BRUSSELS — Ahmed Abu Fouad was vacationing with his children two years ago when he got word that his young wife had run away to Syria. With the family out of town, she quietly packed her bags, flew to Turkey and slipped across the border to join the Islamic State, warning her husband in a text message not to follow her.
Abu Fouad, a 48-year-old hospital orderly, went anyway, taking his two kids with him. After a months-long ordeal, the reunited family finally returned to Belgium in December, only to be greeted by police bearing handcuffs. Today, both parents are incarcerated, and Abu Fouad sees his children only during prison visits.
“I am a victim,” he told prosecutors in March, in a sworn statement rejecting charges that his travel to Syria betrayed a sympathy for terrorist causes. “I’m not connected, in any way whatsoever, with the Islamic State.”
Belgian officials can’t be certain of that, so Abu Fouad sits in jail, along with scores of his countrymen who have returned to Europe after spending time inside the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate. Their presence in Belgium represents a new phase in the evolution of the terrorist threat and a fresh dilemma for security services: what to do with hundreds of Europeans who went away to Iraq and Syria and now want to come home.
In Belgium alone, at least 120 citizens — about a quarter of the 470 Belgians believed to have traveled to the terrorist enclave since 2012 — have come back to a country that now takes a much harsher line on returning Islamist militants in the wake of last year’s deadly terrorist attack in Brussels. Other homeward-bound Belgians are waiting in Iraqi and Turkish detention facilities that receive fresh arrivals weekly as conditions inside the caliphate grow increasingly desperate.
“What worries us now are no longer the ones who depart, because Daesh has lost its attractiveness,” said Paul van Tigchelt, director of Belgium’s Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis, using a common term for the Islamic State. “What worries us now are the returnees.”
The reverse migration is straining European governments as police and social workers attempt to assess each case amid real worries that some of the returnees might be terrorist operatives. Complicating matters, many of the new arrivals are children — including some who were born in Islamic State territories — as well as adults who claim to have traveled to Iraq or Syria for humanitarian reasons or to be with spouses. Still others are avowed defectors who could provide useful intelligence or aid official efforts to counter the Islamic State’s propaganda.
Regardless of their motives for returning, nearly all face prosecution under new rules in effect across the European Union. But while jailing the returnees may ease public fears, officials acknowledge that a comprehensive solution — one that involves long-term monitoring as well as extensive rehabilitation and de-radicalization programs — isn’t yet in place.
“We’re adding resources, but it will take a few years for new people to be hired and trained,” said Thomas Renard, a Belgian terrorism expert. “We may not have a few years.”
According to his account of events, it was love that prompted Abu Fouad to make his desperate journey to northern Syria two years ago.
The story of his wife’s flight and his unlikely attempt to rescue her is recorded in hundreds of pages of sworn statements and depositions generated by Belgian prosecutors and defense attorneys since the family’s return to Belgium on Dec. 29. The Washington Post obtained copies of the confidential records, which collectively offer an unusually detailed portrait of a European family who was pulled into the Islamic State’s magnetic field and later escaped. Fearing that the couple may be targeted by Islamic State operatives or sympathizers in Belgium, a lawyer for the pair requested that their middle names and Arabic “kunya,” or informal family names, be used instead of first and surnames.
In the documents, Abu Fouad and his wife, Aicha Umm Dounia, both Belgian citizens of North African descent, describe a tumultuous marriage that culminated with the couple’s separation in 2014. Umm Dounia, 14 years younger than her husband, had been hospitalized for depression and had a history of abrupt departures from the family home after a “blow of bad temper,” in her husband’s words.
In the summer of 2015, as Umm Dounia was living with a girlfriend and working in a sandwich shop, she became increasingly drawn to Internet chat rooms devoted to discussions about the Islamic State and the fighting in Iraq and Syria. Though she had never been particularly pious, she yearned to get involved in some way.
“Muslims around the world were called upon to help, in one way or another. I felt called,” she told Belgian prosecutors in a sworn statement. “On the Net — social networks — I saw people leaving for Syria and saying that they stayed there for 15 to 20 days to help, and then came back. It seemed so easy to get in and out.”
Her chance came when Abu Fouad and her two children left the country in July 2015 for a month-long vacation with relatives in Algeria. Umm Dounia packed her clothes, including beachwear, and told friends she was going on vacation in Turkey.
Three days later, she sent the first of several texts to family members saying that she was bound for Syria and that neither Abu Fouad nor her relatives should try to find her. A month later, she was posing for photographs holding a rifle and wearing a niqab, a veil that covers the hair and face except for the eyes.
Anxious relatives sent word to the vacationing Abu Fouad, who then heard the news directly from his wife in a series of texts. A delegation of family members met with Brussels police to alert them to the possibility that Umm Dounia had joined the Islamic State. She “says without any ambiguity that she has gone jihad,” one of her brothers told police, according to court records.
In a sworn statement months later, Abu Fouad would describe how shocked he was by his wife’s decision, noting that Umm Dounia had never hinted about her plans, wasn’t religious and couldn’t even speak Arabic. He broke down as he recounted to prosecutors a message from his wife relayed to him by one of her brothers, according to the transcript.
“She says she’s sick of life with you. She says that she has to settle in the land of Islam,” Abu Fouad said, recalling his brother-in-law’s words. “She wants to do jihad to protect her sisters, to live in Islamic State under sharia [Islamic law] until death.”
Prosecutors would sharply question Abu Fouad about his decision to pursue his wife. Was it truly a rescue mission, or had he hoped to rekindle the relationship by moving the family to Syria and joining the caliphate?
Abu Fouad explained that his intention had been only to travel to Turkey with his children, hoping that together they could persuade Umm Dounia to come home. But when he arrived in Turkey, he received troubling news: Islamic State officials in Raqqa, Syria, apparently suspicious that Umm Dounia was a spy, had confiscated her travel documents and placed her in a detention cell. There she learned that she would soon be assigned a new husband.
“I was told that I absolutely had to marry if my husband did not come . . . that the women who came to Syria were to get married,” Umm Dounia told prosecutors.
She was allowed a two-minute phone call to relay this news to Abu Fouad. Days later, he paid money to smugglers who ferried him and his children across the border into Syria.
Arriving in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s Syrian capital, Abu Fouad says he lied to local officials about his intentions, telling them he wanted to live with his wife as a resident of the caliphate but not as a fighter, since he suffered from a bad back. After a long ordeal that Abu Fouad says included beatings and torture, Umm Dounia was allowed to rejoin her family. Eventually the couple were assigned a new home and new jobs at a Raqqa maternity hospital — Umm Dounia as an anesthetist’s aide and her husband as a security guard. For his job, Abu Fouad was given a gun but was never taught how to use it, he told prosecutors.
In the months that followed, Umm Dounia felt increasingly remorseful about putting Abu Fouad and her children in such peril, according to her account. “My husband came only to look for me. He never had other intentions,” she told prosecutors.
Both thought about trying to escape but decided it was too dangerous. They continued at their jobs, Umm Dounia said, animated by the hope that they would eventually find a way to get home.
“We had the will,” she said, “to dream of Belgium.”
Nearly 7,000 Europeans have trekked across the Turkish border to join the Islamic State since the militant group established its Syrian capital four years ago. For most of them, getting into the self-proclaimed caliphate was the easy part.
Intelligence officials believe that up to half of the group’s foreign recruits have died on the battlefield or in airstrikes. Some who survive may eventually choose to stay behind to form an insurgency after the militants’ capital falls, analysts say. But about a third of the total will attempt to flee — a dangerous prospect, since the penalty for desertion is often beheading.
Each week, a few are caught by anti-Islamic State forces as they try to cross into Turkey. Abu Ali al-Sejju, a Free Syrian Army commander whose soldiers patrol a stretch of the border popular with smugglers, said he has captured dozens of the defectors over the past year, including Europeans and even some Americans.
“Many of these guys are defecting now because ISIS is weak and they are afraid of airstrikes,” he said in an interview at a cafe in Kilis, a Turkish border town that until recently was a departure hub for Europeans heading in the opposite direction.
In most cases his men refuse to let the defectors pass, fearing that they will be blamed if the escapees carry out terrorist attacks in Turkey or Western Europe, Sejju said. He said some of the defectors are eventually turned over to “legitimate authorities,” scoffing at published reports suggesting that the militias trade defectors for cash.
“If we hand them over for money, for sure they will go and blow themselves up somewhere,” he said.
Until recently, Sejju’s group was holding several French citizens among about a dozen escapees locked inside a three-story house near the Turkish border, he said. Among them was a widow from Toulouse, France, who fled with her two children after her husband died in battle, leaving her vulnerable to being forcibly married to another Islamic State fighter. The woman, called Sara, was sent home after the rebels worked out a deal with French authorities, Sejju said. A German woman was recently repatriated along with her three children in a similar arrangement, he said.
Most of those who manage to get as far as Kilis have endured a perilous journey across battle lines and checkpoints, often with the help of smugglers who typically charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for the trip. Once in Turkey, some wander into embassy offices seeking help, often to face days of grilling from skeptical consular officials.
European governments have been reluctant to offer assistance, especially to those who lack convincing travel documents or who possess dual citizenship, according to Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials familiar with the vetting process for returnees. The wariness has only increased after recent terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany, the officials said.
Sejju said most of the defectors he meets seem sincere about wanting to quit the Islamic State, but he acknowledged that some may have other motivations.
A Ukrainian man in the group’s custody raised suspicions when he kept changing his story during questioning, he said. What’s more, the man’s blond hair and European features instantly marked him as a foreigner. How could such a man pass through Islamic State checkpoints unless the terrorists themselves had dispatched him on a mission?
“Even a smuggler,” Sejju said, “wouldn’t take this risk.”
The same kinds of suspicions dogged Abu Fouad and his wife through every step of the arduous journey that brought them back to Belgium just before the start of the new year.
With Islamic State officials increasingly preoccupied with the war, the couple seized on a chance to escape in early October. Abu Fouad met with a smuggler in a bombed-out house and paid $2,400 — savings from the couple’s hospital jobs — for the first leg of the trip back to Turkey. After a five-hour, moonlit hike across farm fields and olive groves, the family was turned over to a detachment of Syrian rebels and then to a different team of smugglers who guided them across the border near Kilis. From there, they traveled by taxi and bus to Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, where they went to the Belgian consulate.
The reception they received at the consulate was less than enthusiastic. The family was handed over to Turkish immigration authorities and shuffled through a chain of holding cells and detention centers for undocumented immigrants.
Finally, on Dec. 29, more than 10 weeks after their flight from Raqqa, the family boarded a Turkish Airlines plane for Brussels. At the airport, they were met by police officers who searched their luggage and brought them before a court to be formally charged with aiding a foreign terrorist group. The parents were led away to separate prisons while the children, now ages 10 and 8, were turned over to a government child-welfare agency.
The family’s fate now rests with a judge who will decide whether there are sufficient extenuating circumstances to warrant a lesser charge or perhaps a more lenient sentence. Until then, the couple will remain in jail, officials say, under policies adopted to ensure safety and to reassure a population still on edge after last year’s Islamic State attack on the Brussels airport.
Belgian officials say they take no pleasure in separating parents from children or putting the spouses of suspects in prison. But they say the exodus of European citizens from the Islamic State poses new dangers to the country and its neighbors that governments are not fully prepared to address. The risks are likely to remain long after the caliphate ceases to exist, said van Tigchelt, the Belgian counterterrorism official.
“Those persons who want to return now — it’s not like they want to return with a suicide belt around their waist, so they are not an imminent threat,” he said. “But, of course, those women and also the children, they are brainwashed, they saw cruelties and could also be radicalized, so we have to follow them when they come back.”
Thus, Belgium’s strategy for dealing with families such as Abu Fouad’s will be one of strict “criminal justice,” he said.
Under questioning from Belgian prosecutors, Umm Dounia, the wife and mother whose decision launched the family’s life-altering journey two years ago, said she is painfully aware of her mistake and hopes eventually to have a second chance — “even if it is under strict conditions,” she said.
“I want a peaceful life here. I want my children to have a normal life,” she said. “I’m sorry. I feel bad for what I did.”
She continued in a ramble. “Never again,” she said. “I do not know what to say.”
Sly reported from Kilis, Turkey. Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.