By Ben Taub
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.” Click here to read the rest of this article Journey to Jihad