In Europe, parents' dismay as Syria jihad lures troubled teens

Sun Feb 8, 2015 8:52am EST
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By Robert-Jan Bartunek

ANTWERP, Belgium (Reuters) - As Belgium braces for a verdict in Europe's biggest trial of those accused of fostering Islamist violence in Syria, much attention is on poor Muslim immigrant communities' struggle in a region blighted by youth unemployment.

But for parents in Antwerp, a city on high alert since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and police raids on Belgian jihadists, Wednesday's ruling by judges there may never explain why their two sporty teenagers, with no Muslim heritage, abandoned comfortable homes to take up arms in the Middle East.

And whatever sentences may be passed on their sons, Brian De Mulder's mother and Jejoen Bontinck's father both say the damage done by those who recruited them - harm that includes lost jobs and disrupted homes for parents and siblings - cannot be undone.

"For me there is no difference to a sect," Dimitri Bontinck, 41, told Reuters. Local group Sharia4Belgium enticed his then 18-year-old son to travel to fight in Syria, he said, leaving him and Jejoen's Nigerian-born mother distraught.

"The way they are groomed, the way they are initiated, the way they take on new names, the way they have their rituals", it all attracted youngsters going through moments of adolescent angst, Bontinck said - in Jejoen's case, a failed teen romance.

With Belgium outstripping its European neighbors in providing foreign fighters for the likes of Islamic State and al Qaeda - some 350 from a country of just 11 million - Bontinck made national headlines by risking his own life to travel, three times, to the war zone. And he managed to bring his son home.

Now 20, Jejoen Bontinck has been a key witness in the trial on terrorism charges of leaders of Sharia4Belgium. But he also faces up to four years in prison himself as one of just nine of the 46 defendants present. The other accused, like 21-year-old Brian De Mulder, are still in Syria. Or may already be dead.

De Mulder's Brazilian mother Ozana Rodrigues says she still weeps every day for her son, once a promising youth soccer player. She believes it was being dropped by his professional club, aged 17, that led Brian to religion, and violence.   Continued...

Ozana Rodrigues, the mother of Brian De Mulder, who left for Syria after being indoctrinated by Islamist group Sharia4Belgium, poses with a photo of her son outside the Antwerp courthouse, where the trial of the group is currently taking place, January 29, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman