The ‘Jihadi Hunter’ and snatching youths back from ISIL

He is known as the Jihadi Hunter, a former Belgium solider who rescued his son from the clutches of ISIL and now helps return other western Muslim children who have been lured into the conflict.

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