Special Report Senior International Correspondent: Clarissa Ward
- Executive Producer: Liza McGuirk
- Producers: Andy Segal, Barbara Arvanitidis and Margot Haddad
W ith his blue eyes, brown hair and beaming smile, young Michael Delefortrie looked every inch the angelic altar boy.
But fast forward twenty years, and Michael had changed his name to Younnes, traded his Christian faith for Islam, and the sleepy Belgian suburb he’d grown up in for the front lines of ISIS’ war in Syria.
Now, back in Belgium, he still expresses open support for the group’s warped ideology and says he wishes he could return to the group’s self-proclaimed Islamic State.
“I regret coming back,” he told me. “I want to live under the caliphate.”
Despite his shocking words, the most striking thing about the 28-year-old is how utterly unremarkable he appears. The first time we meet, in a café in the port city of Antwerp, he wears a hooded sweatshirt, sneakers and jeans (cuffed just above the ankle in a style that emulates the Prophet — though most people wouldn’t even notice).
He doesn’t shake hands with me, as a woman, but he is polite, makes eye contact, apologizes for being late, cracks jokes and even flirts a little with my young producer.
And while he dismisses his own nationality — “I’m not Belgian. I am Muslim” — and wants to see Western democracy replaced by the strictest form of Sharia law, the returned ISIS fighter is more than happy to accept welfare checks from the Belgian government.
Is this the new face of Islamic extremism in the West? After spending years studying and talking to dozens of jihadis from the UK, Belgium, France, Denmark, Australia, the US and other countries, I believe the answer is yes… and no.
Catholic upbringing, Islamic conversion
Growing up in an ordinary white, middle-class family in Belgium, Michael Delefortrie was baptized a Catholic.
“We were raised like normal Catholic people, with their holidays,” he remembers. “On Sunday, we thank God, and that’s the way it is.”
But after a rocky childhood that he says was marred by his mother’s alcoholism, his parents’ divorce and his own ADHD diagnosis, he began smoking weed, experimenting with harder drugs, and doing badly in school.
“You’re searching for your identity, like everybody else in the world,” he says as he remembers his troubled teenage years.
At about 16, he came across a book that he says changed his life. It was called “The Way of the Muslim.”
He says Islam offered him the promise of purpose and structure, providing strict rules and moral clarity in a world where the prevailing liberalism favored shades of gray over black and white.
Michael became Younnes, Arabic for dove.
He saw his new religion as a step up from Christianity: “I can compare it with buying a computer. If you know there’s a Windows 10, you’re not going to go with Windows XP … It’s an upgrade.”
Radicalization, Joining ISIS in Syria
Upgrading opened the doors to Belgium’s large Muslim community, where a small but vocal subset of fundamentalists was emerging, and over time, Delefortrie was radicalized.
Thrice-married Delefortrie even named one of his sons after Osama bin Laden.
“I’m proud of it, because that man is a hero,” he says, unapologetic about his decision to honor the architect of the 9/11 attacks, in which 2,977 people were killed. “If we have to condemn everybody who kills people, hell will be full.”
While working as an apprentice in a bakery in his early 20s, Delefortrie fell under the spell of a silver-tongued Svengali — a former used car salesman who had turned his back on a life of petty crime to become a street preacher.
Belgian Fouad Belkacem was the leader of Sharia4Belgium — a group initially dismissed by Belgian authorities as “a bunch of clowns with long beards and white gowns,” according to former state security chief Alain Winants.
But the group was far more sinister. It was a pipeline for young Belgians to travel to Syria and join Islamic militant groups like ISIS. Delefortrie became one of them.
“You can hold back and do your prayers and be satisfied, or you can go further and try to practice what you’re learning,” he says, explaining that going to Syria was the answer to his prayers: “Finally, there’s a place on earth where we can be a Muslim for the full 100%.”
He says he chose to join ISIS, the most ruthless and violent of all the Islamist groups on the ground, because they were the most committed to establishing Sharia law: “they were clear in what they’re trying to accomplish: to fight for the sake of Allah.”
He’s dismissive about the jihadist terror group’s barbaric acts.
“It’s a war zone, so it’s a normal thing. People die,” he says. “In America, they are executing people with needles, with electric chairs. This is also execution.”
When I ask directly whether he was personally prepared to kill, he tells me: “That is Islamic law. And believe me, it’s not a funny thing to execute people — it’s something terrible, but yeah.”
“I didn’t kill somebody over there; I didn’t shoot somebody over there,” he adds.
Instead, Delefortrie says he arrested suspects and guarded prisoners.
But he defends other Sharia4Belgium followers who have boasted online about shooting people in the face or cutting their heads off, saying “we don’t criticize Muslims in public.”
“They’re young people – who wouldn’t [show off]?” he says. “It’s not the right thing to do, of course. If you’re executing somebody or you’re killing people on the battlefield, keep it for yourself and Allah, because you’re doing it for him, not to brag.”
Path to jihad ... and back
Early childhood (born 1988)
Michael Delefortrie grows up in a middle-class household in the Belgian city of Antwerp. Baptized a Catholic, he serves as an altar boy in his local church.
Conversion to Islam
In his teens he experiments with hard drugs, before converting to Islam and changing his name to Younnes, the Arabic word for “dove.”
Meets Fouad Belkacem, used car salesman turned street preacher. Joins Sharia4Belgium, which recruits young Belgians to travel to Syria and join Islamic militant groups.
Travels to Syria
Delefortrie joins ISIS, travels to Syria. Spends two months there, arresting suspects and guarding prisoners; he says he did not kill anyone.
Arrested on return home
Goes back to Belgium, where he is charged with participating in a terrorist group. Spends two months in jail awaiting trial. Convicted and handed three-year suspended sentence.
Living free in Belgium
Released from jail, he says he is free to walk the streets “as long as I do nothing that’s against national security.”
D elefortrie is one of more than 5,000 people who have left Western Europe to join ISIS’ campaign in Syria and Iraq, according to the Soufan Group.
Stirred into action in 2012 while the Syrian civil war was raging, many saw dignity, redemption — maybe even glory — amid the rubble of Syria’s war.
Bashar al-Assad’s forces were massacring the opposition, and civilians were bearing the brunt of the fighting.
Every day, horrific videos showed bombs raining down on family homes, Muslim women carrying the limp bodies of dead children sobbing into the camera, “Why is no one helping us?”
All the while, the West stood on the sidelines, wringing its hands, wondering what to do and who to support. And Islamist groups quickly moved in to fill the void.
On social media, jihadis presented themselves as lions. God's warriors. Bad-asses.
And just like street gangs in the US flash their gang signs, jihadis pointed one finger to symbolize the Muslim proclamation of faith — La illaha il Allah — there is no God but Allah, all set to the soaring soundtrack of Islamic a cappella known as "nasheed." It was heady stuff.
Back then, says researcher Pieter Van Ostaeyen, “you just needed to snap your finger, and you had two recruits.”
Van Ostaeyen, who tracks radical Islamists’ movements between Belgium and Syria, says there was a strong pull factor: a sense of brotherhood and community.
“The feeling of belonging, and the fact that they were taking part in a greater project,” he says.
“That you as a Muslim, who were suppressed all your life by the illicit Western government who didn’t abide by the law of Allah, you have the chance to fight for a caliphate.”
Activist and writer Dyab Abou Jahjah says for many young Belgian Muslims, there was a push factor too: they are driven away by racism and alienation at home, “the level of exclusion and … animosity and the discourse of people in power towards the Muslim community.”
Delefortrie arrested on return to Belgium
Delefortrie spent two months with ISIS in Syria, he says, but it seems life in a war zone wasn’t really his cup of tea because he soon returned to Europe to see his wife.
Back in Belgium, he was arrested alongside other Sharia4Belgium members, and charged with participating in a terrorist group for his membership of Sharia4Belgium.
He spent two months behind bars, awaiting trial with other Islamist radicals; convicted, he was handed a three-year suspended sentence. Belkacem, Sharia4Belgium’s founder, was jailed for 12 years.
Every month he picked up a welfare check, worth about $500. This recently stopped when he found a job repairing bicycles.
“I’m going to get my money from the government,” he joked provocatively, looking directly into the camera as CNN filmed him on the bus on the way to collect his benefits. “If they want to keep me here, they have to pay.”
It’s an obnoxious comment that is bound to rile a lot of people, but it gets at a much deeper question: What can countries like Belgium do about people like him? It’s not against the law to hold painfully offensive views. And he’s a Belgian citizen.
Delefortrie and those like him seem to dispel the myth that Islamic extremism is some external threat from far away countries, posed by dark men with long beards speaking foreign tongues.
The complex confluence of social, economic and ideological factors that ultimately drove him to join the most brutal terror group in the world are as much a product of the Western society he grew up in as they are of some foreign threat.
As the former head of the French CIA equivalent told me after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, “The problem is ours.”
Delefortrie insists he didn’t come back to carry out a terrorist attack, and that he would not use violence to implement his beliefs.
“Why should I? I’m here to live,” he tells me. “It’s not on my agenda.”
“I’m doing whatever I can to spread the word of Islam,” he says. “That’s my goal. Not every Muslim with an ideology is a terrorist or is a potential time bomb who is going to explode in a shopping mall.”
But the ISIS-linked attacks in Paris and Brussels left him unmoved; he believes Western nations are simply reaping what they have sown for bombing the terror group in Syria and Iraq.
“If you are attacking people, sometimes somebody will attack you back. If you spit in the air, sometimes spit will fall back in your face,” he says.
M ore than 100 former jihadis had returned to Belgium after fighting in Syria by December 2015. Hundreds more have headed home to Turkey, the UK, France and Germany.
While some are disillusioned about ISIS and the horrific violence they witnessed, others arrive home desensitized, and trained to kill.
“People that come back, after they are hardened and after they are trained in Syria, are very dangerous people when they want to attack,” says terrorism reporter Guy van Vlierden.
“Three years ago, the main idea was, ‘Let’s ignore them, let them leave,’” explains Pieter Van Ostaeyen. “Right now, the idea is ‘These guys are coming back to kill us!’”
For authorities in Belgium, the wake-up call came in May 2014, when a gunman burst into the Jewish Museum in Brussels and opened fire, killing four people.
The suspect in the attack, Mehdi Nemmouche, was a radicalized Islamist who had spent a year in Syria, before returning to France, according to the chief prosecutor of Paris.
“This was the first time that we had a serious terrorist attack on Belgian territory,” says Alain Winants. But even then, he says, “there was not the sense of urgency that exists now.”
Major terror attacks in Paris and Brussels since then have emphasized the true scale of the threat Europe faces – one that the open borders of the European Union make extra difficult to combat.
Activist and writer Dyab Abou Jahjah believes the answer lies in harsher punishments for returning jihadis: “When it comes to people who link themselves to terrorists, I think we have to be very hard; zero tolerance.”
But others say European nations must hold fast to their beliefs in freedom of speech and movement, and keep up the fight against racism and intolerance. They warn that any overzealous crackdown will only serve to make the problem worse.
“The Islamic State wants to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West, wants Muslims not to feel at ease,” says Van Ostaeyen. “They want them to be infuriated and to actually go out … and carry out attacks.”
Security forces can guard the streets, but they can’t patrol the internet, where any radical with a computer or a smartphone can open an online recruitment center.
And even as ISIS’s territory in Syria and Iraq is shrinking, the group is adapting, mutating. Its caliphate is becoming virtual.
Because you can go after ISIS on the battlefield, but you cannot kill an ideology.
Editor’s note: In March 2017, Younnes Delefortrie was sentenced to 18 months for domestic abuse. He is appealing the ruling.