Shafaqna – Stewart Bell, National Post: A father who traveled to Syria last year to search for his son says he met an 18-year-old Canadian member of the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda while in the northern the city of Aleppo.
Although dozens of Canadians are believed to have left for Syria to join extremist factions, the teen encountered by the Belgian father is the youngest known to be fighting in the conflict. He was a member of the Al-Nusrah Front, a terrorist group under Canadian law.
In an interview on Monday, Dimitri Bontinck recalled running into the Canadian in April 2013, during his first trip to Syria to retrieve his son. “He was just 18, this boy,” Mr. Bontinck said of the Canadian. “He was proud to be there, to help against Bashar Assad, and he was proud to make jihad there.”
He said the teenager told him there were a dozen Al Nusrah Front members from Canada. Mr. Bontinck said he did not know the youth’s name. “I was focused at that time on my son, so I didn’t write his name but if I see a picture I can remember him very well.”
A report released by the federal government last Friday said about 130 extremists were known to have left Canada to join Islamist terrorist groups, including about 30 in Syria. “Syria has become the primary destination for these extremist travellers,” it said.
Some are with the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, which on Monday released a video purporting to show its beheading of a second kidnapped American journalist, Steven Sotloff. But Canadian fighters have also turned up in the Al Nusrah Front, which follows a similar ideology.
“They may return to Canada or other countries imbued with knowledge, skills and experience gained in terrorist operations and training camps,” said the report, adding “it is possible some returnees could plan and carry out terrorist attacks in Canada.”
But Mr. Bontinck, a former Belgian soldier, said he did not believe Western foreign fighters would harm their home countries. He said that by focusing on the threat of returning fighters, governments were making the problem worse.
He said authorities were doing little to prevent youths from leaving for Syria but deterred them from returning by threatening arrest. As a result, Western jihadists who are ready to give up fighting do not want to leave Syria, he said.
“It’s totally the wrong way because with this attitude, more youngsters move up, more youngsters will join jihad in Syria,” said Mr. Bontinck, who wants governments to instead support families. “Our children need to be treated like victims.”
In 2010, Mr. Bontinck’s son Jejoen converted to Islam after falling for a Moroccan girl, he said. Within a year, he had changed radically. He subsequently joined a Belgian extremist group but the authorities declined to take any action.
Last year, his son said he was going to Cairo but Mr. Bontinck learned he was actually in Syria and went to find him. His son has since returned to Belgium and was arrested on suspicion of joining a terrorist group, which he denied.
Since making his dangerous journey to Syria in search of his son, Mr. Bontinck has returned to help other fathers bring out their own kids. He has also become an outspoken advocate for the families of youths lured into the armed conflict.
“The problem is stupid governments are doing nothing, only watching and stigmatizing our children,” he said, “because they are afraid that if they return they will be a danger to society, they will be a ticking time bomb, which is bulls—.”
The Canadian government said last week the RCMP was working on a program that would use “targeted interventions” against youths who were being drawn into violent extremism, but who had not yet broken any laws.
Under the plan, “candidates for intervention are paired with community-based mentors and other resources for advice, support and counseling aimed at limiting the impact of violent extremist ideology,” according to Public Safety Canada.