What happens to former ISIS fighters?

Ben Taub writes: Michael Delefortrie grew up in a secular Christian household in Antwerp, Belgium, but secretly converted to Islam in 2006, when he was seventeen. One day, he came home from the mosque to discover that his father had dug up his Koran and prayer rug, and placed them on the table as props for the heated dispute to come. “I was a little bit angry that he touched the book,” Delefortrie told me, “because I know it’s a sacred book,” and now it was sullied by his father’s touch. His father was angry too. Delefortrie told me he issued a cruel ultimatum: “If you want to be a Muslim, go.” The teen-ager, who had A.D.H.D. and was trying to stop using alcohol and drugs, moved into an apartment above the mosque. He lived there for the next two years.

Elsewhere in Antwerp, a petty criminal named Fouad Belkacem began to gain notoriety for delivering fiery homophobic rants in public squares, and for demanding that Belgium become an Islamic state, governed by Sharia law. He quickly established a following of young men, named the group Sharia4Belgium, and plugged into an international network of jihadis striving to dismantle liberal European values and institutions. (I wrote about one Sharia4Belgium member, Jejoen Bontinck, for the magazine.) Delefortrie became one of Belkacem’s enthusiastic devotees. In December, 2011, he was arrested for trying to sell a Kalashnikov online. After being temporarily shunned by the group for having drawn too much negative attention, he created a splinter organization called Sharia4Flanders, but never managed to secure the interest of a second member. The following summer, the first Sharia4Belgium member left for Syria. Several dozen others had followed before Delefortrie left home.

In December, 2013, Delefortrie boarded a bus from Antwerp to Cologne, Germany, then took a taxi to Dusseldorf. From there, he flew to Istanbul, Turkey, then south to Adana, near the Syrian border. He paid a smuggler, hopped an unguarded patch of wire fence, and, now in Syria, met up with a Belgian friend, who drove him to an ISIS base in Aleppo. After being questioned about his reasons for coming to Syria, Delefortrie was transported to a large, walled villa housing foreign ISIS recruits. He lived there, among Tunisian, French, Belgian, and Dutch fighters, for five weeks, occasionally updating his Facebook account with pictures of himself dressed in camouflage and gripping a Kalashnikov, until moderate Syrian rebels attacked the villa. He and the other ISIS fighters fled. While the Syrian rebels pilfered their money and belongings, his group took refuge for a couple of days in an abandoned Carrefour shopping mall. Then, “We attacked them,” he told me in a dimly lit bar in Antwerp, this winter, before quickly revising his story: “They” — his comrades — “attacked them,” he emphasized this time.

Shortly after the battle, Delefortrie came back to Belgium, where, a few weeks later, he found himself in an interrogation room, seated opposite federal police. He told them repeatedly that he had never participated in the armed struggle, insisting that he only left for Syria to seek a “better life” and to provide “ideological support.” He dismissed the online pictures of himself carrying guns as “pictures to brag,” and denied any knowledge of a video posted to his Facebook account, titled “ISIS mujahid gives some advice,” claiming, “I don’t know what this movie is about.” Six other Sharia4Belgium members also returned from Syria, some of them offering even flimsier excuses. One claimed to work for the U.N.H.C.R., the U.N. refugee agency, but, when asked to give the full name of the organization, he told police that the first letter “probably stands for United, but I don’t remember the rest.” Another said he had been an ambulance driver, but could not name a single aid organization operating in northern Syria. A third, who confessed to joining a jihadi group that kidnapped, ransomed, and murdered local civilians, swore he only carried out menial tasks, telling police, “I just assumed if a bomb fell on the house while I was doing the dishes, I was also a martyr.” Mark Eeckhaut, a Belgian crime reporter, joked over beers in Antwerp, this winter, “If you believe the guys who are in this trial, nobody is fighting in Syria. Everybody’s cooking.” [Continue reading…]

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