TO HELL AND BACK

Bel­gian cit­i­zen says he went to Syria to res­cue his wife from ISIL. Now he sits in prison

Windsor Star - - WEEKEND REVIEW - JOBY WAR­RICK, LIZ SLY AND SOUAD MEKHENNET

Ahmed Abu Fouad was va­ca­tion­ing with his chil­dren two years ago when he got word that his young wife had run away to Syria. With the fam­ily out of town, she qui­etly packed her bags, flew to Tur­key and slipped across the bor­der to join the Is­lamic State, warn­ing her hus­band in a text mes­sage not to fol­low her.

Abu Fouad, a 48-year-old hos­pi­tal or­derly, went any­way, tak­ing his two chil­dren with him. Af­ter a months-long or­deal, the re­united fam­ily fi­nally re­turned to Bel­gium in De­cem­ber, only to be greeted by police bear­ing hand­cuffs. Today, both par­ents are in­car­cer­ated, and Abu Fouad sees his chil­dren only dur­ing prison vis­its.

“I am a vic­tim,” he told pros­e­cu­tors in March, in a sworn state­ment re­ject­ing charges that his travel to Syria be­trayed a sym­pa­thy for ter­ror­ist causes. “I’m not con­nected, in any way what­so­ever, with the Is­lamic State.”

Bel­gian of­fi­cials can’t be cer­tain of that, so Abu Fouad sits in jail, along with scores of his coun­try­men who have re­turned to Europe af­ter spend­ing time in­side the Is­lamic State’s self-de­clared caliphate. Their pres­ence in Bel­gium rep­re­sents a new phase in the evo­lu­tion of the ter­ror­ist threat, and a fresh dilemma for se­cu­rity ser­vices: What to do with hun­dreds of Euro­peans who went away to Iraq and Syria and now want to come home again?

In Bel­gium alone, at least 120 cit­i­zens — about a quar­ter of the 470 Bel­gians be­lieved to have trav­elled to the ter­ror­ist en­clave since 2012 — have come back to a coun­try that now takes a much harsher line on re­turn­ing Is­lamist mil­i­tants in the wake of last year’s deadly ter­ror­ist attack in Brus­sels. Other home­ward-bound Bel­gians are wait­ing in Iraqi and Turk­ish de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties that re­ceive fresh ar­rivals weekly as con­di­tions in­side the caliphate grow in­creas­ingly des­per­ate.

“What wor­ries us now are no longer the ones who de­part, be­cause Daesh has lost its at­trac­tive­ness,” said Paul van Tigchelt, di­rec­tor of Bel­gium’s Co-or­di­na­tion Unit for Threat Anal­y­sis, us­ing a com­mon term for the Is­lamic State. “What wor­ries us now are the re­turnees.”

The re­verse mi­gra­tion is strain­ing Euro­pean gov­ern­ments as police and so­cial work­ers at­tempt to as­sess each case amid real wor­ries that some of the re­turnees might be ter­ror­ist op­er­a­tives.

Re­gard­less of their mo­tives for re­turn­ing, nearly all re­turnees face pros­e­cu­tion un­der new rules now in ef­fect across the Euro­pean Union. But while jail­ing the re­turnees may ease pub­lic fears, of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge that a com­pre­hen­sive so­lu­tion — one that in­volves long-term mon­i­tor­ing as well as ex­ten­sive re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and de-rad­i­cal­iza­tion pro­grams — isn’t yet in place.

“We’re adding re­sources, but it will take a few years for new peo­ple to be hired and trained,” said Thomas Re­nard, a Bel­gian ter­ror­ism ex­pert. “We may not have a few years.”

Ac­cord­ing to his ac­count of events, it was love that prompted Abu Fouad to make his des­per­ate jour­ney to north­ern Syria two years ago.

The story of his wife’s flight and his un­likely at­tempt to res­cue her is recorded in hun­dreds of pages of sworn state­ments and de­po­si­tions gen­er­ated by Bel­gian pros­e­cu­tors and de­fence at­tor­neys since the fam­ily’s re­turn to Bel­gium on Dec. 29. The Wash­ing­ton Post ob­tained copies of the con­fi­den­tial records, which col­lec­tively of­fer an un­usu­ally de­tailed por­trait of a Euro­pean fam­ily that was pulled into the Is­lamic State’s mag­netic field and later es­caped. Fear­ing that the cou­ple may be tar­geted by Is­lamic State op­er­a­tives or sym­pa­thiz­ers in Bel­gium, a lawyer for the pair re­quested that the cou­ple’s mid­dle and Arab “kunya,” or in­for­mal fam­ily names, be used in­stead of first and sur­names.

In the doc­u­ments, Abu Fouad and his wife, Aicha Umm Dou­nia, both Bel­gian cit­i­zens of North African de­scent, de­scribe a tu­mul­tuous mar­riage that cul­mi­nated with the cou­ple’s sep­a­ra­tion in 2014. Umm Dou­nia, 14 years younger than her hus­band, had been hos­pi­tal­ized for de­pres­sion and had a his­tory of abrupt depar­tures from the fam­ily home af­ter a “blow of bad tem­per,” in her hus­band’s words.

In the sum­mer of 2015, as Umm Dou­nia was liv­ing with a girl­friend and work­ing in a sand­wich shop, she be­came in­creas­ingly drawn to In­ter­net chat rooms devoted to dis­cus­sions about the Is­lamic State and the fight­ing in Iraq and Syria. Though she had never been par­tic­u­larly pi­ous, she yearned to get in­volved in some way.

“Mus­lims around the world were called upon to help, in one way or an­other. I felt called,” she told Bel­gian pros­e­cu­tors in a sworn state­ment. “On the Net — so­cial net­works — I saw peo­ple leav­ing for Syria and say­ing that they stayed there for 15 to 20 days to help, and then came back. It seemed so easy to get in and out.”

Her chance came when Abu Fouad and her two chil­dren left the coun­try in July 2015 for a month­long va­ca­tion with rel­a­tives in Al­ge­ria. Umm Dou­nia packed her clothes, in­clud­ing beach­wear, and told friends she was go­ing on va­ca­tion in Tur­key.

Three days later, she sent the first of sev­eral texts to fam­ily mem­bers say­ing she was bound for Syria, and that nei­ther Abu Fouad nor her rel­a­tives should try to find her. A month later, she was pos­ing for pho­tographs hold­ing a ri­fle and wear­ing a niqab.

Anx­ious rel­a­tives sent word to the va­ca­tion­ing Abu Fouad, who then heard the news di­rectly from his wife in a se­ries of texts. A del­e­ga­tion of fam­ily mem­bers met with Brus­sels police to alert them to the pos­si­bil­ity that Umm Dou­nia had joined the Is­lamic State.

She “says with­out any am­bi­gu­ity that she has gone ji­had,” one of her broth­ers would tell police, ac­cord­ing to court records.

In a sworn state­ment months later, Abu Fouad would de­scribe how shocked he was by his wife’s de­ci­sion, not­ing that Umm Dou­nia had never hinted about her plans, wasn’t re­li­gious and couldn’t even speak Ara­bic. He broke down as he re­counted to pros­e­cu­tors a mes­sage from his wife re­layed to him by one of her broth­ers, ac­cord­ing to the tran­script.

“She says she’s sick of life with you. She says that she has to set­tle in the land of Is­lam,” Abu Fouad said, re­call­ing his brother-in-law’s words. “She wants to do ji­had to pro­tect her sis­ters, to live in Is­lamic State un­der Shariah (Is­lamic law) un­til death.”

Pros­e­cu­tors would sharply ques­tion Abu Fouad about his de­ci­sion to pur­sue his wife. Was it truly a res­cue mis­sion, or had he hoped to rekin­dle the re­la­tion­ship by mov­ing the fam­ily to Syria and join­ing the caliphate?

Abu Fouad ex­plained that his in­ten­tion had been only to travel to Tur­key with his chil­dren, hop­ing that to­gether they could per­suade Umm Dou­nia to come home. But when he ar­rived in Tur­key, he re­ceived trou­bling news: Is­lamic State of­fi­cials in Raqqa, ap­par­ently sus­pi­cious that Umm Dou­nia was a spy, had con­fis­cated her travel doc­u­ments and placed her in a de­ten­tion cell. There she learned that she would soon be as­signed a new hus­band.

“I was told that I ab­so­lutely had to marry if my hus­band did not come … that the women who came to Syria were to get mar­ried,” Umm Dou­nia told pros­e­cu­tors.

She was al­lowed a two-minute phone call to re­lay this news to Abu Fouad. Days later, he paid money to smug­glers who fer­ried him and his chil­dren across the bor­der into Syria.

What wor­ries us now are no longer the ones who de­part, be­cause Daesh has lost its at­trac­tive­ness. What wor­ries us now are the re­turnees.

Ar­riv­ing in Raqqa, the Is­lamic State’s Syr­ian cap­i­tal, Abu Fouad lied to lo­cal of­fi­cials about his in­ten­tions, say­ing he wanted to live with his wife as a res­i­dent of the caliphate, but not as a fighter, since he suf­fered from a bad back. Af­ter a long or­deal that Abu Fouad says in­cluded beat­ings and tor­ture, Umm Dou­nia was al­lowed to re­join her fam­ily. Even­tu­ally the cou­ple was as­signed a new home and new jobs at a Raqqa ma­ter­nity hos­pi­tal — Umm Dou­nia as an anes­thetist’s aide, and her hus­band as a se­cu­rity guard. For his job, Abu Fouad was given a gun, but never taught how to use it, he told pros­e­cu­tors.

In the months that fol­lowed, Umm Dou­nia felt in­creas­ingly re­morse­ful about putting Abu Fouad and her chil­dren in such peril, ac­cord­ing to her own ac­count. “My hus­band came only to look for me. He never has other in­ten­tions,” she told pros­e­cu­tors.

Both thought about try­ing to es­cape but de­cided it was too dan­ger­ous. They con­tin­ued at their jobs, Umm Dou­nia said, an­i­mated by the hope that they would even­tu­ally find a way to get home.

“We had the will,” she said, “to dream of Bel­gium.”

Nearly 7,000 Euro­peans have trekked across the Turk­ish bor­der to join the Is­lamic State since the ter­ror­ist group es­tab­lished its Syria cap­i­tal four years ago. For most of them, get­ting into the self-pro­claimed caliphate was the easy part.

In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials be­lieve that up to half of the group’s for­eign re­cruits have died on the bat­tle­field or in airstrikes. Some who still sur­vive may even­tu­ally choose to stay be­hind to form an in­sur­gency af­ter the Is­lamist mil­i­tants’ cap­i­tal falls, an­a­lysts say. But about a third of the to­tal will even­tu­ally at­tempt to flee — a dan­ger­ous prospect, since the penalty for de­ser­tion is of­ten be­head­ing.

Each week, a few are caught by anti-Is­lamic State forces as they try to cross into Tur­key. Abu Ali al-Se­jju, a Free Syr­ian Army com­man­der whose sol­diers pa­trol a stretch of the bor­der pop­u­lar with smug­glers, said he has cap­tured dozens of the de­fec­tors over the past year, in­clud­ing Euro­peans and even some Amer­i­cans.

“Many of th­ese guys are de­fect­ing now be­cause ISIS is weak and they are afraid of airstrikes,” he said in an in­ter­view at a cafe in Kilis, a Turk­ish bor­der town that un­til re­cently was a de­par­ture hub for Euro­peans head­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

In most cases his men refuse to let the de­fec­tors pass, fear­ing that they will be blamed if the es­capees carry out ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Tur­key or West­ern Europe, Se­jju said. He said some of the de­fec­tors are even­tu­ally turned over to “le­git­i­mate au­thor­i­ties,” scoff­ing at pub­lished re­ports sug­gest­ing that the mili­tias trade de­fec­tors for cash.

“If we hand them over for money, for sure they will go and blow them­selves up some­where,” he said.

Most of those who man­age to get as far as Kilis have en­dured a per­ilous jour­ney across bat­tle lines and check­points, of­ten with the help of smug­glers who typ­i­cally charge hun­dreds or even thou­sands of dol­lars for the jour­ney. Once in Tur­key, some wan­der into em­bassy of­fices seek­ing help, of­ten to face days of grilling from skep­ti­cal con­sular of­fi­cials.

Se­jju said most of the de­fec­tors he meets seem sin­cere about want­ing to quit the Is­lamic State, but he sus­pects some have had other mo­ti­va­tions.

The same kinds of sus­pi­cions dogged Abu Fouad and his wife through every step of the ar­du­ous jour­ney that took them back to Bel­gium just be­fore the start of the new year.

With Is­lamic State of­fi­cials in­creas­ingly pre­oc­cu­pied with the war, the cou­ple seized on a chance to es­cape in early Oc­to­ber. Abu Fouad met with a smug­gler in a bombed-out house and paid $2,400 — sav­ings from the cou­ple’s hos­pi­tal jobs — for the first leg of the jour­ney back to Tur­key. Af­ter a five-hour, moon­lit hike across farm fields and olive groves, the fam­ily was turned over to a de­tach­ment of Syr­ian rebels and then to a dif­fer­ent team of smug­glers who guided them across the bor­der near Kilis. From there, they trav­elled by taxi and bus to Is­tan­bul, Tur­key’s largest city, where they went to the Bel­gian con­sulate.

The re­cep­tion they re­ceived at the con­sulate was less than en­thu­si­as­tic. The fam­ily was handed over to Turk­ish im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties and shuf­fled through a chain of hold­ing cells and Turk­ish de­ten­tion cen­tres for un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants.

Fi­nally, on Dec. 29, more than 10 weeks af­ter their flight from Raqqa, the fam­ily boarded a Turk­ish Air­lines plane for Brus­sels. At the air­port they were met by police of­fi­cers who searched their lug­gage and took them be­fore a court to be for­mally charged with aid­ing a for­eign ter­ror­ist group. The par­ents were led away to sep­a­rate pris­ons while the chil­dren, now ages 10 and eight, were turned over to a gov­ern­ment child-wel­fare agency.

The fam­ily’s fate now rests with a judge who will de­cide whether there are suf­fi­cient ex­ten­u­at­ing cir­cum­stances to war­rant a lesser charge or per­haps a more le­nient sen­tence.

Un­der ques­tion­ing from Bel­gian pros­e­cu­tors, Umm Dou­nia, the wife and mother whose de­ci­sion launched the fam­ily’s life-al­ter­ing jour­ney two years ago, said she is painfully aware of her mis­take and hopes even­tu­ally to have a sec­ond chance — “even if it is un­der strict con­di­tions,” she said.

“I want a peace­ful life here. I want my chil­dren to have a nor­mal life,” she said. “I’m sorry. I feel bad for what I did.”

RAQQA MEDIA CEN­TER/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS/FILES

Fight­ers from the Is­lamic State ride tanks dur­ing a pa­rade in Raqqa, Syria. Drawn to In­ter­net chat rooms devoted to dis­cus­sions about ISIL, Bel­gian cit­i­zen Aicha Umm Dou­nia yearned to get in­volved. “Mus­lims around the world were called upon to help, in one way or an­other. I felt called,” she told Bel­gian pros­e­cu­tors.

JASPER JUINEN/BLOOMBERG/FILES

An armed sol­dier pa­trols near Grand Place square in Brus­sels, Bel­gium amid a high­est-level ter­ror alert in 2015. In the wake of last year’s deadly ter­ror­ist attack in Bel­gium, cit­i­zens who have trav­elled to the Is­lamic State’s self-de­clared caliphate have come back to a coun­try that now takes a much harsher line on re­turn­ing Is­lamic mil­i­tants.

BU­LENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Syr­ian mi­grants at the cross­ing gate near the town of Kilis, Tur­key, where smug­glers guided Ahmed Abu Fouad and his wife across the bor­der in their jour­ney out of Syria.

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