Brussels- 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 ISIS, warning her husband in a text message not to follow her.
Abu Fouad, a 48-year-old hospital orderly, went anyway, bringing his two kids 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 ISIS.”
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 ISIS’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 traveled to the terrorist enclave since 2012 — have come back to a country that now takes a much harsher line on returning militants in the wake of last year’s deadly terrorist attack in Brussels. Other homeward-bound Belgians are waiting in detention facilities that receive fresh arrivals weekly as conditions inside the so-called “caliphate” grow increasingly desperate.
“What worries us now are no longer the ones who depart, because ISIS has lost its attractiveness,” said Paul van Tigchelt, director of Belgium’s Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis. “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. Complicating matters, many of the new arrivals are children — including some who were born in ISIS — as well as adults who claim to have traveled to Iraq or Syria for humanitarian reasons or to be with spouses. Still others are avowed defectors who could potentially provide useful intelligence or aid official efforts to counter ISIS’ propaganda.
Regardless of their motives for returning, nearly all 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 defense 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 ISIS’ magnetic field and later escaped.
Fearing that the couple may be targeted by ISIS 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 ISIS 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 month-long 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, a veil that covers the hair and face except for the eyes.
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 ISIS.
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 ISIS under sharia until death.”
The Washington Post