Dimitri Bontinck is known as the Jihadi Hunter for his missions into Syria to bring back radicalised youths, including Jejoen. Yves Herman / Reuters
Dimitri Bontinck is known as the Jihadi Hunter for his missions into Syria to bring back radicalised youths, including Jejoen. Yves Herman / Reuters

The ‘Jihadi Hunter’ and snatching youths back from ISIL



A tale of two fathers illustrates the contrasting fortunes of families blighted by the scourge of young western Muslims being lured to conflict by extremists.

In Wales, a desperate father tells the British media that his son Nasser Muthana, 20, once a promising medical student, deserves to die if he was among 16 fighters shown on the latest ISIL video preparing to behead captured Syrian solders.

Ahmed Muthana clings to the hope that it is not his son in the film, which also shows the removed head of murdered US aid worker Peter Kassig.

In Belgium, Dimitri Bontinck, a decorated former soldier who is now popularly known as the Jihadi Hunter for his courageous missions into Syria to bring back youths and reunite them with distraught parents, has a more uplifting story to tell.

Mr Bontinck talks of rebuilding a bond with his own son, Jejoen, 19, whom he brought home from Syria on the third attempt a year ago.

Jejoen was raised as a Catholic but converted to Islam at 15 after falling for a girl of Moroccan origin.

He became radicalised under the influence of the Sharia4Belgium group and studied Islam in Egypt before becoming entangled in the Syrian civil war.

Getting him back to Belgium was an operation fraught with danger for father and son. On one of his attempts, Mr Bontinck was captured and beaten by Jabhat Al Nusra militants.

Jejoen was accused of being a spy after an unsuccessful attempt to leave Syria and says he was held for a time with two western hostages, James Foley, the US journalist who was later murdered, and the Briton John Cantlie. They knew each other as “the three Js”, his father says.

But with the help of a Muslim charity worker from Denmark, Mr Bontinck established contacts that led to his reunion with Jejoen and he eventually took him across the border into Turkey.

Even now, more than a year later, he is selective about the details he gives.

But he insists: “Jejoen was a victim. He was in fear of his life. His captors would pretend to shoot him using fake bullets.”

And although Jejoen is now back in the relative safety of Antwerp, his troubles are far from over.

On Monday, he will attend court for the final day’s hearing of a trial in which he and more than 30 others with alleged links to Sharia4Belgium are accused of belonging to a terrorist organisation.

He has denied involvement in combat, saying his motivation was humanitarian and that he spent his time in Syria delivering medical supplies and transporting sick or injured people.

But he was held in jail for more than a month on his return from Syria before being freed on stringent bail terms. Prosecutors reject his plea of innocence and have demanded a four-year jail term.

A 15-year term has been sought against the alleged ringleader, Fouad Belkacem, a prominent Sharia4Belgium spokesman who says he prays for Osama bin Laden and favours the death penalty for homosexuals.

Judgment is expected in the new year.

“My son has three functions in the trial,” Mr Bontinck, 40, says. “He is victim, golden witness and terrorist suspect all at the same time.

“The Belgian government’s attitude has been disgusting: no help, no support, no respect. In other countries, my son would have had protected status, with huge amounts spent on giving him a new identity and new life.

“Here, he is treated as a terrorist and cannot even get a job. Even though he has much to offer, he is stigmatised because he has been in Syria.”

Mr Bontinck was twice honoured, by the UN and his own country, for military service in Bosnia during the 1990s Balkans conflict.

“But now,” he says, ”I am ashamed to be Belgian.”

Since news of his activities became known last year, he has faced some criticism in Belgium because of his frequent media appearances and some of his comments.

But he has also been in great demand from the parents of other young men and women who have fallen under the spell of ISIL and other groups.

He has made four more missions to Syria, helping two disillusioned recruits to return to Europe and arranging meetings between parents and two others, who refused to leave. Another visit is planned for next month.

Mr Bontinck has also played an intermediary role in other cases, including an attempt by Khadra Jama, from Manchester, to rescue her twin daughters Zahra and Salma, 16.

The girls, bright pupils with ambitions to become doctors, have married ISIL fighters since running away in June.

An older brother, Ahmed, was already involved in the conflict, having joined the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab in their parents’ native Somalia.

Mr Bontinck confirmed a report by the British newspaper The Sunday Times that a charity worker based in Denmark met one of the sisters near Aleppo after being promised safe passage by an ISIL commander.

The charity worker failed to persuade her to rejoin her parents, who had travelled from England and were waiting over the border in Turkey.

This was despite assurances that she could go to Denmark, where the family has connections and the authorities adopt a more understanding approach to those who return.

On a second trip, to meet the second daughter, the charity worker also took the twins’ mother. Both were captured and briefly held by ISIL before being freed, but without fulfilling their mission.

Mr Bontinck says he could soon tire of “playing Mother Teresa with no support”. He says he needs help from charitable or other institutions.

“We must do something to help young people caught up in this,” he says. “Other generations had role models such as John F Kennedy or Martin Luther King to look up to, but today there seems a great gap. The result is we have lost a generation of children.”

Mr Bontinck cuts a controversial figure in Belgium, partly because of his apparent fondness for publicity.

Even before he succeeded in bringing Jejoen back to Belgium, Mr Bontinck had published a book with the Antwerp author Freddy Michiels. He has now agreed on a deal with a French film production company.

But his message is hardly contentious.

“This is not a novel, not fiction, but the true story of Jejoen’s repentance and my journey through Syria,” he said at the book launch.

“It is also a warning to parents that radicalism can lurk behind every corner, and a call to the government to see the danger of radical organisations and ban their existence.”

Hendrik van de Velde, the Belgian foreign affairs department spokesman, says it is inappropriate to comment on the unfinished trial.

He will not answer Mr Bontinck’s criticisms but acknowledges that responses differ from country to country.

“Belgium was the first country to draw attention to this problem within EU ministerial council meetings,” Mr van de Velde says.

“Belgium also seeks to avoid radicalisation within society through grassroots work at local level. This is the work of local police and social services. As to rehabilitation and reintegration, the same services are competent.”

Mr Bontinck, whose wife is Nigerian, says they are relieved “to have our son back” and delighted that their relationship was good and growing stronger.

Jejoen, who is under advice not to comment before the end of his trial, has kept his Islamic faith but has renounced Sharia4Belgium.

“He’s a new boy,” his father says. “He speaks well, articulately, and has knowledge, so there are positive elements.”

In the Welsh capital of Cardiff, Mr Muthana doubtless wishes he could say the same about the decision of his sons, Nasser and the younger Aseel, to enlist with ISIL.

When first approached by the media about the new video, he said that while he could not be certain it showed Nasser, there was a resemblance.

“How can he expect to face Allah if he is killing human beings,” he asked.

Perhaps the nearest Mr Muthana can get to a ”positive element” is that when later shown pictures by the BBC, he was able to reply: “It doesn’t look like him, much difference. This one’s got a big nose, my one has a flat nose.”

But even if the man shown with fellow-fighters preparing to commit a war crime is not Nasser, the former medical student has probably said and done enough in earlier video and social-media messages glorifying ISIL to ensure a long jail sentence if he returns to the UK.

His own father has spoken of Britain as his country and that of his sons: “I came here from age 13 from Aden when I was orphaned”.

He accuses Nasser of betrayal and says his sons will no longer be welcome in the family home.

newsdesk@thenational.ae

Bundesliga fixtures

Saturday, May 16 (kick-offs UAE time)

Borussia Dortmund v Schalke (4.30pm) 

RB Leipzig v Freiburg (4.30pm) 

Hoffenheim v Hertha Berlin (4.30pm) 

Fortuna Dusseldorf v Paderborn  (4.30pm) 

Augsburg v Wolfsburg (4.30pm) 

Eintracht Frankfurt v Borussia Monchengladbach (7.30pm)

Sunday, May 17

Cologne v Mainz (4.30pm),

Union Berlin v Bayern Munich (7pm)

Monday, May 18

Werder Bremen v Bayer Leverkusen (9.30pm)

EMIRATES'S REVISED A350 DEPLOYMENT SCHEDULE

Edinburgh: November 4 (unchanged)

Bahrain: November 15 (from September 15); second daily service from January 1

Kuwait: November 15 (from September 16)

Mumbai: January 1 (from October 27)

Ahmedabad: January 1 (from October 27)

Colombo: January 2 (from January 1)

Muscat: March 1 (from December 1)

Lyon: March 1 (from December 1)

Bologna: March 1 (from December 1)

Source: Emirates

What is Diwali?

The Hindu festival is at once a celebration of the autumn harvest and the triumph of good over evil, as outlined in the Ramayana.

According to the Sanskrit epic, penned by the sage Valmiki, Diwali marks the time that the exiled king Rama – a mortal with superhuman powers – returned home to the city of Ayodhya with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman, after vanquishing the 10-headed demon Ravana and conquering his kingdom of Lanka. The people of Ayodhya are believed to have lit thousands of earthen lamps to illuminate the city and to guide the royal family home.

In its current iteration, Diwali is celebrated with a puja to welcome the goodness of prosperity Lakshmi (an incarnation of Sita) into the home, which is decorated with diyas (oil lamps) or fairy lights and rangoli designs with coloured powder. Fireworks light up the sky in some parts of the word, and sweetmeats are made (or bought) by most households. It is customary to get new clothes stitched, and visit friends and family to exchange gifts and greetings.  

 

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Almouneer
Started: 2017
Founders: Dr Noha Khater and Rania Kadry
Based: Egypt
Number of staff: 120
Investment: Bootstrapped, with support from Insead and Egyptian government, seed round of
$3.6 million led by Global Ventures

About My Father

Director: Laura Terruso

Stars: Robert De Niro, Sebastian Maniscalco, Kim Cattrall

Rating: 2/5

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: SmartCrowd
Started: 2018
Founder: Siddiq Farid and Musfique Ahmed
Based: Dubai
Sector: FinTech / PropTech
Initial investment: $650,000
Current number of staff: 35
Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Various institutional investors and notable angel investors (500 MENA, Shurooq, Mada, Seedstar, Tricap)

Specs: 2024 McLaren Artura Spider

Engine: 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 and electric motor
Max power: 700hp at 7,500rpm
Max torque: 720Nm at 2,250rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed dual-clutch auto
0-100km/h: 3.0sec
Top speed: 330kph
Price: From Dh1.14 million ($311,000)
On sale: Now

Turning waste into fuel

Average amount of biofuel produced at DIC factory every month: Approximately 106,000 litres

Amount of biofuel produced from 1 litre of used cooking oil: 920ml (92%)

Time required for one full cycle of production from used cooking oil to biofuel: One day

Energy requirements for one cycle of production from 1,000 litres of used cooking oil:
▪ Electricity - 1.1904 units
▪ Water- 31 litres
▪ Diesel – 26.275 litres

TWISTERS

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Starring: Glenn Powell, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Anthony Ramos

Rating: 2.5/5

Key changes

Commission caps

For life insurance products with a savings component, Peter Hodgins of Clyde & Co said different caps apply to the saving and protection elements:

• For the saving component, a cap of 4.5 per cent of the annualised premium per year (which may not exceed 90 per cent of the annualised premium over the policy term). 

• On the protection component, there is a cap  of 10 per cent of the annualised premium per year (which may not exceed 160 per cent of the annualised premium over the policy term).

• Indemnity commission, the amount of commission that can be advanced to a product salesperson, can be 50 per cent of the annualised premium for the first year or 50 per cent of the total commissions on the policy calculated. 

• The remaining commission after deduction of the indemnity commission is paid equally over the premium payment term.

• For pure protection products, which only offer a life insurance component, the maximum commission will be 10 per cent of the annualised premium multiplied by the length of the policy in years.

Disclosure

Customers must now be provided with a full illustration of the product they are buying to ensure they understand the potential returns on savings products as well as the effects of any charges. There is also a “free-look” period of 30 days, where insurers must provide a full refund if the buyer wishes to cancel the policy.

“The illustration should provide for at least two scenarios to illustrate the performance of the product,” said Mr Hodgins. “All illustrations are required to be signed by the customer.”

Another illustration must outline surrender charges to ensure they understand the costs of exiting a fixed-term product early.

Illustrations must also be kept updatedand insurers must provide information on the top five investment funds available annually, including at least five years' performance data.

“This may be segregated based on the risk appetite of the customer (in which case, the top five funds for each segment must be provided),” said Mr Hodgins.

Product providers must also disclose the ratio of protection benefit to savings benefits. If a protection benefit ratio is less than 10 per cent "the product must carry a warning stating that it has limited or no protection benefit" Mr Hodgins added.