mostly Sunnis, died in the early stages of the war in Syria, and many people have argued that the European jihadis were motivated by humanitarian concerns. But thousands of pages of Belgian federal-police documents—including wiretaps and interrogations of jihadis who fought abroad and later returned—show that, even before ISIS announced its presence in Syria, the primary objective for many Europeans, including those in Jejoen’s group, was to establish an Islamic caliphate through violence. “We were already talking about terrorism in 2012,” a Belgian security official told me. “But, at that time, no one wanted to talk about terrorism,” because Assad insisted that the opposition was composed of extremists. The Belgian security official said, “It was very difficult to say, ‘Well, yes, he is right, because our Belgians are terrorists.’ ”
After eight months in Syria, Jejoen returned to Belgium, where he was promptly arrested. Jejoen’s lawyer says that the authorities interrogated him for more than two hundred hours. They emerged with a portrait of the radical Islamist recruitment process, as well as an account of the workings of ISIS. “We are sure that he probably didn’t tell us everything,” the Belgian security official said. But he added, of what Jejoen did divulge, “We haven’t found one element that is not correct.”
I met Jejoen several times last winter, usually at his mother’s home, in Antwerp, where he was awaiting sentencing in Belgium’s largest terrorism trial. He mostly avoided discussing his experience in Syria, preferring to play Counter-Strike on a laptop. But transcripts of the police interrogations show that he was, as his father calls him, “the golden witness.”
In 1994, Dimitri Bontinck, then a twenty-year-old night-club bouncer, travelled to West Africa on holiday, where he met and married Rose, a Nigerian woman with strict Catholic beliefs. Their son, Jejoen, was born in southern Nigeria the following year; the family moved to Belgium shortly afterward. Dimitri told me that he served in the military, and then in a U.N. peacekeeping mission to Bosnia, before taking an administrative position in the Antwerp court system. When Jejoen was eight, the Bontincks had a daughter, Iris. Family life was “always in harmony,” Dimitri said this winter, in his one-room apartment in Antwerp. Now forty-one, Dimitri has a buzz cut and an athletic build that belies his reliance on whiskey and Marlboros.
Jejoen was brought up Catholic, and enrolled in a prestigious Jesuit academy called Our Lady College. “I think that was the best period of his life,” Dimitri said, praising the school’s structure. But when Jejoen was fifteen he started doing poorly in math, and had to transfer to a remedial high school. Then his girlfriend dumped him. At that point, Dimitri told me, Jejoen “fell down in a black hole.”
Jejoen described this period to the police as one of “searching” and “looking for an alternative to the pain.” When he was sixteen, he started dating a Moroccan girl at his new school, who introduced him to Islam, and told him that if he wanted to keep seeing her he had to learn about the religion. Jejoen searched “What is Islam?” online, and, on August 1, 2011, the first day of Ramadan, he converted at De Koepel Mosque.
De Koepel, which means “The Dome,” was founded in Antwerp, in 2005, by Belgian converts. At the time, no mosque in Belgium conducted Friday prayers in Dutch, so Muslims who didn’t speak Arabic or Turkish had difficulty following sermons. De Koepel became a home not only for converts but for hundreds of second- and third-generation Moroccans and Turks.
On Fridays, the ground floor of the mosque is lined with four rows of men and boys at prayer. Women pray upstairs, and watch the imam deliver his sermon by live video. At De Koepel, Jejoen prayed five times a day and closely followed the sermons of Sulayman Van Ael, the imam at the time, who took a relatively moderate tone, emphasizing charity work and the five pillars of Islam.
Dimitri found the conversion frustrating. “A family is supposed to eat together at the table,” he told me, but, when Jejoen adopted halal dietary restrictions, family dinners grew less frequent. Still, Dimitri saw Jejoen’s new habits as a kind of teen-age rebellion. “What can you do?” he said.
In November, 2011, three months after Jejoen’s conversion, a neighbor named Azeddine invited him to visit the headquarters of Sharia4Belgium, at 117 Dambruggestraat. The mission of Sharia4Belgium, established the previous year, was to transform Belgium into a state governed as the cities of Raqqa, in Syria, and Mosul, in Iraq, are today: replace the parliament with a shura council and the Prime Minister with a caliph; stone adulterers and execute homosexuals; and convert or banish all non-Muslims, or force them to pay jizya, a tax levied on those who don’t adhere to the faith.
The leader of Sharia4Belgium was Fouad Belkacem, a thirty-three-year-old militant preacher. A slight, bespectacled, balding man with a full dark beard, who usually wears a long djellabah, Belkacem was born in Belgium to Moroccan parents. In his twenties, he wore jeans and was clean-shaven. He was arrested for burglary and forgery, for which he spent time in jail. After he got out, he worked as a used-car salesman and volunteered at a youth center, where, according to a social worker named Peter Calluy, he propagated homophobia and anti-democratic ideas.
Anjem Choudary, a British radical Islamist, told me that in March, 2010, Belkacem visited him in London to ask his advice about how “to start something in Belgium.” Choudary, who is forty-eight, and has a long, graying beard, has acted as a spokesman for various radical groups, such as al-Muhajiroun and Islam4UK, that have since been banned under U.K. terrorism laws. He has been arrested on several occasions for organizing illegal protests, and several of his associates have committed acts of terrorism, including, in 2013, the killing of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, on the streets of London. But Choudary, who is closely monitored by security services, has never been convicted of any terrorism-related charges.
“I went through the history of al-Muhajiroun, how we set it up,” Choudary told me one afternoon last winter, in a London café. “You can’t do what the prophets of old did, which was to stand on the hills and the mountains and address people,” he said. “The hills and mountains today are Sky News, CNN, Fox News, the BBC.” We were meeting just a few hours after the murders of twelve people at the office of Charlie Hebdo, and Choudary proudly showed me his statement on Twitter: “Freedom of expression does not extend to insulting the Prophets of Allah, whatever your views on the events in Paris today! #ParisShooting.” He was delighted by the reaction. “That’s not bad, actually—two hundred and eighty-six retweets?” he said. A few minutes later, Choudary’s phone rang. “Fox News, tonight,” he said, smiling. Sean Hannity wanted Choudary to represent the Muslim view.
Choudary described Belkacem as an “incredibly receptive younger brother.” Belkacem returned to Belgium and started Sharia4Belgium that March. By the time Jejoen arrived, in November, 2011, the group had publicly burned an American flag to commemorate the attacks on the World Trade Center and, in a Facebook post, applauded the news that a young politician, who belonged to an extreme-right political party that denounced Muslims and immigrants, was dying of cancer. Later, on YouTube, Belkacem declared Sharia4Belgium’s intention to destroy city monuments, and members travelled to the Netherlands to disrupt a lecture delivered by two openly gay Muslims. Every weekend, the group held demonstrations in public squares in Antwerp and Brussels, as well as in the small towns along the train line between them. Sharia4Belgium enjoyed the protection of the same free-expression laws that the group sought to dismantle. “It was a little bit irritating,” the Belgian security official told me, but “it’s very clear that you’re not going to demolish democracy in Belgium by giving flyers to people.”
Belkacem also established contact with jihadis in other countries. “He had connections with people in Denmark and other parts of Europe,” Choudary told me. One prominent jihadi ideologue in the Middle East, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, advised Belkacem to focus on recruitment. The goal was to establish Sharia law not just in Belgium but everywhere.
When Jejoen first visited the headquarters of Sharia4Belgium, Belkacem asked him if he was prepared to learn the Koran “without any distortion or editing or interpretation.” He then sent Jejoen back to De Koepel with a set of questions for Van Ael, the imam, including one about the validity of hatred in the name of Allah. “Van Ael literally told me that this was the ideology of Sharia4Belgium,” Jejoen said, “and that I should turn away from it.” But Belkacem had quoted verses from the Koran and the hadith to convince Jejoen of his interpretation of Islam. Van Ael’s response only affirmed Jejoen’s belief in Belkacem’s message.
“Typical recruitment patterns in Europe and the West tell us that it helps if that person doesn’t have a religious background,” Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist recruiter who now runs a counter-extremism think tank in London called Quilliam, told me. Converts and the newly devout, “dislocated from the traditional hierarchies” of Islam, are less likely to challenge a purported authority on religious matters.
Jejoen adopted a Muslim name, Sayfullah Ahlu Sunna. He also took a kunya, a kind of nickname that in the Arab world reflects familial relations and endearment but in jihadi circles is also used to obscure identity. Jejoen’s kunya was Abu Assya; Belkacem’s was Abu Imran. In Sharia4Belgium, most members, who were known as brothers, addressed one another by their kunyas.
Belkacem ran an intensive twenty-four-week program of ideological training. He began by declaring that the world was divided into two groups: Muslims and non-Muslims. In mainstream mosques, nuance and interpretive religious scholarship are encouraged. Notes collected in police raids show that Belkacem’s lessons reduced the world to flowcharts and categories: Muslims versus infidels; Sharia versus democracy. Belkacem taught the brothers that most imams ignore discussions of jihad and martyrdom because they want to keep state funding. Bart Buytaert, the chairman of De Koepel, told me, “Belkacem and Sharia4Belgium accused us of being non-Muslims.”
Jejoen began spending most of his free time at the headquarters of Sharia4Belgium. One of the brothers regularly led martial-arts classes there, which some members supplemented with kickboxing training at a nearby gym. Choudary, who is identified in police files as a financial supporter of Sharia4Belgium, lectured remotely, through a video-chat Web site called Paltalk. Choudary’s mentor, Omar Bakri Muhammad, a radical preacher who became known in London as the Tottenham Ayatollah, did the same from Lebanon, where he lived after being exiled from the U.K. Choudary also fostered an exchange program, through which Belkacem’s followers came to England to study with him, and some of his followers visited the Sharia4Belgium headquarters. On one occasion, Choudary and a group of his followers travelled to the Netherlands, to deliver a lecture for the brothers of Sharia4Belgium and its partner organization Sharia4Holland “about the methodology to overthrow the regimes.” The visit was captured by a documentary crew from the Belgian channel RTBF. “I come from England in order to radicalize the youth in this country,” Choudary said. One Sharia4Belgium member remarked to a British counterpart, “Sometimes you need laptop, sometimes you need Kalashnikov.”
Members were discouraged from sharing information about the group with their parents. Choudary told me, “There’s no need for them to be informed.” When Jejoen’s parents asked where he was spending so much time, he said that he was playing video games with friends. Jejoen routinely came home late and struggled to get up in the mornings. “Step by step, he started to neglect his responsibilities,” Dimitri said. Some of the brothers dropped out of school. Many lost interest in friends who weren’t affiliated with Sharia4Belgium. Choudary said that it was “natural” that members would “distance ourselves from our previous life, and our previous friends and behavior.”
Dimitri found out about his son’s membership in Sharia4Belgium in late 2011, shortly after Jejoen joined the group. Then a brother named Michael Delefortrie—who had named his two sons for founding members of Al Qaeda—was arrested for trying to sell a Kalashnikov online. Belkacem held a press conference that was covered by an evening-news show. Dimitri was watching television at home that evening when he spotted Jejoen next to Belkacem on the screen. Dimitri told the police that Jejoen was a minor, and asked them to extract him from the group, but he says that a judge told him that there was nothing they could do.
Then, one evening in February, 2012, the principal of Jejoen’s high school warned the police that Jejoen had threatened to “purge” the school. A juvenile court ordered Jejoen to see a counsellor, but, according to Dimitri, she didn’t know anything about Islam. “How you can solve a problem if the other parts don’t even know where is Mecca?” he said. Dimitri started visiting the Sharia4Belgium headquarters, hoping to find evidence of illegal activity. “I always had a feeling that something is going wrong inside that clubhouse,” he told me. Dimitri and Rose invited Belkacem to their house, but he was adept at deflecting their inquiries, and Dimitri never saw any extremist materials inside the headquarters. Though police raids later discovered fundamentalist literature—including a pamphlet with instructions on how to beat women “with a corrective and educational intent”—it was kept in members’ homes, not at the Sharia4Belgium headquarters.
As part of the indoctrination program, the brothers often watched archived lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen a little more than a month before Jejoen’s first visit to Sharia4Belgium. They also watched footage of battles in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and other jihadi conflict zones, and came to think of the mujahideen in the videos as selfless heroes defending Islam against corrupt crusaders. One day, they watched a video of a beheading. Members discussed where they’d like to fight in the future, from Libya to Somalia to the Seychelles. “You sit for months in a group in which jihad is considered quite normal,” Jejoen said.
Jejoen continued to text girls, which was forbidden by Belkacem; one day, he ordered a brother to destroy Jejoen’s SIM card. Months later, Jejoen got in worse trouble for proselytizing on his own. Other Sharia4Belgium members said that Jejoen was using the activity as an excuse to meet girls. Belkacem accused him of practicing “exorcism.” He was temporarily suspended from the group.
Belkacem dedicated the last four weeks of the course to teaching the importance of loyalty toward Muslims, and disavowal of non-Muslims. The prospect of excommunication kept most members obedient; one brother, who was in his late teens, was required to undergo circumcision. The program’s final task was a written exam. The questions were rudimentary, including “What does Islam mean?” and “Should I vote?” (Members were discouraged from voting, on the ground that it acknowledged the legitimacy of the democratic process.) One student, whose exam was found in the police raid, scored eighty-four per cent. Today, he is believed to be a member of the religious police in Raqqa.
By February, 2012, Belgian police were wiretapping phone calls within the group. But many of the trainees were petty criminals familiar with police tactics, and a former Belgian counterterrorism investigator told me, “They know the way. They buy a cheap cell phone, and they throw it away.”
Belkacem never explicitly instructed his followers to fight in Syria. But he taught them that martyrdom on the battlefield, which he called “pure Islam,” yielded the greatest reward in paradise. “The battle is not only an invitation, but an individual obligation,” Walid Lakdim, a Sharia4Belgium member, said in a police interrogation after returning from Syria.
At the time, the Syrian revolution was not known for its foreign jihadi element. The face of the rebel side was the Free Syrian Army, a loose affiliation of groups, some of which were led by officers who had defected from Assad’s government forces after refusing to shoot unarmed protesters. The rebels spoke of the eventual triumph of democracy over Assad’s brutal regime.
In 2011, a Sharia4Belgium member named Nabil Kasmi travelled to Lebanon, where he visited Choudary’s mentor, Omar Bakri Muhammad, who was living under house arrest in Tripoli, a coastal city in the north. Kasmi returned to Belgium a few months later, but, in March, 2012, he came back to Lebanon. At the same time, other Sharia4Belgium members travelled to Yemen, where they were detained and subsequently deported, under suspicion of trying to join Al Qaeda. Then, in May, Kasmi crossed into Syria. Jejoen told police that Kasmi called Sharia4Belgium headquarters, declaring that “he was in Syria to fight.” According to a Lebanese military court, Bakri Muhammad and Kasmi helped a few European jihadis establish themselves in Al Qaeda-affiliated groups across the Syrian border. “Once they were ready to go to Syria,” the Belgian security official said, “they had a whole operational network,” owing to Sharia4Belgium’s ties to Bakri Muhammad and Choudary. (Choudary denied sending people to Syria, and said, “If I were to send someone somewhere, I would go there first.”)
The following month, Belkacem was arrested and imprisoned for instigating hate. One of his wives, Stephanie Djato, had refused to comply with a Belgian law that bans full-face coverings in public. (Though polygamy is illegal in Belgium, Belkacem has married at least two women in religious ceremonies.) When a female police officer tried to remove her niqab, Djato head-butted her, breaking the officer’s nose. Belkacem and Choudary both posted statements online, threatening retribution against the police for removing Djato’s niqab. Riots ensued in Brussels, and two police officers were stabbed by a man carrying Sharia4-Belgium literature.
With Belkacem in jail, Sharia4Belgium was rudderless. The members continued their video sessions with Choudary, who invited them to protest the Olympics, which were held in London that July. Kasmi returned to Belgium for a short period. Then, on August 20, 2012, he left for Syria again; the next day, five other members followed. In September, Jejoen and several other Sharia4Belgium members participated in demonstrations against “Innocence of Muslims,” a film that depicted the prophet Muhammad as a homosexual and a child-molester and which sparked deadly protests across the Middle East and North Africa. By October, the group had dissolved, and in the next eighteen months about fifty Belgians directly affiliated with Sharia4Belgium made their way to Syria. Those who arrived first joined groups that were later absorbed into Al Qaeda and ISIS; the others mostly joined ISIS directly. Only Belkacem stayed behind. In a long open letter, written from jail, Belkacem insisted that he was only a provocateur, comparing himself to Pussy Riot and Femen.
In February, 2013, shortly after Jejoen’s eighteenth birthday, he woke up from a dream in which Azeddine, the friend who had introduced him to Sharia4Belgium, was praying for help. They hadn’t seen each other in five months. A few days later, Jejoen’s phone rang, and a number appeared beginning with 963, the Syrian country code. It was Azeddine. Jejoen asked him who else was in Syria. “Everyone,” he replied.
On the pretext of going to Amsterdam with friends, Jejoen borrowed his father’s suitcase and packed it with a sleeping bag, warm clothes, a flashlight, and—on Azeddine’s request—night-vision goggles. Another Sharia4Belgium member, already in Syria, told Jejoen how to get to the border between Turkey and Syria. Jejoen left home on February 21, 2013, without knowing the name of the group that he would join. He expected that he “would fall martyr within a short time and would go to paradise,” he said. He believed, as he had been told, that “good deeds erase bad deeds, and jihad is the best deed” of all.
At Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam, Jejoen dawdled so long at a Burger King that he missed his flight to Istanbul. He had forgotten his passport, too, but his Belgian identity card sufficed. He had been instructed to meet two other aspiring jihadis in Istanbul, but he ended up at the wrong airport. So he continued alone, flying to Adana, in southern Turkey, where they all finally met in a café. Together, they took a bus to Antakya, a city near the Syrian border.
A smuggler met them there and drove them to a village in the mountains, where they waited with other jihadis for the signal to cross. Once in Syria, Jejoen and his companions texted other Sharia4Belgium members and asked to be picked up. By nightfall on February 22nd, Jejoen was in a car, reunited with his friends from Belgium. “I found it strange to see them with weapons,” he told police. “I hesitated and then asked if this was what I had come for.” Soon, the car pulled up to a walled villa in Kafr Hamra, a small town on the outskirts of Aleppo. Around seventy pairs of shoes, belonging to Belgian, Dutch, and French jihadis, were arrayed on racks outside the front door. Inside, Jejoen met Amr al-Absi, the Syrian emir in charge of the Mujahideen Shura Council, a group of international jihadis whose goal was to transform the northern part of the country into an Islamic state. Absi had been severely injured in battle, and had several broken ribs and a large open wound on his left leg.
Absi’s family is from Aleppo, but he was born in Saudi Arabia, probably in 1979. His older brother, a dentist named Firas, trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Amr and Firas are thought to have joined Al Qaeda in Iraq, which became the Islamic State of Iraq; the group’s aim was to establish an Islamic caliphate that would spread throughout the Middle East and beyond. In 2007, Amr al-Absi was arrested in Syria, and held in the Al Qaeda wing of Sednaya prison, with hundreds of other extremists. Four years later, in June, 2011, Assad released them. It was a turning point in the Syrian war. Assad had stated that the opposition was full of terrorists, a claim that the mysterious amnesty then fulfilled. It seemed like a calculated move to poison the nascent Syrian revolution.
Absi took up the leadership of a jihadi brigade near the Syrian city of Homs. His brother Firas had recently founded a group called the Shura Council of the Islamic State, which gained notoriety after raising the Al Qaeda flag at the border gates near Bab al-Hawa, a major crossing point between Turkey and Syria, in July, 2012. It was the first mention of an Islamic state in the Syrian civil war. The following week, the group kidnapped two European journalists, Jeroen Oerlemans and John Cantlie. Moderate Syrian rebels rescued and released the journalists a week later. Firas’s extremism was a liability to the revolution, and in September, 2012, he was kidnapped and murdered by moderate rebels. Amr al-Absi inherited his brother’s role as emir, and the group changed its name to the Mujahideen Shura Council.
In Kafr Hamra, Absi divided his fighters according to origin. Most of the Europeans, including the Sharia4Belgium members, lived in a walled villa, with an indoor swimming pool and a fountain. The Arabs, and some luckier Europeans, lived in a nearby complex, known as “the palace,” which was said to have been captured from an official in the Assad regime. It had a fuelling station, an orchard the size of a football field, and a rooftop pool.
Absi designated Houssien Elouassaki, a twenty-one-year-old Sharia4Belgium member, as the leader of the European group. When Absi wasn’t present, Elouassaki decided matters ranging from who washed the dishes to which Europeans would be allowed to join them in Syria. “It is something incredible,” his brother Abdel, who remained in Belgium, told a friend over the phone. “He is the youngest emir in the world.”
Absi’s fighters didn’t know his real name. They called him Sheikh, or Emir, or by his kunya, Abu Asir. Jejoen told police that the Belgians mostly knew him as “the big financier of everything.” Absi bought the weapons, the fuel, and the food, and when fighters were injured in battle he covered their medical expenses.
In early December, 2012, the Mujahideen Shura Council assisted Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadi group that five months later became Al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate, in an attack on an Army outpost called Base 111, near the village of Sheikh Suleiman. It was Assad’s last major base west of Aleppo, and soon the Al Qaeda flag flew overhead. Absi’s group took prisoners, and initially, a jihadi said in a wiretapped call, they planned to use them for ransom or prisoner exchanges. Instead, “Everyone cut someone’s throat,” Houssien Elouassaki told his brother Abdel over the phone. Afterward, the Army base, which stretched over five hundred acres, became a jihadi training camp. Jabhat al-Nusra controlled the checkpoint to the camp, but Absi’s group trained on its own.
Training lasted twenty days. Each morning began with a ninety-minute run led by a former Egyptian special-forces officer, followed by two hours of tactical lessons with unloaded weapons and simulated attacks, a short break for lunch and prayers, and lectures by Islamist scholars. Lessons were given in Arabic and translated by bilingual jihadis into Dutch. In the evenings, the Europeans took turns on sentry duty.
By late December, the Europeans of the Mujahideen Shura Council were setting up roadblocks on the main road through Kafr Hamra and stopping buses. They rifled through passengers’ belongings, hoping to identify Shia, Christian, Alawite, and Kurdish civilians by small signs: a necklace with a cross, a garment that signified a particular tradition, a picture of Iran’s ayatollah stored on a mobile phone.
Hakim Elouassaki, one of Houssien’s older brothers, joined him in Syria. He explained the routine in phone calls to his girlfriend in Belgium, captured by a wiretap. “We take every unbeliever . . . and we take his money and everything from him,” he said. “I can take money, as much as I want . . . but it must be in the path of Allah.” Only the Sunnis were spared. Hakim stole a gold ring from a Kurd and a laptop from a Christian. His girlfriend later recounted to a friend that, when she offered to send Hakim an iPhone from Belgium, he told her not to bother, because he was “waiting to steal it from an infidel.”
At the roadblocks, the Belgians held Syrian civilians for ransom. “Normally it is seventy thousand” euros, Hakim told his girlfriend. “If they do not pay, then we kill them.” But prices varied according to the victim’s sect. Hakim released an Armenian Christian after his family paid thirty thousand euros, but, when the brother of a captured Shiite civilian delivered the same amount of money, Hakim killed him. That evening, Hakim called his girlfriend. “As I shot him, he put up his hand,” he said, “so the bullet went through his hand and his head.” Yet Hakim felt unfulfilled. “I wish the filming worked when I killed him,” he said. “I placed the camera badly, and it filmed nothing.” (Hakim has since denied killing anyone in Syria.) The Europeans filmed other murders, though, including the beheading of an old man. In the video, one jihadi saws at his neck with a knife, while another hacks at the same wound with a rusty machete, to the excitement of the others.
Jejoen told Belgian police that as soon as he arrived in Syria he wished he could leave. He said that he was sickened by the violence, and that he tried to get out of the mandatory training. One day, he went to a hospital for a sinus infection, and asked the doctor to write an extra prescription for antidepressants.
On his third day at the training camp, Jejoen received a black headband with “Mujahideen Shura Council” printed in white Arabic letters. It was the first time he learned the name of his affiliation. Beyond these headbands, the group had no uniform. Shortly after dawn prayers one day, Jejoen asked one of the camp leaders if he could return to Belgium. He cited a medical issue. The jihadi expressed surprise, but said that he would not stand in the way. Houssien Elouassaki, the Belgian emir and Absi’s deputy, was less sympathetic. He demanded Jejoen’s mobile phone and identity card. Jejoen handed over his card, but claimed that he didn’t have his phone on him.
After dawn prayers on Tuesday, March 5th, Jejoen’s eleventh day in Syria, he ate breakfast with his friend Azeddine and Houssien Elouassaki. When the meal was over, they seized him, bound his hands, and marched him up a steep trail to a bunker, which had been converted into a prison. Jejoen was chained in the cell without being told what he had done. About two weeks later, Elouassaki came in and interrogated him. He referred to a text message on Jejoen’s phone, but wouldn’t explain what it said. After another couple of weeks, more members of Sharia4Belgium came into the bunker and told Jejoen that Dimitri had shown up at their villa. They asked how he knew of the location.
After Jejoen left for Syria, Dimitri began trawling the Internet for clues to his whereabouts. He had learned that other Sharia4Belgium members were in Syria, and thought that Jejoen must be among them. “I was sending more than a thousand messages,” Dimitri told me. “Never reply on his phone.” One day, Dimitri found a YouTube video showing several Belgian jihadis in a field with yellow flowers. One of them looked like Jejoen. “When I saw that, I couldn’t continue my life here,” Dimitri told me. He decided to go to Syria to find his son.
Dimitri announced his intention in the Belgian press, and two journalists, Joanie de Rijke and Narciso Contreras, offered to help him, in exchange for the story. Both had covered the region, and had connections in rebel-held parts of Syria. Dimitri met them in Turkey, and they crossed into Syria in early April, staying with pro-revolution activists in Aleppo.
On a moonless night a week later, they drove to Absi’s villa. Dimitri was exhausted and sunburned, and his clothes reeked of sweat. Armed jihadis told the journalists to stay in the car but allowed Dimitri to come inside, along with two Syrian activists. Dimitri removed his shoes by the entrance to the villa. Inside, dozens of Jejoen’s comrades and captors, most of them wearing balaclavas and scarves, sat on couches and on the floor of the living room. Some were holding AK-47s, though the room was supposed to be reserved for surfing the Internet or playing video games on a flat-screen television that was mounted on the wall.
Absi, a skeletal man in his early thirties, was not wearing a balaclava, and he had long, thick black hair and an even thicker beard. Sitting on a couch, his wounded leg propped up, he beckoned Dimitri over and said, in English, that there were no Belgians in his ranks. But, when Dimitri stood to leave, Absi snapped his fingers and several jihadis yanked a black hood over his head, cuffed his hands, stripped him naked, beat him, and stuck the barrel of a Kalashnikov in his mouth. Who gave Dimitri the location? they asked. Did Jejoen leak secrets about the training camp to his father? The jihadis interrogated Dimitri in English, and took his passport and his phone, saying that they would kill him if they found any mention of the police. Then they forced him to mimic the sounds and movements of chickens, horses, and goats. A bright light shone through the black hood, and Dimitri assumed that the militants were filming the interrogation. He had seen hostage videos before, and feared that he’d be blackmailed or killed.
Finally, the militants removed the hood, gave him some tea, and, after further questioning, returned his passport and told him to leave. Dimitri climbed into the car. In his absence, the Syrian driver and one of the journalists had been beaten and threatened with execution. Shaken, after a few days they returned to Kilis, a Turkish town on the Syrian border. Weeks later, Dimitri went back to Aleppo, but again failed to find Jejoen.
Dimitri soon left for Belgium, where he began a campaign to bring attention to his son’s case in the media. Eventually, he released a video in which he fired guns and exchanged calls of “Allahu akbar” with Syrian rebels. He told me that his outlandish behavior was designed to court publicity for Jejoen, in the hope of bringing him home, but his antics suggested someone out of his depth. With a ghostwriter, he produced a book called “Jihadi Against His Will,” which featured a photograph of a shirtless Jejoen on the cover. Dimitri acquired a reputation for eccentricity and lurid exaggeration; later, he fabricated a story that Jejoen’s girlfriend had given birth to triplets, in Belgium, and even invented names for the imaginary children.
Dimitri’s visit convinced the Belgian jihadis that Jejoen was a spy. A week later, Amr al-Absi, still on crutches, hobbled up the rocky hill to Jejoen’s cell to ask if he had sought help from Israel. “I told him that this was one big mistake,” Jejoen said. His father had sent a text message mentioning Israeli contacts, and Elouassaki had found it while looking through Jejoen’s phone.
A few days later, Jejoen was released, on the condition that he complete his training and fully commit to the group. When another Belgian jihadi told Jejoen that he was homesick, and asked for his help in escaping, Jejoen agreed, and said that he’d go with him. But it was a setup. As they were sneaking out of the camp, a BMW with Belgian plates pulled up. Jejoen was taken at gunpoint and driven to another building on the compound, where Absi stood, loading a pistol. Jejoen was forced to kneel at his feet. Then Absi aimed at his head and pulled the trigger. “I closed my eyes and heard a bang,” Jejoen told police.
Absi had loaded the gun with blanks. He laughed, and asked Jejoen if he had died. “I said nothing,” Jejoen told police. “He felt my neck and told me that I had soft skin.” Then someone reached for a machete on the wall. “I thought I was going to be beheaded, because that is the judgment of the spies,” Jejoen said. Instead, the jihadis tortured him for four days, gagging him and then whipping him with electrical cables until he could no longer walk.
In 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a militant jihadist from Samarra and a former prisoner of the U.S., was named the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq. In the next few years, the I.S.I. captured large portions of northern and western Iraq, near the Syrian border. According to the journalist Rania Abouzeid, writing in Politico, Baghdadi sent emissaries to Syria in 2011 to capitalize on the chaos of the revolution and prepare to establish an Islamic state there.
Baghdadi was supposed to take orders from Al Qaeda’s leadership. But, on April 8, 2013, he announced that the I.S.I. had added Syria to its mandate, creating ISIS, and that Syria’s jihadis were obliged to consolidate under his leadership. This set up a power struggle. Jabhat al-Nusra insisted on remaining loyal to Al Qaeda. Absi, whose membership in the I.S.I. had caused his imprisonment in Sednaya, guided the Mujahideen Shura Council directly into Baghdadi’s control. (Only a few defectors joined al-Nusra. One was the Belgian emir, Houssien Elouassaki. Within weeks, he was murdered by his former allies.)
An anonymous Twitter account called Wikibaghdady, with apparent inside knowledge of ISIS’s leadership, has asserted that Absi’s group was “the first branch for Baghdadi in Syria.” Absi and Baghdadi discussed ways to depict other rebel groups as puppets of intelligence agencies, Wikibaghdady wrote. Soon, fighters in other jihadi brigades began to defect to ISIS in large numbers. Richard Barrett, a former director of Global Counter Terrorism Operations for the British Secret Intelligence Service and a senior vice-president of the Soufan Group, a security company that tracks Islamic extremism, told me, “My impression is that, were it not for the Absis, you wouldn’t have got that sudden flow of foreigners away from al-Nusra into the Islamic State.” Absi’s loyalty proved to many that “it wasn’t Al Qaeda’s show; it was Baghdadi’s show.” In return, Baghdadi made Absi the Wali of Aleppo, overseeing all Islamic State operations within the province. From then on, abduction on the road to Aleppo became a greater risk for Western journalists and aid workers than living under bombardment in the embattled city.
Isolated in his cell, Jejoen didn’t know that ISIS existed until at least seven weeks after the rest of the world did, even though he was now its prisoner. In August, he was transported to an ISIS prison in the basement of Aleppo’s children’s hospital, where some captives were chained to radiators. Many were tortured, and sometimes Jejoen heard gunshots. He told police that the Mujahideen Shura Council usually beheaded prisoners, but the Islamic State used bullets. After a few days, Jejoen’s captors moved him to a cell with three emaciated Western prisoners. Two of them, the journalists James Foley and John Cantlie, had been captured nearly a year before. (Cantlie was reportedly abducted while working on a film about his first kidnapping.) The third was a German hostage named Toni Neukirch.
Foley and Cantlie had been kidnapped together, in November, 2012, after leaving an Internet café near Aleppo to drive back to Turkey. They told Jejoen that their captors belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra, but they were moved to different locations, and eventually fell into Absi’s hands.
For three weeks, Jejoen, Foley, and Cantlie played word-association games like Animal, Vegetable, Mineral to pass the time. Foley and Cantlie had undergone torture, including waterboarding, and Cantlie’s ankles were scarred from the chains. Foley and Cantlie had converted to Islam while in captivity, so the group prayed together, and discussed their faith.
One day in mid-September, the emir of the prison, a Dutch jihadi, said that Jejoen could leave if he returned to a training camp or performed lookout duty near the Sheikh Najjar industrial complex, in Aleppo, a site of intense fighting. He chose the latter. The jihadi told Jejoen that Foley and Cantlie would soon be sent to a training camp.
Jejoen had been in prison more than six months. The captors who had tortured him over the Israel text message had moved on to other locations, and nobody seemed to care how he passed his time. He spent the next several days testing the limits of his freedom, leaving his post for hours at a time. Sometimes, he said, he went to Internet cafés to see how long it would take for anyone to notice. He also briefly fought in a battle north of Aleppo; the European fighters called the front line there the “gates of heaven.” Jejoen’s lawyer admitted that he fired a grenade, but said that he did it out of boredom.
On October 7th, Jejoen sent a message to his father: “Maybe I will leave now.”
“To where?” Dimitri wrote back.
Having been a captive for most of his time in Syria, Jejoen knew nothing of the country’s geography, so Dimitri helped plan his route. “I have studied all topographic maps,” Dimitri wrote Jejoen. “I know it by heart!” Because of fighting between moderate rebels and ISIS forces near the closest border crossing into Turkey, Jejoen’s best way out was a longer route, through ISIS territory west of Aleppo. They decided that Jejoen should take a bus to a Syrian hospital near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, where his father had established contacts. Dimitri travelled to Reyhanli, a dusty town on the Turkish side of the crossing, and gave his contacts three hundred dollars and Jejoen’s passport. The next day, they smuggled Jejoen across the border, dropping him at Dimitri’s hotel.
Dimitri and Jejoen took a bus to Antakya, where Dimitri bought his son a silver ring with an onyx stone, which he wears every day. They flew to Amsterdam, and Dimitri rented a bungalow at a Dutch campsite, where they enjoyed a brief vacation. Jejoen told his father that he had hoped to ride horses in Syria, so Dimitri arranged for them to ride together in the countryside. After a few days, they returned to Antwerp.
In early 2014, ISIS transported Foley, Cantlie, and its other Western hostages to Raqqa, abandoning prisons that were filled with Syrian captives. When another faction of rebels opened the prisons, they encountered only corpses. Wikibaghdady wrote that Amr al-Absi had issued an order “to leave no one alive in the prisons.”
Last fall, Absi was inducted into the Islamic State Shura Council, a group of advisers who answer directly to Baghdadi. Richard Barrett, the former spy chief, told me that Absi’s role on the council was to oversee ISIS’s media strategy. In August, Foley was executed by ISIS. The video showing his beheading was broadcast throughout the world. Cantlie is now the only publicly acknowledged Western hostage still held by the Islamic State. Since the fall, he has appeared in Islamic State propaganda, recently serving as a narrator of videos from cities under Islamic State control. While filming an episode in Mosul, Cantlie spotted a drone overhead. “Trying to rescue me again?” he shouted at the sky. “Do something!” (Absi, according to a U.S. official, was killed in an air strike last November.)
Desperate to bring Jejoen back to Belgium, Dimitri had assured him that he wouldn’t go to prison, but on October 18, 2013, hours after they arrived in Antwerp, Belgian police arrested Jejoen at his mother’s apartment. (While he was in Syria, Dimitri and Rose had divorced.) The forensic medical examiner at Antwerp University Hospital noted dozens of scars on his back, abdomen, wrists, and the tops of his feet. After initial questioning, Jejoen was interrogated by officials from the security forces of several countries, including the U.S. and the U.K. His descriptions of Foley’s tattoos and Cantlie’s family history were the first indications since the hostages had disappeared that they were still alive.
Jejoen’s testimony to the police contributed to the prosecutor’s case against forty-six members of Sharia4Belgium, including himself. The group was collectively prosecuted as a terrorist organization; members were individually charged with numerous other crimes, ranging from threatening to kill Belgian politicians to abducting and torturing Jejoen. Jejoen was charged with being a member of ISIS for the number of days that he had not spent as its prisoner, and for being a member of Sharia4Belgium before that. Only eight of the forty-six Sharia4Belgium members appeared in court. The rest are in Syria—most still fighting, and some already dead.
The trial began last September, almost a year after Jejoen’s return, in Antwerp’s Palace of Justice, a glass-and-steel complex. Armed security forces lined the perimeter of the courtroom, monitoring the visitors’ gallery. On December 10th, the last day of hearings, two police officers brought Belkacem—dressed in an olive jumpsuit, handcuffed, and restrained with a thick belt—into the courtroom.
Twenty minutes into the proceedings, the magistrate invited Belkacem to make his plea. He spoke so quietly that people in the courtroom stood up and leaned toward him, straining to hear. “I am a Muslim, not a terrorist,” he said.
“Liar!” Ozana Rodrigues, the mother of Brian De Mulder, who is now fighting in Raqqa, shouted. Belkacem calmly asked whether it was “a crime to promote your faith.”
The verdict and the sentencing for Belkacem, Jejoen, and the others were set for January 14, 2015. I visited Antwerp for six weeks this winter, while the judges were deliberating. “My life is totally destroyed,” Dimitri told me. He hasn’t held a job in two years. When we arranged our first meeting, he asked me to bring either red wine or whiskey. As his ex-wife remarked, “He doesn’t drink water anymore.”
In 2014, against the advice of his lawyers and the Belgian government, Dimitri started taking other parents of jihadis to Syria, for a small fee, to search for their children. Last summer, when I met him in Kilis, he was guiding two Belgian fathers into Islamic State territory. One of them, Pol Van Hessche, later told me that he had taken a car into northern Syria and stopped at the front gate of a jihadi villa near Manbij. It was a holding place for young fighters waiting to go to an Islamic State training camp. His son, Lucas, came out of the building, and Pol pleaded with him to come home. Lucas refused.
Other parents of jihadis told me that Dimitri offered the only hope that one day they might reunite with their children. One evening, in Antwerp, Dimitri assured Ozana Rodrigues that he could guide her into Raqqa to find her son, who had recently fathered a child with a Dutch jihadi bride. But later, drinking whiskey in his apartment, he insisted that he was finished with Syria. “I cannot continue my life like this,” he said. Then the phone rang, and after he hung up he announced that he had a new mission: “You think I’m going to say no when a mother is crying in my face?” He continued, “I wake up with Syria, and I go to sleep with Syria.”
Dimitri’s efforts to gain publicity for his son, and for parents facing a similar situation to his own, have been perhaps too successful. He has taken to speaking in sound bites, calling himself Mother Teresa, for his attempts to help parents of other jihadis, and describing Jejoen as being “just like Edward Snowden,” for leaking jihadi secrets. Outside the courtroom, Dimitri shouted at TV cameras, in English, “Bin Laden is laughing from hell, Belkacem is laughing from the cell.” This month, Dimitri received an eight-month prison sentence for a 2013 incident in which he hit a former girlfriend, the daughter of a judge, and held her hostage in a hotel room. (He has since appealed.) After the judgment, he compared his plight to that of Nelson Mandela.
On New Year’s Eve, two weeks before the sentencing, Jejoen and I ate at his favorite Chinese restaurant in Antwerp. He had grown out his hair and his beard since returning to Belgium. As we shared a large bony fish, Jejoen told me that he still believes in the caliphate, and sees it as “something which you can’t stop or hold back.” It irks him that his father believes he is “no longer radical,” though he attributes this, in part, to his own minor deceptions. When Dimitri is around, Jejoen wears trousers, but “when he doesn’t see it” he wears a qamis, a traditional Muslim garment.
I asked Jejoen about the execution of James Foley, and he said that it was a question “for scholars” of Islam, adding, “I can’t say anything about it, because I’m not at that level.” He told me that there is “no difference” between his views and those of his “spiritual leader,” Belkacem. With the prospect of prison looming, Jejoen seemed to have recast in his mind his experience in Syria. He declared that his only regret about his time there was that he returned to Belgium. Living in Raqqa, he said, “might be cool.” He had been home for more than a year, and was frequently recognized and harassed on the streets of Antwerp. In recent months, Jejoen had sat in court next to other Sharia4Belgium defendants, some of whom had repeatedly lied to the authorities; his coöperation seemed to have carried no benefit. He hadn’t been offered a plea deal or witness protection, because, the Belgian security official said, “that’s just the system in Belgium.”
Although he had divulged jihadi secrets in his police interrogations, Jejoen believed that he could return to Syria unscathed. “People think I can’t go there, because I’ll get killed,” he told me. But he compared his coöperation with the authorities—which other Sharia4Belgium members liken to treason—to committing a minor sin, such as drinking alcohol while in Belgium. “You cannot be punished for that” in the caliphate, he said, “because it didn’t take place there.”
We left the restaurant, and Jejoen headed back to his mother’s apartment. A few nights later, he called me from an unfamiliar phone number and asked for “urgent” help. “I would like to go to Turkey,” he said. He told me that it would be just for a holiday in a seaside resort in Antalya—where the temperature was barely above freezing. He faced no restrictions on his travel, and said he would return to Antwerp for the sentencing. He planned to travel with his girlfriend, a Belgian of Algerian descent, whom his father described as “extremist.” He asked to use my credit card, and promised to give me eight hundred euros immediately. The flight left in nine hours. I said no.
Later that night, Dimitri stood in the freezing alley outside his front door, smoking a cigarette. “One of my Syrian connections said that my son called to them, three weeks ago,” he told me. Jejoen later denied it, telling his father, “If I want to go back in, I know how to go.” Dimitri believed that if Jejoen went to Syria the Islamic State would kill him. “You will see him in a video,” he said. Nonetheless, Dimitri gave his son the money for the trip to Antalya.
Before sunrise the next day, Jejoen was arrested at Brussels Airport. His journey violated a restraining order filed by his girlfriend, after a fight nearly two months before. (They had since resolved their issues and she had asked for the order to be cancelled.) He remained in prison until the sentencing, which was delayed a month, after the Charlie Hebdo murders.
On February 11th, the court concluded that Sharia4Belgium was a terrorist organization. Jejoen was given a forty-month suspended sentence.
Belkacem received twelve years in prison. (He has since appealed his sentence.) “Do you know how much potential there is in prison?” Belkacem once joked with his followers at the Sharia4-Belgium headquarters. “Everyone in prison is against the system,” he said. “Infidels and Muslims alike. There is work to be done. It will be awesome.” ♦
Ben Taub is a 2015 graduate of Columbia’s Journalism School.