Dimitri Bontinck claims he found little help from Belgian authorities when his teenage son became radicalized and left their home in Antwerp to join an extremist group in Syria.
The former soldier said he took matters into his own hands and went after his son, Jejoen. After three rescue attempts in 10 months, Bontinck brought Jejoen back to Belgium in the fall of 2013.
But the happy ending was just the start of what has become a personal mission for Bontinck. He has since returned to Syria five times, to help retrieve other young men who joined militant groups and whose parents feel they have no other hope.
It wasn’t his plan, but he said he has “no other choice to help those going through the same kind of trauma and nightmare I experienced.”
“It’s so sad that parents like me and so many thousands of parents worldwide are standing alone, that nobody’s helping them. It’s disgusting really,” Bontinck told Sky News in an interview that aired Tuesday.
He said parents across Europe have reached out to him.
It’s estimated upwards of 3,000 European citizens have joined jihadist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
“I thought I would never return to Syria, but when mothers are calling me and crying on the phone because nobody’s helping them … when they ask to meet me, I’m not going to say no,” Bontinck said.
Bontinck documented much of his journey to find Jejoen on video — some of it can be seen in the Sky News presentation — including moments when he had to duck for cover from nearby sniper fire.
Although he had been interacting with rebel and jihadist groups to locate Jejoen, he told Sky News Jabhat al-Nusra militants took him captive at one point and attacked him. He said the militants thought he was a spy.
“They put a cap over my head and handcuffed me. They were beating me on the head and I was thinking ‘Is it all worth it?’
But the Islamist group let Bontinck go and eventually released Jejoen, after the father came back for a third attempt to bring him home, Sky News reported.
“The first time I met my son physically, it was very emotional. And I really hold him like a small baby. We were crying,” Bontinck said.
He told Sky News his son had become disillusioned with and wanted to return to Belgium. Militants locked him up.
At one point, he was held in the same cell with British photojournalist John Cantlie, who continues to be held captive by ISIS militants, and U.S. freelance journalist James Foley, who was executed in August. (Cantlie and Foley were initially kidnapped and held captive by Jabhat al-Nusra, but were later handed over to ISIS, according to Jejoen in a New York Times interview)
“I followed a father’s instinct, I followed my heart. I couldn’t stay here just watching, not taking action and responsibility,” Bontinck said.
Bontinck said his son converted to Islam at the age of 15 — he’s now 19 years old — and became radicalized through the banned Sharia4Belgium, banned Islamist group that has been accused of recruiting foreign fighters.
Even though Jejoen is free from Islamist groups, he’s now standing trial along with 45 other alleged Sharia4Belgium members. Jejoen told BBC in 2013 he went to Syria for humanitarian purposes.
Bontinck said this is the wrong way to deal with young, homegrown radicals who go off to join jihadist groups.
“With this wrong attitude and stigmatization they’re creating more frustration against the West,” he told Sky News. “They’re creating more violence against the West. It’s totally wrong.”
He said it could also prevent others from coming home.
With files from Stuart Greer