A trip to Syria, then jail

Jejoen Bontinck, who has allegedly fought as a volunteer in the Syrian civil war, was arrested Friday evening while visiting his mother and brother in Antwerp.

Øyvind Strømmen

Jejoen Bontinck left for Syria in February to work – by his own account – as a volunteer in a hospital. Belgian authorities, however, suspect that he travelled to the Middle Eastern country to fight in the civil war there on the side of rebel forces, and that he was recruited by Fouad Belkacem. Belkacem is the former leader of the now defunct radical Salafist group Sharia4Belgium, which was largely Internet-based.

The arrest was confirmed by the examining magistrate on Saturday. Bontinck is being held on suspicion of having participated in a terrorist group.

The phenomenon of Belgians volunteering in the Syrian civil war has been a hot topic for months, particularly since early June, when a shocking video surfaced on the Internet. The video shows a group of men beheading another men, using a large knife. In the video, Dutch was spoken, with a notably Flemish pronunciation. Belgian authorities have previously four others in connection with their investigation of Sharia4Belgium members taking part in the Syrian civil war.

According to estimates, the number of militants from Europe, North America and Australia who have entered Syria since 2011 is more than 600. Many of them are self-radicalized and have travelled on their own initiative to Turkey, where rebel facilitators have linked them up with specific groups inside Syria, amongst them the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra Front.

The number of volunteers from Europe has led several Western intelligence agencies to express concerns, worrying that people motivated by extreme ideology will return from Syria with actual war experience and an increased willingness to carry out terrorist attacks in the West.

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About Øyvind Strømmen

Øyvind Strømmen is a Norwegian freelance journalist, author and managing editor of Hate Speech International. He has written extensively on the extreme right and other forms of extremism since 2007, and has published the Norwegian-language books Det mørke nettet (2011) and Den sorte tråden (2013), the first of which is also translated into Swedish, Finnish and French.
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