The Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ had a look into the transcripts of the interrogations of Jejoen Bontinck after he came back from Syria. They learn a lot about the western hostages with whom he was imprisoned by the Islamic State last year — the now beheaded James Foley, the actual hostage John Cantlie and a German citizen that wasn’t mentioned before.
The background of Bontinck’s story can be found here. Below are some highlights of what he told to the Belgian police. Quotes sometimes are bundled from different interrogations about the same topics and can only serve to get a picture of the situation, not for legal means whatsoever
• ABOUT THE ORGANIZATIONS IMPLICATED:
When Bontinck arrived in Syria in February of last year, there were three organizations active near Aleppo, where he teamed up with the other Belgians he knew. He was part of Majlis Shura Mujahideen, while Jabhat al-Nusra and “the group of Omar Shishani”, as Bontinck described it, also kept a presence there. While he was already imprisoned on suspicion of being a spy, both his own group and that of Omar Shishani became part of the newly founded ISIS — “the State”, as he says. But several members of Majlis Shura Mujahideen left to Jabhat Al-Nusra at that point. It isn’t clear which organization held him captive directly after that split, since he kept seeing people of both groups.
• HOW BONTINCK BECAME A PRISONER OF IS HIMSELF:
That happened after being kept as a prisoner by his own comrades for several months. “It was completely unexpected that they relocated me the day after Eid al-Fitr. I was told that I had to appear in a court, and would be freed afterwards. They tied my hands and blindfolded me. I don’t know exactly where they brought me. But it was in Aleppo, about half an hour driving from Kafr Hamra. The court belonged to the State. It was lead by a Dutchman, Abu Ubaida. During the first days of my imprisonment there, he once came to my cell — just to have a look. At that time, I didn’t know who he was. I shared a room with a Jordanian man and two Syrian boys.” Bontinck says he heard people being tortured all the time, but wasn’t tortured there himself.
• ABOUT HIS FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH FOLEY & CO:
“After four days, they put me in another room. There were people looking like Westerners. Three men. James Foley, the American journalist who was already missing for more than a year, and John Cantlie who worked with him. They were caught about ten months before and spent the first five months with Jabhat Al-Nusra. They were tortured then. They were very thin, they didn’t get any food. There was also a German with them, Toni Neukirch. They told me their stories, and I told them mine. We exchanged our contact details and promised each other to meet again, once we would be free. I wrote the numbers of James’ mother and John’s wife in a booklet, but unfortunately I don’t have that anymore. We were together in that room for about three weeks.” The German Bontinck mentions, disappeared in June of last year, but was freed a few months ago.
• HOW THE THREE WESTERNERS WERE CAUGHT:
“John and James were captured together and moved to another location three or four times. One of the places where they were held, is Idlib. But I don’t know whether they were apprehended there. They were caught after visiting an internet cafe. They stood out as foreigners and always used the same taxi driver. When they left the internet cafe, masked men overpowered them. They told me it was a local brigade of Jabhat al-Nusra that acted without orders from the top.” About the capture of the German, Bontinck doesn’t tell that much. “At first, he had some kind of house arrest. He had access to internet at that time and even managed to inform his family about his fate.”
• ABOUT THE HOSTAGES’ CONVERSION TO ISLAM:
“I talked a lot with them about that”, Bontinck says. “They told me that they weren’t living really good lives before. That they didn’t respect their mothers enought, for instance. It was their conversion that made them see that. When I first met them, they were converted already five months.” It can be doubted that the conversion of the three Westerners was completely sincere. Probably they only obeyed to the demand of their captors, hoping it would save their lives. Prison director Abu Ubaida told Bontinck he should do ‘dawah’ — the preaching to non-muslims — when he sent him to the cell of Foley & co, so he wasn’t that convinced about the conversion of the Westerners himself.
• ABOUT THE CELL THAT THEY SHARED:
“It was an ordinary room with pale brown walls, a pale brown floor in stone and a ceiling of the same colour. There were mattresses and reed mats and we had some books. I think it was about four meters long and eight meters wide. There was electricity and light. It was half underground and the sash-window was overlooking a huge dead wall. We had to eat in our cell. Apart from going to the toilet, we had to stay there all day. But still I think of all the prisoners, we were treated the best.”
• ABOUT THE DUTCH-MOROCCAN PRISON CHIEF:
“Abu Ubaida is a tall, slender and tanned. He must be in his twenties. He graduated as an engineer, so I think he’s at least 22 years old. He is of Moroccan descent and I do not know his real name. I can’t tell how he came to Syria or how he has got his important position. But he speaks Arabic perfectly, that was surprising for me. He has two wives and three children, of which the oldest is about seven years old. They are also in Syria and his second wife was born there.” Bontincks description seems to match with the Abu Ubaida al-Maghribi named by other sources as the highest ranking security chief of IS near Aleppo. More about the possibility that we are speaking about the same person, can be read here.
For the first time, a Belgian fighter in Syria admits that he has murdered there — a scoop that my colleague Patrick Lefelon presents today in Belgium’s largest daily newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’. Hakim Elouassaki, repatriated badly wounded last year and still imprisoned, says he executed a man because he didn’t dare to disobey the orders of his commander.
Hakim Elouassaki, 22 years old today, is a younger brother of former Shariah4Belgium firebrand Houssien. Born and raised in Vilvoorde, a town on the outskirts of Brussels, both went to Syria at the end of 2012. They fought in the ranks of ‘Majlis Shura al-Muhajireen’, a militia that later would become part of the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Sham’ — now known as IS. Hakim returned in March of the following year, after being hit in the head by a grenade. He spent some time in a Belgian hospital — but in April 2013, he was arrested in his family’s home.
The police confronted him with an intercepted phone call he made with his girlfriend while staying in Syria. “Guess what?” investigators heard him say. “I have killed a man today. He was an unbeliever that was captured long before. His family only raised 30,000 euro’s for him, while they had to pay 70,000 to set him free. I killed him with a bullet in the head. Bang! I wanted to film it, but my camera was badly placed so that went wrong.”
In front of his interrogators, Hakim denied having executed someone. He insisted that he made up the story to impress his girl, and he sticked to that version until about two weeks ago. Then, all of a sudden, he informed the police he had a declaration to make. He confessed the crime, saying that he was driven by fear. He would have signed his own death warrant by ignoring the orders of his commander, he told.
For the prosecution, Hakim’s confession came as a pleasant surprise. They mainly relied on the phonetaps and some shaky videos from other murders by Belgian fighters to prove the worst crimes of the 46 people from Shariah4Belgium that will stand trial at the end of this month. Therefore, the murders already were separated from the list of accusations — so they can be investigated further and be the subject of a second trial at a later time.
According to his lawyer, Hakim’s confession is meaningless though. He says his client cannot make a reliable statement anymore because his brains were irreversibly damaged by the grenade — a fact that is confirmed by a panel of medical experts. Lawyer Abderrahim Lahali also insists that the murders have to tried at the same time as the other accusations — such as membership of a terrorist organization — since they all were committed in a same context, and thus are interrelated.
A well known European fighter within the ranks of the Islamic State has posted practical guidelines for those who want to travel to Syria these days. “Don’t behave like warriors, but like tourists”, he says. We publish some excerpts, not to assist the future fighters (they still will need the necessary contacts of course), but to illustrate how the journeys are made.
Bismilahi Rahmani Rahim
Message to all those who want to come…
1) Rumours that the borders are closed are completely false.
2) Take as little luggage as possible with you. Maximum one or two large pieces each. Try to take something that is easy to carry. Nothing without handles – LOL
3) Crossing the border is done by foot. It’s about 200 metres and it is quiet.
4) For the sisters it is necessary to avoid the niqab. Just wear a hijab and dress yourself the Turkish way.
5) For the sisters, avoid to come on your own, unless you really have no choice. Minimum two sisters is good.
6) For couples and families, mentally prepare yourself to be separated for a month to six weeks after your arrival. Since the men will immediately depart to a training camp, while their relatives go to a villa where other families are staying. For those who know brothers or sisters able to take their family in, arrange with them that they pick up your wife or family at the villa. But hey, that’s very rare.
7) Take all your precious belongings with you in a handbag, not in your luggage.
8) For those who are coming by car, at this moment cars cannot enter. It is necessary to park the car at a spot where you don’t have to pay, take a picture of it, write down the address and give that to the brothers. It’s possible that this problem will be solved in the near future and the cars can enter again.
9) Avoid to take your entire house with you! Everything you need is available here, be it clothes or things for your home, we have everything. It’s better to carry cash with you and buy it here.
10) I have all the information about the route to follow and the phone numbers to call. But expect a series of questions and excuse me if I don’t answer the phone. We cannot trust everyone.
11) Buy an anonymous phone card at home that lets you make a phone call in Turkey.
12) Don’t behave like a warrior. Shave your beards, behave like tourists and buy tickets back and forth.
13) Say the prayers of the voyager, and bismilah, may Allah guide you and blind the kuffar.
Three young muslims from the Belgian city of Kortrijk who left to Syria in June, seem to become new poster boys of the ‘good life’ in the Islamic State.
Olivier Calebout (27, aka ‘Abu Sayfudeen’), Abdelmalek Boutalliss (19, aka ‘Abu Nusaybah’) and Lucas Van Hessche (19) are very active on social media these days, showing more joy than cruelty or war. Below are some of their most recent pictures — while two movies can be seen here and here.
Apparently, they are living in ar-Raqqah at the moment (after a short stay in Deir ez-Zor) and recognizable in their company is Azeddine Kbir Bounekoub from Malle near Antwerp — who has threatened Belgium a while ago with terrorist attacks and will be tried in absentia later this month.