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'Journey To Jihad' Tells Story Of Belgian Teenager Who Joined Islamic State


One minute, a Belgian teen is doing the moonwalk for judges of a reality TV talent show. Within a few years, he's training with extremists in Syria and then held in an ISIS prison alongside ill-fated journalist James Foley. This is the story of Jejoen Bontinck. In this week's New Yorker magazine, writer Ben Taub unspools how it all happened, in a piece titled, "Journey To Jihad." Welcome to the program, Ben.

BEN TAUB: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: So this is a story of someone who starts out as a teenager the way we'd recognize. He's into pop culture, he loves to dance. It's 2009, he's 14. And he actually grew up with a Catholic mother, right? Nigerian? And a Belgian father.

TAUB: That's right, and his father's an atheist.

CORNISH: And so who ushered him into Islam?

TAUB: So he underwent a period of crisis. He had been doing poorly in school and had to switch to a remedial high school, and he was dumped by his girlfriend. And a friend at his new school, a Moroccan girl, invited him to essentially explore the religion in order to continue their new relationship. And within two months of his conversion, he appeared for the first time at the headquarters of Sharia4Belgium, having been invited by a neighbor.

CORNISH: So he starts out at a moderate mosque, right? I mean, what happens? How does he end up with a group that is labeled a terrorist group?

TAUB: Yeah, he starts at a mosque called De Koepel, which is a very, very moderate mainstream mosque in Belgium. And Jejoen was very rapidly - after appearing at Sharia4Belgium, he was rapidly convinced that it was more authentic because the leader of Sharia4Belgium, a guy named Fouad Belkacem, told him that De Koepel was run by non-Muslims and that they refused to discuss principles of jihad holy war, specifically violent jihad, because they are receiving state funds.

CORNISH: So he essentially - he's grooming him, right? And the first thing he does is have him challenge the moderate Islamic influence in his life.

TAUB: That's exactly right. And Belkacem and Sharia4Belgium were very much in contention with the moderate Muslim community in Belgium as a whole. I was told by the chairman of De Koepel that Belkacem had accused them of being non-Muslims.

CORNISH: Where are his parents and what prevents parents who find their children drawn into this from taking action?

TAUB: Well, it's very difficult for parents. I spoke to, I believe, 11 parents of jihadis while I was interviewing for this story, and one of them was a mother whose son died as a suicide bomber. And she said that the first thing that the recruiter taught her son was to lie to his parents. And Dimitri, who was Jejoen's father, told me that he found out about Jejoen's involvement on Sharia4Belgium by the television because Belkacem held a press conference after a member was arrested for trying to sell a Kalashnikov on the Internet. And in the press conference that evening, Dimitri saw his son sitting right next to Fouad Belkacem.

CORNISH: When Jejoen finally makes it to Syria, decides to go to Syria - this is really before the rise in international prominence of ISIS - what happens to him there?

TAUB: So he joins a group called the Mujahideen Shura Council, which was a precursor to ISIS, and almost immediately he's having regrets. He says he's uncomfortable seeing his friends carrying guns. So his reluctance is not well-received, though. He decides that he wants to go home, at which point he is promptly abducted by his own group and held in a cell under suspicion of being an Israeli spy.

CORNISH: So Jejoen is let go. And, eventually, after many attempts to find him by his father, Dimitri, he does end up back in Belgium, where he is, of course, arrested and ends up part of a anti-terror case against the members of Sharia4Belgium. What did this interrogation, or this case, kind of reveal to authorities about the recruitment process?

TAUB: Well, it revealed how structured it was, and it also helped establish a sort of clear network of how certain groups operate under the guise of free speech and there's really nothing that can be done to prevent them. Who would want to live in a society in which a man like Fouad Belkacem cannot stand on the street corner and scream that Belgium should be transformed into an Islamic State?

CORNISH: You know, at the end of your story, it sounds like Jejoen actually would be willing to go back to Syria, that he still believes in the idea of a caliphate.

TAUB: Yes. I was very surprised by that when I spoke with him. He's certainly undergone a lot of stress and harassment since he's returned to Belgium. It's now been a year and a half since he's been home. And he testified to police and underwent interrogations for over 200 hours from the Belgian government, the United States government, the British government, the German government and the Dutch government. So he was in the same terrorism trial as all the other guys, some of whom lied to the police. And he was sitting next to them in court and they all knew about his testimony because it was being read out. He was not offered witness protection or any such thing.

CORNISH: What's the narrative that people have about teens who are drawn to becoming foreign fighters, and how did this story - following this story - kind of challenge the assumptions you had?

TAUB: The sort of pervading narrative to this point has been that many, many Europeans have been funneling into jihadi groups, at least in the early stages of the war, out of humanitarian concern, which is valid in many ways. The Assad regime was bombing civilian areas and killing protesters and there's no question about these facts. At the same time, what I found in the police documents through wiretaps and through these interrogations was, the goal of Jejoen's group and the Mujahideen Shura Council and many, many other Europeans was always to establish an Islamic State through violence.

CORNISH: Ben Taub, his article, "Journey To Jihad," appears in The New Yorker.

Thank you so much for speaking to us.

TAUB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.