‘He was brainwashed’: Desperate Belgian father searches for son fighting in Syria

As EU security officials become increasingly concerned about the growing number of young Europeans fighting in Syria, a desperate Belgian father went to look for his 18-year-old son in the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo.

I haven’t had a contact with Jejoen, but we assume he’s here in Aleppo," Dmitri Bontinck told Deredactie.be via Skype. "Planes are flying overhead all the time. When we are on the street or inside a building, we hope a bomb won’t drop on us.”

Dimitri, who hails from the northern Belgian city of Antwerp, had to return to Turkey after he failed to track down his son Jejoen in Syria, Flanders Today reported.

Free Syrian Army fighters (Reuters/Saad Abobrahim)

Using publicly available data, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICRS) estimated that up to 5,500 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria since the beginning of the uprising, about 10 percent of whom came from Europe.

About 500 Europeans – mostly from the UK, Ireland and France – are now fighting against Bashar Assad's regime alongside the rebels in Syria, the EU's anti-terror chief told the BBC earlier this week.  According to the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, Syria has seen a rise in the number of EU citizens traveling to the country as jihadists to “fight alongside groups associated with religiously inspired terrorism."

The report showed that Syria was the “destination of choice for foreign fighters in 2012," highlighting the risk of EU citizens using their new training and knowledge to commit acts of terrorism in Europe after they return.

“What we often see is that these people have at a certain point been in contact with a radical extremist group which has attracted them and afterwards they’ve started to become more radicalized,” Michele Cercone, spokesman for the EU Home Affairs Commissioner, told RT.

Jejoen Bontinck’s father Dimitri speaking from Aleppo via Skype

Dimitri Bontinck has struggled to track down his son by himself, receiving no help from Belgian authorities: “We don't expect that Belgium will send an army to Syria, I think that's clear. So that's also why Dimitri Bontinck was eager to go himself, he said I want to do something for my son,” Dmitri’s lawyer Kris Luyckx told RT.
 
Those who knew Jejoen recalled that he began to change about three years ago, influenced by the radicals he met in his native Belgium.

“He made contact with some people on the street and there was also a story about an untold love, he had a girlfriend, it didn't work out, and there were some friends who said, okay come with us and very slowly, it started that he was really influenced and really brainwashed – those are the words of my client,” Luyckx explained.

Jejoen Bontinck

Jejoen grew a beard, started wearing “different” clothes, and got into the habit of praying five times a day. “It was a little bit awkward for a son of 15, 16 years old, so he was really under the influence of radical people,” Luyckx added.
 
In mid-April, Belgian police stormed 46 homes in Antwerp and arrested Foaud Belkacem, the leader of the radical Islamist group Shariah4Belgium. The Salafist group is known for opposing Syrian President Assad. Belkacem was taken to prison for hate speech and calls justifying the use of violence.  He has been charged with terrorism, and could face up to 20 years in jail.

Terrorism expert Claude Moniquet told RT that the rising numbers of radicalized youth is alarming, and that many of them are impressionable to radicalism: “The first question is, why they convert. Usually they don't convert to make jihad. They convert because they have a problem at one moment in their life and they try to escape this difficulty. Most of them have no clear political ideas, they go to fight because they fight. And their goal is to fight.”

National security organizations have recently increased their efforts to track how young people are being recruited, amid concerns that some of those currently in Syria could join Islamists groups linked to Al-Qaeda and launch terror attacks when they return to Europe.

“If they don't meet a Muslim who convinces them, they could be in a sect,” Moniquet said. “They are trapped in the net of people who are there just recruiting them and for convincing them that to be a good Muslim they want to go to Syria or to commit another terrorist attack here.”
 
The fighting in Syria continues to intensify as Syrian government troops battle opposition forces in the districts surrounding the capital Damascus. The civil conflict has lasted for over two years, claimed more than 70,000 lives and displaced almost 4 million people, according to the UN.