Europe’s anguish over the rise of homegrown jihadis – young Muslims and Muslim converts who flock to the banner of foreign extremist groups, especially the Islamic State – was on private display here this past week.
Dimitri Bontinck, a burly Belgian ex-soldier who became known as the jihadist hunter after retrieving his own son from Syria, is back on the Turkish border. His mission this time is to establish contact between a distraught father and his son, who like others before him was drawn to a faraway war zone by the idea of jihad.
Both Mr. Bontinck and the father know that the chances of securing the son’s return to Belgium are slim.
“The biggest obstacle is the fear of what is going to happen later,” says Bontinck, sitting in a coffee shop overlooking the Karasu River that flows onto Syria, his next stop.
“They don’t want to return to stay in jail,” Bontinck says. “They live in nice villas with swimming pools. They are having the good life, why should they return to be in jail? I don’t think he will return, but I will be happy if he sees the father.”
The last time the son – an unemployed 23-year-old Belgian of Moroccan origin – spoke to his father he asked for pocket money to go to France. “Later the big surprise came: I was told he went off to Syria. He left in August,” says the father, who declined to be named for fear of compromising the mission.
Feeling let down by their governments and law enforcement, some Western parents are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to tracking down radicalized youth in Syria. All face a tough choice: Do you counsel your child to come back when odds are, in many countries, they will be dealt with as terrorists?
“It is not my son’s fault,” stresses the Belgian-Moroccan father. “It is the fault of recruits who send youths to war.
“My son did well in his (university) studies,” he says. “Then he started praying and attending the mosque. There, people messed with his mind and told him you have to go wage jihad. That’s no joke. We need surveillance, monitor the people who are sending off youths to Syria and arrest them.”
Islamic State (IS) relies on a mix of social media and recruiters to peddle their vision of Islam. Radicalization can happen remarkably quickly: Within weeks, some reportedly buy into the idea of waging jihad and living in the so-called IS-run Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Some are enticed online, others at local mosques.
About 6 percent of foreign fighters in Syria are converts, many are second- or third-generation immigrants, and few have prior ties to Syria, according to a June report by the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm. “As well as being new to war, a significant number of rebel recruits from Western countries are also new to Islam,” the report said.
Bontinck, who first entered Syria in April 2013, before the Islamic State became a concept with global currency, has become a go-to person for parents from Canada to India seeking to replicate his success story. Bontinck retrieved his son, Jejoen, after two trips to Syria.
The search for Jejoen – who was at one point held in the same cell as James Foley, the American journalist executed in August, and the still-captive British journalist John Cantlie – allowed the Belgian to build up a solid network of sources among Islamist rebels in Syria, including IS.
Bontinck is coy about the details of past negotiations and his current caseload, but he has been spotted in Turkey several times this year and his passport is full of Syrian stamps. While some European countries are known to pay for the return of their hostages, he says ransoms are not paid to secure access to volunteer jihadis.
“I see the Islamic State today as a country, as a state, and I negotiate with them in a diplomatic way, in a political way, without violence or stigmatization, and that is the best way to succeed,” Bontinck says.
In the case of his son, it took seven months for his efforts to bear fruit. Other missions bear fruit quickly. For another set of Belgian parents in August it only took six days “to get permission from the emir,” an IS leader, to arrange a visit.
“Let us be clear and honest. From inside the house in Europe, you can’t do anything. You have to come and try to negotiate with them. Islamic State will always respect the parents,” he says.
Parents pay passage
In the case of Mr Foley and other Western abductees, the pleas of parents fell on deaf ears. However, Bontinck says responsibility lies with the West's decision to wage war against IS.
Bontinck says he does not charge for his services but that parents pick up his travel expenses. He estimates that 5,000 to 6,000 Europeans have volunteered for IS (Europe's anti-terrorism chief put the number in September at 3,000.) He reckons that an average of 10 foreigners cross daily into Syria to join the war, including women who hook up online with IS fighters.
For Bontinck's son, a convert to Islam, the ordeal is far from over. He is on trial, one of 46 members of the Islamist group Sharia4Belgium accused of recruiting fighters for IS. Charged with being a member of a terrorist organization, if convicted Jejoen could face up to four years in prison.
Bontinck says his son has been a “golden witness” for the prosecution, providing detailed information about the recruitment and indoctrination process.
While Denmark has taken a different tack by trying to rehabilitate radicalized youth into society, other European countries like France and Britain, have sought to criminalize such behavior and cited the risk of domestic terror attacks.
Bontinck says those who return should be treated as victims, not criminals. “Most of the guys who return wake up and see that they have been misled in the name of religion."