Belgium Syria: How a Belgian teenager was lured to jihad

By Murad Batal Shishani
BBC News, Kortrijk, Belgium

Related Topics
Media caption,
Abdelmalek one day told his mother: "Don't expect me for dinner."

"I wish everything could go back to the way that it was," sighed Najat, remembering her 19-year-old son.

Last month, jihadist group Islamic State (IS) claimed that Abdelmalek Boutalliss had blown himself up in Iraq.

Originally from the Belgian city of Kortrijk, he had been preparing for his exams when he told his mother, "Don't expect me for dinner".

The next day he sent her a photo from Turkey of him with his best friend, saying he was heading to Syria.

Image caption,
Abdelmalek Boutalliss (right) and his friend stopped in Turkey before they entered Syria

One of hundreds of young Belgians lured by IS to Syria and Iraq, he was given the nom de guerre Abu Nusaybah al-Baljiki. His family are Berbers, an ethnic group from North Africa.

Idriss Boutalliss followed his son to Syria twice, in a desperate attempt to bring him back.

On the second occasion, after a 10-day search, he finally managed to meet him near Raqqa - the self-proclaimed capital of IS.

Abdelmalek refused to leave, telling his father that he would be jailed immediately if he returned to Belgium.

"I spoke to the police and they assured me if you return you will not go to prison," his father told him. But the teenager said he was lying.

Committed to attacks

At around the same time, in July 2014, Belgian researcher Montasser Alde'emeh spent three weeks in Syria trying to understand what made so many young people from Belgium go there.

"There are about 500 Belgian jihadis [in Syria and Iraq]," he said. "About 70 of them have been killed."

On his return, he set up a centre aiming to counter extremism and convince Belgians in Syria and Iraq to come home.

Image caption,
Abdelmalek Boutalliss went missing on 11 June 2014

That was how he came into contact with Abdelmalek Boutalliss, who had put his name down on a list of willing suicide bombers.

These lists can reportedly be found in jihadist training camps.

During a series of conversations via the Whatsapp instant messaging service, the Belgian academic tried to change the teenager's mind, urging him to think what effect it would have on his mother.

Whatsapp conversation: Excerpts

This WhatsApp conversation originally took place in Dutch. It has been shortened and edited by the BBC.

Montasser Alde'emeh: You should not do that. Remove your name from the list of suicide bombers.

Abdelmalek: Allah willing, I will carry out a "martyrdom operation"

Montasser: Do not blow yourself up, brother. Do not do it. Can't you imagine how sad your parents will be?

Abdelmalek: You are still looking for the truth, unlike me. I found the truth. I kept searching in Belgium and found it.

Montasser: I hate that you are doing that. Don't you realise to what extent I care about you?

Abdelmalek: I don't care. My path to paradise is not in your hands. Whatever you say, I won't listen.

Montasser: Your parents are still Muslims and they want you to return.

Abdelmalek: If they are real believers they should come here.

Road to radicalisation

Many young European men have been lured by IS via the internet but Abdelmalek Boutalliss was recruited locally in Belgium.

His mother, Najat, said he had begun to show interest in Islam when a teacher began asking him about the religion.

At that point he started visiting a local mosque and his family thinks he was recruited there by a jihadist who had previously fought in Syria.

Young Muslims are still being radicalised in Belgium.

Observers believe they feel alienated from society and angered by Western involvement in Syria.

Since October, the number of Belgian jihadists has risen by 39, according to Belgian expert Pieter Van Ostaeyen.

Image caption,
Idriss and Najat Boutalliss have struggled to come to terms with their son's decision to become a jihadist

Last month, 130 people died in co-ordinated attacks claimed by IS on a concert hall, cafes, restaurants and a stadium in Paris.

Several Belgian jihadists took part in the atrocities and the suspected ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud came from the Brussels district of Molenbeek.

Three days before the attacks, on 10 November, IS militants announced that the Belgian teenager they had dubbed Abu Nusaybah al-Baljiki had carried out a suicide attack in Haditha in western Iraq.

IS said he had destroyed three Iraqi military vehicles and killed everyone inside. Iraqi officials insisted his attack had been foiled and he blew himself up some distance from the vehicles.

Whether or not Abdelmalek Boutallis committed murder in western Iraq, his mother Najat still refuses to believe he is dead.

More on this story