Rescued from ISIS: The Gripping True Story of How a Father Saved His Son

Rescued from ISIS: The Gripping True Story of How a Father Saved His Son

by Dimitri Bontinck


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250147585
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/08/2017
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

DIMITRI BONTINCK is a former soldier for the Belgian army, UN peacekeeper in Slovenia, and security officer who in 2013 discovered that his teenaged son had traveled to Syria to join the group that later became ISIS. Bontinck traveled to Syria and, after several dangerous encounters with ISIS jihadis, rescued his son from the terrorist group, chronicling his experiences in Rescued from ISIS: The Gripping True Story of How a Father Saved His Son. Since then, he's traveled numerous times to the region to save other young men and has become an expert on resistance to violent Islamic radicalism.

Read an Excerpt


WHAT LED ME TO SYRIA in 2013 to rescue my only son from the grips of ISIS? It was genetics and geography and a Moroccan girl and a small crack that opened in my son's mind after a breakup. But I must trace part of the story back to my own beginnings.

I was born in Flanders, which is the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, and raised a Catholic. My family was a mix of liberals and devout Christians. I can remember going to my uncle's house and picking up his copy of a newspaper that arrived with strange foreign postmarks. I would read out the name of the paper: "PRAVDA," with its odd typography. (The crossing line in the A's always had two bars. So cool-looking!) My uncle believed the Revolution was just around the corner, and the world would soon be a better place.

He read his PRAVDA and went to May Day rallies. My other relatives went to church and prayed for the souls of the lost and worked hard and volunteered when they could. I got from both sides of my family a belief that, whatever path I chose in life, I should help to change things for the better. This was reinforced in Catholic school, which I attended for years.

I've always been an idealist. I was always looking for a cause to believe in. I wanted someone to show me the true way to save the planet, or at least a few of the people on it.

I was impatient to begin my life. When I was seventeen, I dropped out of high school and volunteered for the "land forces," which is what we called the Belgian Army. I was placed in an infantry battalion. To me, being a soldier meant helping people. It seemed like a simple idea.

There was a second reason I joined the Army: American war movies. I absolutely loved them, and that drove me to want to be a soldier: Platoon. The Deer Hunter. Apocalypse Now. Those movies were so alive that you would walk out of the theater buzzing with electricity, your skin tingling. What would it be like to be in a shooting war? How would I perform? Most young men want to be heroes, to rescue someone from some terrible fate. I felt this, too, deeply.

It never occurred to me that those movies always seemed to end badly. I was nineteen. I didn't care about endings.

At the time I joined the Belgian military, the Yugoslav wars were ongoing, and I was assigned to a United Nations peacekeeping unit, as part of the Belgian commitment to the UN. I traded in my green helmet for a blue one and my buddies and I became "observers" to the simmering war zone. I was as excited as hell.

We were sent to Slovenia to keep the peace between the warring factions. Slovenia had declared its independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991, and a short, violent war between the Yugoslav Army and the Slovenian rebels quickly followed. A peace treaty was signed, but the hatred and resentment didn't go away. We were there to make sure people stopped killing each other over these ancient feuds. As observers, we weren't supposed to get involved in any real action. We were spectators with guns. But there was violence all around us.

One time we were driving down a street in a small white armored vehicle with UN painted on the side in tall black letters. The sound of the huge rubber tires made a steady humming noise on the asphalt. It was a warm, beautiful day, with blue skies visible through the hatch above.

We came to a roadblock. Through the small spy-hole in the front of the tank, we could see armed men approaching. And then, suddenly, the snout of a rifle was stuffed through the spy-hole.

Time stopped. I stared at the worn black steel of the rifle barrel. This wasn't a film. Francis Ford Coppola wasn't behind me with a camera, telling me how to act. The Kalashnikov was ten inches from my face, and there were real bullets in the magazine. I could barely catch my breath.

Adrenaline made me want to grab the rifle and shove it out of the way. But it was no time for heroics. Our captain called out that we were contacting headquarters and that, if they pulled the trigger, there would be an international incident. We called headquarters. And watched the rifle snout. And tried not to move suddenly.

After ten minutes, the Kalashnikov was withdrawn, but the armed men still stood in our way in the road. Our commanders negotiated with their commanders; we sat in the vehicle as the evening grew cold. Finally, some kind of agreement was reached and we were allowed to drive on.

A first taste of aggression. It had been interesting, but I'll never forget that cold, metallic feeling in my gut that told me something awful was just seconds away from happening.

Two months later, we were in our fortified observation post, looking out at a border town. There were sandbags stacked on top of each other to block any bullets from getting through, and a boom box playing rock, loudly. Someone had popped in the cassette of a Stones record, Aftermath. We were bored out of our skulls. Our jokes were getting old; all our stories of getting in trouble in school or getting lucky with this or that girl had been told three or four times.

All of a sudden, gunfire erupted a hundred yards away. We could see the tracers. Coming toward us.

For some reason, my first memory of that moment is what was playing in the background. "Paint It Black." Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, Keith Richard's evil guitar licks with Charlie Watts pounding out a sinister rhythm on the drums. It was so surreal, so right. We seemed to have entered a war film. We began laughing like jackals and yelling to each other that this was just like Apocalypse Now. Just like it!

We weren't allowed to fire back, as our lives weren't in real danger, at least until the guys shooting at us improved their aim. We couldn't tell where the fire was coming from anyway. But the experience of being fired on was exhilarating. It felt like we'd been baptized. Welcome to war.

I never shot anyone. I never even fired my gun. But I saw people shooting and being shot and it injected a bit of antifreeze into my veins. That would become important later. Not that I'd been really tested in a war zone, not yet. But you need to hear bullets and get used to having guns pointed at you to go to places like Syria.

When I got leave from the Army, I decided to go to West Africa on vacation. I always loved to travel to distant places, something I'd never had a chance to do as a boy with my family. Slovenia had been fun, but I wanted to go somewhere unlike any place I'd ever visited.

In Africa, I found everything fresh and different. The sounds, the tastes, the view of life. In the small villages in a place like Nigeria, you can hear the monkeys in the jungle shaking the branches as they race through the trees. The smell of dust in the air, the women squatting by the side of the road bartering their goods, that special African kind of scene that can't be duplicated anywhere else. I was entranced.

In the second week of my vacation, I met a local named Helen, a Nigerian girl with a gorgeous smile. She looked innocent, like a baby, with her big brown eyes and girlish figure. Later, I found out that inside she was tough, a fighter, but in the beginning I felt like protecting her. Our eyes locked and we began talking. Talking led to other things and, within a couple months after meeting, Helen was pregnant.

Interracial relationships aren't that common in Belgium. When I brought her home to Flanders, I got looks on the street, no question. But racism was foreign to me. I didn't care. I loved Helen and wanted to be with her and our child.

Helen wanted to get married in Nigeria in her home village. I jumped at the chance. Helen's father was an important person in Benin City in Southern Nigeria, a leader of a prominent tribe. Her family wanted a traditional marriage. I agreed — who wants a boring Dutch wedding? My marriage seemed to be sealed in adventure — not only the romance of love, but the romance of new sensations, new places.

I spent many happy hours in the village, talking with Helen's uncles and cousins. I wanted to know everything: How had their ancestors lived? Did their traditional medicine — the herbs and the roots that the medicine men gave the sick — really work, or was it all psychological? They taught me about voodoo, and I watched as holy men sacrificed goats and chickens, dancing and spraying the animals' blood in wide red arcs as they performed their ceremonies. They handed me animal skulls that were filled with water and told me to drink.

During our wedding, I was dressed in a traditional African long shirt and Helen was resplendent in a bright native dress. We returned to Belgium after the wedding and there, on January 29, 1995, Jejoen was born. I immediately nicknamed him "Jay." It was a moment of great harmony for me. I was thrilled to have a son. Here was someone to play football with, to go waterskiing with, to talk about girls when he became interested in them.

He was a dream boy.


SINCE HELEN WAS A CATHOLIC, we decided to raise Jay the same way, although I'd lost my faith years before. But the strict education he received in Antwerp, the city we lived in, wasn't needed to keep him in line. Jay was a joy to be with. He never gave us any trouble. He was an easy child, a natural athlete with a pleasant, open smile. When his little sister was born, Jay became a loving big brother.

I have so many memories of his childhood. He was a fanatic for a few songs, which he demanded we play over and over whenever we were in the car. His favorite of all was "Angelina" by Harry Belafonte. "Play it, Daddy!" he would cry. He could be a bit headstrong, and wouldn't stop calling out to me until the first notes began. Angelina, Angelina, please bring down your concertina. I would look in the rearview mirror and find him lisping along to the lyrics. As for movies, Walt Disney's Pinocchio was the one. Every time we watched it together, snuggled up on our couch, he would sit silently and follow the puppet's story, completely absorbed. And then, every time, when it ended, he would cry. He would never tell me why this was, but I think he loved Pinocchio so much that he hated to leave him.

He wasn't like every other boy. At six years old, Jay had a collection of dinosaurs and could name each one: raptor, T. rex, brontosaurus. Every other boy I've seen with these toys would end up having them fight each other. Could the raptor beat the Saurischia, the lizard-hipped dinosaur? Who was the strongest of them all?

But not Jay. He wanted all his dinosaurs, even the raptors, to live in peace and harmony. When I came upon him playing with the toys, they would all be arranged in a line going on some adventure, or they would be climbing onto the couch, the bigger beasts helping the smaller one. There was never any battle. He was gentle in his heart.

If there was any inkling of the future, it came with Jay's restlessness. He was always seeking. He took up kickboxing and diving; he got an international license in windsurfing. We did board surfing together. He was a break-dancer, so good that as a teenager he was chosen to appear on a TV show called Move Like Michael Jackson. Out of six thousand candidates, ninety-five were chosen to compete and Jay was one of them. He didn't make the finals, but he impressed everyone, especially the host.

Jay was always looking at the horizon, wondering what was next in his life. He reminded me of me, honestly. We were close, two dreamers in a difficult, exciting world. We'd go to Burger King, one of his favorite places, and talk about his life and plans.

We had our fights, too, but they were small ones. I was a liberal father. When he wanted to smoke, I said, "Try it." Better he talks to me about these things than runs off to do them in secret.

Jay grew up as a completely ordinary Belgian boy. He drank once in a while; he played the guitar, like I did. We would plug in our axes and jam together. "Can you please keep it down?" Helen would yell from the next room, and we would cackle and dive into the next riff. He went to clubs. He had friends of all different colors and faiths.

Jay was curious, like a sponge. At fourteen years old, I found him reading books about the Freemasons, and then about the Knights Templar. These young men who'd tried to change the world just fascinated him. In the town of Bruges, not too far from where we lived, there is a twelfth-century church called the Basilica of the Holy Blood that's said to hold a phial of Christ's blood, brought back to Belgium after the Second Crusade. The phial is carried out of the church once every year during a famous procession that threads through Bruges's streets. Jay grew up hearing about such things, in a country where faith and heroics often mixed.

I was proud of the life we were giving Jay and his sister. Growing up, my family hadn't been able to afford guitars and trips to Italy and America. When you're a father, you want your son to have what was always out of your reach as a boy. And Jay had it.

We wanted him to feel connected to his African heritage, too, so my wife often brought him to Nigeria. He got to meet his relatives, to see the places where his family came from, to spend time with his cousins. We thought we were doing everything right, grounding him in his past. We knew that being a biracial boy in Belgium wasn't the same thing as being blue-eyed and blond-haired. But perhaps we opened up a gap between his two worlds that he found hard to cross.

I thought he would become a lawyer or a politician, while he was looking forward to a career as a pilot. Like me, he wanted to travel and see the places that others shied away from. Fine, I thought. When I retire, I told Jay, I'll go with you to Belize and Vancouver and Rio de Janeiro. That was the dream.

Perhaps I didn't understand what its like to be a mixed-race child in Belgium. I'd never had to choose between two cultures, to wonder who I was and where I belonged. By the time Jay was fifteen, there were little signs of strain in his life. He didn't pass his exams that year and had to change schools. He left Our Lady College, the Jesuit institution that he loved, and transferred to a remedial school. At the same time, he and his girlfriend of three years, a blond Belgian girl from a Christian home, broke up.

It was a double blow. After the split, Jay stayed in his room for hours at a time. He didn't want to talk about what had happened. When you look at such breakups as a parent, you think it's a minor blip in an otherwise wonderful life. But for a teenager, it's disaster. He was in the abyss, and for a young kid, there seems to be no way out.

Jay found a new girlfriend, a Muslim Moroccan girl. When they first started talking, she asked him, "Why don't you convert to Islam?" I'm sure her heart was in the right place — she liked Jay and wanted good things for him, and to her that meant spiritual enlightenment through Islam. But that tiny little phrase, dropped into the life of a boy who was searching, hit like a grenade.

My son went on the computer and typed in the words "What is Islam?" He knew nothing about the faith, really — nothing positive, nothing negative. He just wanted to talk to a girl. He found the Islam entry on Wikipedia and began to read.

Thirty seconds. That's all it takes to change your life.

Jay had my adventurous genes, my thirst to find answers to the big questions in life. He'd broken up with a girl, and he wanted to remake himself. It could have been something else he fell into — professional kickboxing, Zen Buddhism, meditation — but it just happened that the Moroccan girl placed a certain word in his head. And it sprouted like a seed.

But still, just a seed! There are millions of people around the world who discover Islam and live happy, peaceful lives. Our son wasn't lost yet. He was looking for tranquility, inner peace, a way to serve. What he found was very different.

I didn't know much about Islam. I had a slightly negative view of it, from reading about the unrest and violence in Islamic countries. It seemed to me that people in those nations couldn't live in peace. Why was that? Did it have anything to do with their faith? Honestly, I had no idea. It wasn't a major priority in my life, learning about the schism between Sunni and Shiite or whatever. I was working in the police court, which is part of the Belgian justice system, trying to earn a living for my family. I was oblivious.

After a while, Internet searches no longer satisfied Jay, so he went looking for real flesh-and-blood Muslims. He went to a small mosque called De-Koepel in the Borgerhout neighborhood. The imam there was Sulayman Van Ael, who was himself a convert and who practiced and preached a moderate form of Islam. The two met and Jay told the imam how he'd discovered this new faith within himself. He wanted to convert and to start a new life.

Though my son was only sixteen, the imam complied. Any male past the age of puberty is allowed to convert.


Excerpted from "Rescued from ISIS"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Dimitri Bontinck.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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