[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] C [/yt_dropcap]NN has been hawking this story of Younes Delefortrie as From Altar Boy to ISIS Fighter. Here is my interview of Younes from February 2016. Excerpted from ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the ISIS Terrorist Caliphate – Chapter Fourteen
One can never know for sure.
Twenty-seven years old, Belgian, Younes Delefortrie is telling me about his return to Belgium after spending five weeks with ISIS in Syria in 2013. “I hid in the house. Even the children didn’t know I was there. For three days the police came by asking [my wife], ‘Did you see him?’”
It’s February 2016, and I’ve come here to interview Belgians and family members of those who have traveled to Syria to join ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra, or other groups in the Sunni uprising. Belgium is disproportionately represented among ISIS foreign fighters coming from European countries. Five hundred Belgians have disappeared into Syria, many to ISIS, and one hundred and twenty-five have returned. Half of those are imprisoned and the other half are on the streets of Belgium. Younes is one of them.
Only a few months ago, it was a handful of Belgians who had returned from ISIS training in Syria, took up arms and suicide belts, to nearly simultaneously attack the Paris concert hall, stadium, restaurants and bars. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged ringleader of the attacks, was a Belgian national from the Molenbeek area of Brussels. He was discovered hiding out in a Paris apartment and killed by the French police shortly after the attacks. Likewise, Salah and Brahim Abdeslam, brothers and French nationals had been raised in the Molenbeek neighborhood. Brahim exploded himself while Salah ran and returned to this neighborhood to hide out. Twenty-five-year-old Chakib Akrouh, also born and raised in Belgium, exploded himself after the Paris bombing, during a police raid. He is believed to have been involved in the bar and restaurant attacks. Other Belgians of North African descent were involved in preparing the attacks and aiding Abdeslam’s escape. Many of their identities will be discovered in the coming months and it will be discovered that they traveled through Turkey to Syria and back again through Turkey and Greece to attack. However, at the time we are interviewing Younes, only some of this is known.
When I lived in Brussels from 2000 to 2007 during my husband’s diplomatic career, I traveled to places like the West Bank, Gaza, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Uzbekistan and Russia to interview hundreds of terrorists, their family members, close associates and even hostages. Eventually it dawned on me—I didn’t need to leave Belgium to find militant jihadi extremists. There were plenty right in my neighborhood. In fact, numerous al Qaeda-inspired plots involving Belgian cadres had been stopped during the seven years I lived in Belgium, including a suicide operative who planned to detonate himself inside the U.S. embassy in Paris.
It is against this backdrop that I find myself in Antwerp, one of Belgium’s main cities, sitting in a small office just off of the Radisson hotel lobby, drinking Belgian coffee and listening to Younes tell his story. Having arrived in pants that are cut short, well above his ankles, in the regulation manner of Salafi traditional dress, Younes greeted me with a friendly, but nervous smile. According to his brand of Islam, it’s forbidden to take a woman’s hand he explained, as he tensely said hello without a handshake and I wondered if I would be able to get much of an interview with him. But now that we are into it, I see that I’ve gotten him talking freely. I think I may have hit the mother lode.
With the Islamic State’s declaration of a “Caliphate” in June 2014, what had been low-level but significant, militant jihadi activity in Belgium ramped up on steroids. As the Sunni uprising against Assad began and no one came to the aid of the rebels, alienated young Belgian men and women, already resonating to the call of groups like al-Qaeda, began thinking they could help the anti-Assad rebels. Salafi extremists had been cultivating the ground in Belgium for years, working in the streets and out of garage mosques, converting disaffected immigrant youth to their extremist brand of Islam. The young recruits already accepted al-Qaeda’s premise that jihad against the West was called for because Islamic peoples and lands, and even Islam itself, were under attack, and “martyrdom” missions against the enemy were an instant pathway to Paradise. Already primed, they easily fell for the call of ISIS.
From 2013 onward, Belgian youth became enamored of the idea of adventure, upset by the lack of global support for the Sunni uprising against Assad, and strongly resonated with the idea of an Islamic utopia and the alternative world governance of the “Caliphate” offered by ISIS. They began streaming by the hundreds through Turkey into Syria. These Belgians joined the monthly deluge of a thousand to fifteen hundred foreign fighters flowing in from around the globe who made it possible for ISIS to suffer the steady degradation of Coalition airstrikes and still renew its ranks. These recruits from Belgium are part of the group of foreign fighters who our Syrian ISIS defectors consistently described as “true believers,” fully indoctrinated into militant jihadi ideas upon their arrival.
Ten years ago in Antwerp, these North African second-generation youth were already disaffected “true believers,” telling me how alienated they felt in Belgium and France and how angry they were over geopolitics. In fact, when the Paris attacks happened in November 2015, I would have pointed to Antwerp as more of a hotbed of militant jihadi activities than the well-known Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, from where the Belgian Paris attackers came.
This trip, I was here to try and interview some of these ISIS “true believers”. I wanted to know why young men and women from Belgium would leave circumstances so different from the Syrians who often joined ISIS out of a lack of alternatives, coercion, and pressure to provide for themselves and their families. Were the true believers who returned to Belgium, defectors, like the Syrians we’d been talking to? Or were they simply returnees—still deeply entrenched in militant jihadi beliefs and hence dangerous? Here in Belgium, and across all of Europe, government security officials were especially concerned about their citizens returning home after serving time in groups like ISIS, a concern now greatly heightened by the Paris attacks. How many of those who went to Syria might constitute a threat if they returned home? How many would remain ideologically indoctrinated and were already weapons trained?
I knew it wouldn’t be easy to make contact with ISIS defectors inside Europe. We had hit a pipeline of them in Turkey thanks to Ahmet’s efforts at winning trust, but those who return to Europe would be reticent to talk for a number of reasons. These defectors would fear ISIS just like the Syrians in Turkey. They might not want to admit they had joined ISIS because doing so means they could face prosecution in their European home country. They also might not appreciate an American asking them questions, given the Coalition bombings in Syria. And if they hadn’t really defected, they might be seriously dangerous. I knew if it was the latter I could potentially be putting my life in danger. It was a calculated risk.
Before I left Ahmet commented, “You always have a police guard with you on these interviews, no?” I turned to him, incredulous. Sure, I would have loved a trained police chief, like Ahmet, along on these interviews, but our budget didn’t allow it. So I went alone—unprotected—as I had done for most of the hundreds of interviews I’d conducted over the years. I never had the luxury of a guard alongside me, except inside the Department of Defense prisons in Iraq.
Younes Delefortrie was seated across the room, speaking in English to me.  We are using his real name, with his permission. I already knew from reading local press about him that he was a convert to Islam, grew up in a Flemish family of five children and that it wasn’t a happy home. His mother was an alcoholic and his father was unable to control her violence or her drinking. Younes was the oldest and may have had it the worst. I’d also read that he doesn’t like talking about his childhood, so I’m treading gently as I ask him to tell me about himself—how he grew up and later became involved with ISIS.
We had the camera rolling as he agreed to a video interview. I was managing to make a connection. Describing himself as a hyperactive child unable to pay attention, I nod, knowing that this description is often the fate of young boys who grow up in chaotic and violent conditions. If a child who is trying to organize himself doesn’t have a reliable attachment figure with whom to make a strong and reliable bond, he will often fail to organize himself well, or even learn to pay attention to authority figures.
“It was a difficult situation,” Younes says, describing his early family life while ruminating on whether or not he was “normal” as a young boy. “Normal needs two parents,” he reflects as a sad expression crosses his face. “I ruined a lot of things in my life—school and education, and had a lot of energy,” he says, easing into his childhood pain carefully.
“Everybody can be a mother. Not everyone can be a mom. My mother left when I was twelve or thirteen.”
“That’s a pretty tender age to lose your mother. Did it break your heart when she left?”
Younes expression becomes sardonic, as he answers, “A mother who has a drinking problem is not something you will miss very soon. I was actually relieved. It’s better for children if there is an unnatural abnormal—it’s best to change the situation. I was also sure that it would improve the situation.”
His mother got so drunk each day that she couldn’t care, cook, or clean for her children. Later, an associate of Younes tells me that his mother was violent as well and tried to make Younes responsible for the other children, blaming and hitting him in her drunken state when he didn’t manage to take up the slack. Given that, it probably was a relief when she jumped ship.
Younes’s father put their mother into alcohol treatment three times. On the third time she decided to run off with another alcoholic in the program. After abandoning her five children, she went on to have five more children with the next man. “She lost my appreciation of being a mother,” Younes sarcastically notes, shaking his head. “She was drunk, annoying, aggressive,” whereas he tells me that his father returned home to try to pull the family together after he “worked eight hours in hard labor.”
“Occasionally he’d drink on the weekends, normally after dinner, or at dinner, or before television at night, but he got up each day at seven a.m.” Younes’ father, a team boss in a metal construction factory, I’d also later learn from others who know Younes’ story, would come home and try to hold the family together. But he would also sometimes give in and drink right along with his wife. Younes’ father was not as much a saint as his son made him out to be.
After his mother left, his grandparents stepped in. “They came at six a.m., to make breakfast. My grandmother cleaned the house and they came back at four p.m. to take us from school,” he says as though everything was fine. In fact he was not fine. Like many young boys who haven’t any coping mechanisms to deal with their emotional pain and act them out through constant motion, Younes became severely hyperactive to the point that he was diagnosed and received medication. He describes how he was “bored in school, not feeling good, and eventually failed.” Rather than high school he went into a “learning contract” to learn the Belgian art of making chocolate and pastry production. It seems like such a contradiction—from pastry maker to ISIS
As a teen, Younes went on a wild streak for some years—using drugs and partying with girls. “The partying and the girlfriend relationships without any value made me realize that life without borders was not the right life to live, better to have borders and standards. At that moment I was also an altar boy. I was religious. My father and mother were very religious and took us to church, but I had only Western society borders, and those of the Catholic Church—and those two borders were not very good. They didn’t look like borders to me.”
Like all youth, Younes began searching for meaning to his life and as an alienated teenager found his answers among other youth who would sit on the riverbank smoking hashish. “They opened me to search new knowledge—what is Islam, what are the borders.” He explains: “This is clear cut, no grey. Black and white, no doubts—till today I didn’t find doubts. Before, I had non-authentic beliefs,” referring to his Catholic upbringing and likely the hypocrisy he witnessed in his family, torn by drunken violence, living out what they claimed as their creed. Younes was searching for limits, discipline, and certainty, and Islam offered all three. And his emotional pain made him receptive to more extremist versions than what he learned from his hashish-smoking friends.
“So-called moderates,” Younes calls them, “that was my [first] version of Islam. I can describe them as non-well informed. They don’t do acts that put them out of religion, but they just accepted the entry card. We have the five pillars: i.e. saying the Shahada [the Muslim testimony of faith], keeping the five daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, giving zakat [charity], and if possible taking at least one pilgrimage to Mecca; but in our [Salafi] opinion that is just the passport to calling yourself a Muslim. Human beings are what they are and quickly satisfied with those things. But they need to go deeper.”
“Converts are more motivated—‘radicalized’ is the claim—but the truth is we are just more interested in what we believe. Born Muslims think they get it all. That is a big problem of what we have now. America [American policy makers and political pundits] says we cannot change Islam from inside and said we need to change and renew,” Younes reflects. As a Salafi, he roundly rejects the idea of moderating or innovating on Islam in any manner. “Who said we wanted to renew? Our religion has been changed. Catholics made many changes over times, the Jews rejected the Torah and made their own,” Younes repeats a common militant jihadi and extremist line that Jews rejected what was given to them and therefore fell into sin, but true Muslims stick to the old interpretations and ways.
“Everything created by human beings, everything created by people, fails.” Younes seems very sure of himself and very dependent on beliefs that sustains his sense of certainty.
It makes sense that he wants something solid and unfailing. Younes grew up with failure—his mother’s failure to nurture and stay sober; his father’s failure to control her; his grandparent’s impotence in the face of her negligence; and the Catholic Church’s numb inability to step in and protect the children. For Younes, his strict version of Islam meets his needs. And like many European converts, he learned about Islam from friends who came from close knit, extended, immigrant families where he saw another way of living.
So while they smoked hashish, Younes began to take an interest in all things Islamic. Christened Michael by his parents, he converted and renamed himself Younes. As a Muslim he became convinced and calmed by a strict system of rules that promised to keep him “safe” from the dangers of his childhood—certainly from alcoholism—as alcohol is banned in Islam.
I ask him about marrying—knowing he’s married multiple times with two children. Younes explains that he went to Morocco as a young man in search of his first wife. “I was of the opinion that Muslim women here are too westernized. People told me that from the mountains of Morocco, the women are more laid back and not feminist, and if they felt oppressed, they know it’s the fault of society, not of a man.” Younes was looking for someone who would not be a repeat of his mother, who had blamed and hurt him throughout his childhood, and whom his father couldn’t control.
“So I went [to Morocco] in Ramadan. I met the family of the mother of my children. The guy said to me we have a sister that wants to marry. She stayed [with me] five years so I knew she wasn’t just looking for citizenship. I knew it was risky. It took a year to finish the papers—sixty [government] stamps to get the marriage papers. We have two children, but the marriage didn’t last,” he explains getting a pained expression on his face. “I am very strict, and not easy to live with.”
He was also looking for more than this Moroccan woman saw as her wifely role. “I expected love, Romeo and Juliet, and she thought she was doing enough to cook and clean and take care of our children. I expected love, but I got the boring sheep. She’s a good mother and takes care of my children,” he admits, “But that was not enough for me. I wanted love.” Of course he did. He hadn’t been loved as a boy and he grew up in the West where love and romance are normal expectations in marriage.
“So it didn’t work,” Younes continues. “I was alone.” Still anxious for limits, certainty, and strict guidelines, Younes fell in with Sharia4Belgium.
In 2010 British extremist, Anjem Choudary, who headed the extremist organization Islam4UK, began working with Belgian extremists, including one named Fouad Belkacem, formerly arrested for possession of drugs and burglary, to set up a similar organization based in Antwerp. The Antwerp based organization was called Sharia4Belgium. At its inception, Belkacem stated in a video message: “We believe sharia will be implemented in Belgium and worldwide… Democracy is the opposite of Islam and sharia… This is a dirty, perverted community [Belgium].”
Sharia4Belgium, like al Qaeda and ISIS, followed an extremist version of Islam that encourages practicing Takfir, meaning they believed only they had the true Islam and could declare other Muslims as apostates worthy to be killed. At first Belgian authorities were lenient toward the group. Perhaps because they made laughable statements like Belkacem’s call for ex-first lady of France, Carla Bruni, to convert to Islam: “I ask Allah to guide Carla Bruni, to turn her into a niqab-wearing Muslim, and to make her divorce that unbeliever, [French ex-president] Sarkozy, may Allah fight him.”
As the Sunni uprising occurred in Syria, Sharia4Belgium quickly aligned itself with Jabhat al Nusra, and later ISIS. Over time it became a feeder organization for unemployed and disenchanted Belgians who wanted to join the uprising, sending them off to Syria to train with these groups. Now Belgian authorities took notice. In 2014, Belkacem and forty-five other members of Sharia4Belgium were indicted and in December 2014, found guilty of membership in a terrorist organization—half of them sentenced in abstentia—as they were either suspected dead, or still fighting in Syria.
As Shariah4Belgium was activating in Belgium, Younes remarried, “a Moroccan lady from Holland,” he tells me, but was again quickly disappointed. “She was divorced and was not at the point to start over again, so that became difficult.” Younes lacked the social skills to keep a relationship with a woman intact; never learning from his own parents and with a raging hurt inside, he feared that his wife might turn out like his mother. Unable to make this second troubled marriage a success, he escaped—by going to Syria.
“In December 2013, we broke up again and I left to go to Syria. The war was getting heavy” as was the political situation with Sharia4Belgium. “In Belgium there was no place to talk freely anymore. We got arrested every time on the street [proselytizing], put in jail for twelve hours, and we were under surveillance, with them checking us, and everyone’s phones tapped. We were under the eye of the state security. It’s not fun to live without privacy or freedom of speech.”
Younes glances around and gestures beyond the room as he continues, “If you see this neighborhood, twenty meters further there is an African church. They try to gather people to their church, but if we tried to do it in the streets, [the state accuses us] ‘he’s radicalizing and calling for hate and violence.’ We were confronted every day of the week with double standards, on television and in the news,” Younes complains. Although the African church was probably not offering to send anyone off to join a terrorist group in Syria, whereas Younes’ group was engaging in such activities, I reflect.
“If you don’t see the possibility to make yourself in your society, you change your society to where you can be useful,” Younes continues, echoing hundreds of interviews I’ve made in Antwerp, Brussels, and Paris with North African, second-generation immigrants. The significant discrimination leads them to believe they can never be accepted and succeed in mainstream Belgian or French society. In France, youth in the ghettoized North African immigrant suburbs of Paris told me during the riots and fires in Paris in November of 2005, “Liberté, égalité & fraternité [Liberty, equality and fraternity]—these things don’t apply to us.”
That was before the rise of ISIS, and it was mainly al Qaeda that, as a result, could recruit such youth into their ranks. But to join al Qaeda, one had to really prove himself, ideologically and as a trusted cadre, before he’d be accepted into going to an al-Qaeda training camp. Today under ISIS, there is the declared “Caliphate” to escape to, and the dream of a utopian, alternative world order where frustrated young men and women are promised significance, purpose, belonging, honor, adventure, jobs, and marriages. And for the men—even sex slaves. The rise of ISIS gives these disenfranchised youth a place to go, and it’s not hard to get there—a quick flight to Istanbul, then a bus or an internal flight to a town close to the border–and then an ISIS-arranged smuggler to get them into Syria.
Younes references the militant jihadi view that hijra [migration] to Muslim lands and joining jihad are duties of every Muslim. It’s a view that was popularized to Westerners by al Qaeda’s Anwar al–Awlaki (see Chapter ?). Younes explains to me, “You have to prepare for your life after. It’s a religious duty—hijra to Syria and Iraq. It is religious aspects of why they leave.” Then suddenly turning defensive, he adds, “My history, my choice to go over there has nothing to do with my childhood. It’s very sad that people try to search for another reason [aside from religious duty]. We are honored when we take this step. I hope it is religion that motivates everyone else.”
“Also, not everyone is going to fight. I know five people who went to live there with their families. Why go to a country at war? Why, when one hundred thousand families are running from it, you go to live there?” he asks and then blames the political situation in Belgium. “ That is the fault of the society we live in. They are making peoples lives unlivable.”
Then turning to the immigrants who are streaming into Europe from Syria he states, “They can leave the women and children here. They have no protection anymore, they are more breakable. But all the guys from ages twenty to twenty-four should be sent back. Half are war criminals. They fought with the army of the regime. The rest are running away from shariah and Islam and don’t want to live under those rules so they run. But they are going to confront their Creator sooner and later. They are blinded by democracy here. They have to sell their religion to live under the safety of democracy.” Younes still believes that life is better under the “Caliphate.”
I want to know about his journey to Syria, how he made it in, and why he then left and returned to Belgium.
“I went in the evening. I took a bus to Cologne [Germany].” Typical of his impulsive nature, he failed to let the “brothers” know he was coming and to make arrangements to be met by ISIS cadres at the Turkish border. “I left without asking someone,” he says but defensively adds, “I didn’t have to ask permission to go where I wish to go. I went to Dusseldorf, then flew to Istanbul, and took another plane to Adana [in Turkey] near the border of Syria. I stayed a week in a hotel but didn’t find someone to help me cross the borders. At these times it’s more difficult to join, but at that time in 2013, the Turkish [authorities] had one eye closed. For everything related to Kobani [a Syrian city on the Turkish border overtaken at that time by ISIS], the Turkish government was helping—with weapons, shotguns and pistols—unofficially or not, I don’t know. The logic was that it was official.” So once again, we hear about Turkish complicity in supporting rebel groups—including ISIS.
“I was searching on Facebook. I was searching for someone already there, profile pictures, asking, ‘Abu [xxx], do you have a connection [inside ISIS]?’ The ball gets rolling. After six days I found someone to take me in. We went then and stayed five days right on the border in a Turkish house.” Indeed, Ahmet later confirms that in some places in Turkey, the houses are very near the border, their backyards only meters away from Syria. Younes went to stay in an ISIS smuggler’s home, making it easy to run through backyards late at night to cross into Syria.
“[Before crossing into Syria] I met two women from Holland. I was asked to escort them through the border. We went to the [smuggler’s] house and met also a Kazak family there—a father and his son, his wife and two daughters staying in another room. They tried to cross a big field where there was big barbed wire, but they were stopped and sent back.”
“So the Turks do control the border and try to prevent people from going to join the rebel groups?” I ask.
Younes smiles mockingly. “They didn’t want to see it openly. It’s like the child’s game—one, two, three, piano—you turn around and if you are caught moving you have to go back.” He returns to his story. “We crossed at five in the morning. The sisters and me were allowed to take only one bag. The rest came later.”
“All of the people who were gathered in the house crossed. We went over the barbed wire. There was a place where it was pressed down.” Then a small comic tragedy occurred as Younes ran, carrying a bag for the sisters. “I was trying to get over the barbed wire and the bag I was carrying opened and burkas fell out. The barbed wire caught and tore these burkas. The women over there asked for good quality burkas, so they [the Dutch women] brought a lot for the other sisters. They ended up all hanging on the barbed wire! She was not happy,” Younes looks rueful over the mishap. I laugh to myself imagining the sun rising on black burkas, caught on the barbed fence, flapping in the wind—the symbolism shining in the morning sun.
“When we’d crossed two hundred meters there was someone waiting in a big van. We stayed in the van until the morning. Then we went to the Islamic police. It was not yet the Islamic State. It was ISIS, but they hadn’t declared the Caliphate yet.”
Just as the Syrian ISIS defectors have been telling Ahmet and me, the European newcomers were housed near the border and checked carefully before gaining free entrance to the group. “They checked everything. There was another Younes—Younes Bunting. He left a month before I came. He was also a convert and they discovered he was working with the Mossad [Israeli intelligence]. So when another Belgian Younes came without announcing, they found it strange and suspected me. They searched my phone, my computer, everything. Their lives and security depend on it. If a spy is able to infiltrate and tell their location, the Coalition can send a drone to kill all the foreign fighters.”
Shaking his head regretfully, Younes adds, “All those American soldiers who died after 9-11—their blood is spoiled for nothing; but in our situation our blood is not spoiled. We believe Muslim blood that is spilled for implementing the sharia state—you get your efforts rewarded in the afterlife.” I nod, thinking this belief in the afterlife gives a lot of terrorists courage to risk their lives.
“They gave me a choice. They asked me, ‘What are you going to do here?’”
“‘I want to make myself useful in everyway possible, as good as I can handle, according to my capacities,’ I answered. “They searched for a place [for me] with some Belgian fighters, but there were some issues with the guys from Belgium who were still upset over the Younes who came before me. They didn’t want another troublemaker. So [the ISIS leaders] assigned me to a group of Frenchmen and Libyans. It was not a bad idea, my French was not that bad,” Younes tells me. As a Flemish Belgian living in Antwerp where Flemish is the dominant language, French would be less necessary. Being tri-lingual says something about his intellectual abilities. It’s obvious to me that he’s smart, despite having failed in school.
“It is something special—all these people speaking many foreign languages,” Younes says, his voice filled with appreciation. “They put me in a house and I was welcomed. The first day when I came in they were doing evening dinner, eating on the ground [in the traditional Arab style] in a big house—a mansion really,” Younes’ face lights up describing it. Clearly it fit his fantasies of belonging to a traditional and welcoming culture and religious community where men are honored and share a strong sense of brotherhood. But all was not good—even from the start.
“I got in and then in the first week, I started noticing the situation—evening bombings. It’s overwhelming at first but you get used to it very quickly.”
“Was it loud and frightening?” I ask.
Younes nods looking like he was quite frightened but tries to downplay it, saying, “You just try to find your tranquility.”
“Did you take shariah training?” I ask, knowing it’s the pattern in which ISIS moves its new recruits to swearing their bayats before becoming trained fighters.
“There was no shariah training at that house,” Younes responds. “They asked me to give allegiance, bayat, but I rejected and they found that strange. ‘I don’t want to be stuck to an organization,’ I explained to them. ‘I want to know what it’s all about. I am not against you. I want to make myself useful. I will check out the houses, do guard duty, but I don’t want to be forced to stay with you.’”
“They accepted this,” Younes explains. “Now, with the Caliphate, it will not be accepted. If they are soldiers [of ISIS] they must give bayat. You cannot make hijra and then have them say, ‘okay you can leave.’ Adani’s statement [the spokesman for ISIS] says, ‘You will leave with a bullet in your head.’ It’s logical,” Younes says, justifying the murderous deserter policies that ISIS now implements as normal for any state.
“So what kinds of things went on while you were there?” I ask.
“After the second week, they gave me an AK-47 and explained how to clean and reload it, and grenades—two grenades. I slept with them under my pillow. Once we were attacked by the Free Syrian Army and I carried five RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] on my back.” He also posted photographs of himself posing with weapons on his Facebook page, where he named his employers as Jabhat al-Nusra and Revolusi (Revolution) Dawlah al-Islamiah (ISIS).
“The regime attacked our village in the beginning,” he explains. “It was a mixed up place—with Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, the Free Syrian Army—but everyone was cooperating at first. Since January 2014, it all changed.” Younes looks perplexed and abruptly stops this line of conversation. Perhaps he doesn’t want to doubt ISIS, or he doesn’t want to talk about carrying arms for a terrorist group.
“Why did you leave so quickly after arriving to ISIS?” I ask him.
“The [second] wife from Holland—our relationship was tough. She was missing me and I was missing her. I didn’t find it smart for her to come. Everyone was starting to fight each other. We decided that we will meet up in Turkey and decide what to do. I ended up coming instead to Holland. I thought then we can get money. The Free Syrian Army stole my laptop, money, and things, and I saw the opportunity to replace my money and materials, and perhaps get my wife back.”
Younes likely knew that as a Belgian he might be lucky enough not to show up on another European country’s terrorism lists for having departed to Syria. “The airport of Holland was not a problem,” he tells me; he passed through Dutch security unchallenged. This is a fundamental problem in Europe—the national borders are open, but the intelligence agencies and police do not always share information as openly across these same borders. Younes makes sure I understand how he departed ISIS. “I didn’t run away, I asked them, ‘Is it okay to go back?’ They [ISIS] tried to convince me to stay, that it’s not a good idea [to leave]. They were totally right. Now, I’m in the exact situation they predicted.”
His broken second marriage underwent its final twisted challenge. “I had my last one hundred euros with me that I had from the brothers. She was at the airport but [not realizing she was there waiting for me] I took a taxi to Rotterdam. We missed each other! Even at home, she came to the front door, but I went to the back, to not let the neighbors see me. At the front, there were police waiting at the door so I hid in the trunk of the car. The police arrested her. They didn’t know that we were texting each other.”
“The Dutch police try to manipulate, use people, and not be according to the law. We cannot expect something else,” Younes complains. “They released her and she returned home with her ex-husband and children. I wanted to kill him at that moment. I was so disturbed. ‘You cannot stay, they will watch the house,’ she said, so I decided to call the police myself.”
“I called and asked, ‘What do you want from me?’ I met them at the gas station. They asked me to raise my shirt. They thought I had a [suicide] belt. Then they let me go.” It seems incredible that a young man who could be a suicide attacker is so easily let go after being checked, but that’s how he tells it.
“I went and I hid in the house. Even the children didn’t know I was there. This went on for three days. The police came and asked my wife, ‘Did you see him?’ Then they came with papers from Interpol saying the Belgian police want to speak to me.”
Realizing he needed to face the music, Younes explains, “I returned to Belgium after a week. I did five interviews with the media. I didn’t want to be put silently in prison. I did my story before I reported myself to the police. That way they cannot do whatever they want. They have to apply [the law] according to the book,” Younes explains, as I think, This guy is a clever operator.
Younes was prosecuted and received a sentence of three years with suspension and a fine of fifteen thousand euros also with an extension. “If I am brought in court again, I have to pay it,” Younes explains. “I had an empty file [no criminal charges] before this situation. The judge told me, ‘You have a critical profession—to be a baker, so go make some bread and be quiet.’” This makes me laugh—it’s so Belgian. But on the other, I am convinced that Younes should have been sent to some kind of de-radicalization or disengagement treatment, at a minimum.
Younes did go back to baking and even opened his own bakery, but Girt Wilders, a far right, Dutch, anti-immigration politician saw fit to shut him down by publicizing his terrorist affiliation. “‘There is blood on this bread,’ he said in the papers,” Younes tells me. As a result, people stopped coming to the bakery. “He’ll pay for it—legally,” Younes threatens, making sure not to issue an actual threat to the politician, “in this life or the next.” This is no light thing in the Netherlands. Another outspoken Dutch critic of Muslims, Theo van Gogh, was stabbed to death; implying violent wishes against Girt Wilders is risky. I wonder what Wilders was thinking when he shut down the business of a known extremist who was trying to make it in society and earn an honest living. Didn’t he see how that could drive Younes right back into his former extremist activities, increasing the danger to himself and to society?
Younes, wearing a black hoodie adorned with the drawing of a Kalashnikov and the ISIS logo on the back, tells an al-Jazeera journalist a month after our interview that since his conviction he finds it hard to find work, and when he did land a job, found that his mid-length beard doesn’t sit well with his new boss who urged him to “trim it a bit”. Likewise he complains about his own father’s racial slurs against “brown” Moroccans, adding that in Antwerp he faces a barrage of continuous assaults on his Muslim identity. An associate of Younes’ also tells me that he lives a very isolated and lonely life, caught inside the certainty of his extremist beliefs that keep his childhood pain at bay, and unable to reach out for the help he so obviously needs to socialize and rehabilitate himself back into society.
When I ask Younes, who is not wearing any ISIS branded clothing in our interview, how he feels about the recent Paris attacks he tells me that they are “understandable.” I ask if he thinks it’s appropriate for a group to target innocent civilians to which he answers that these civilians vote for their governments who are carrying out troubling actions in Islamic lands.
“Targeting women and children?” I push.
Younes agrees that children are always innocent, but won’t go further than that. “The Ottoman empire was not created by honey and bees. It started in war, crusades,” he argues. “Even your American revolution was won by shedding blood.” I don’t think to tell him that our rebel forces never pointed their guns at civilians in their marketplaces.
“I still believe it’s better to be living under Islamic law than to live under a democratic system that is not applying the laws of our Creator. I’m sure of it,” Younes says with conviction. “We will never be able to practice our religion completely,” and tells me that he still believes in the dream of the “Caliphate” and wants it to be extended throughout Europe. In an interview only months earlier with Paris Match, Younes is reported to have shown reporters the black flag of ISIS proudly hanging over his bed. He still clings to the certainty of convictions, identity, and hope in a utopian Islamic future that ISIS offers troubled youth.
I ask him, if I were Belgian, would I be able to practice my religion freely if there were a “Caliphate?” He cracks a dour smile and tells me, “there will be rules to follow.”
As I listen I again wonder why the Belgian judge let him go back freely into society and failed to address the fact that Younes is still heavily radicalized and in need of treatment to disengage from the extremist mindset. He’s still vulnerable to becoming a dangerous element in Europe. Moreover, during his prosecution, Younes spent only a few months in prison but he says to me, “Thirty years in prison—your life is over. Better to kill me now—so I don’t have to sit in jail.”
That gives me a chill, remembering how Zakaria Zubedi, the head of al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade in Jenin, on the West Bank, also told me that he’d rather die than be imprisoned again and was nearly killed, rather than be re-arrested. We also know that Chechen would-be suicide bombers-turned-fugitive have booby trapped their homes and bodies so they can explode themselves upon arrest rather than undergo torture and imprisonment by the Russians. We even heard the same about Chechens operating inside Syria—that they constantly wore suicide vests. Victory or Paradise! their motto.
Indeed, the threat of imprisonment can drive individuals who believe in “martyrdom” into enacting it and that makes them especially dangerous. Little do I know, as Younes and I finish up our interview and part ways, in only a month’s time we will see exactly that scenario play out in Belgium. And I will be there.
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne, Not All ISIS Returnees are Defectors ICSVE Brief Reports
 Personal communication from the Belgian national police, January 2016.
 See: Akbar, J. (November 22, 2015). Mastermind of Paris terror attacks was linked to at least six UK hate preachers including ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’ Omar Bakri Muhammad. Mail Online. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3329327/Mastermind-Paris-terror-attacks-linked-six-UK-hate-preachers-including-Tottenham-Ayatollah-Omar-Bakri-Muhammad.html#ixzz3sKlTss7V; BBC News. (December 9, 2015). Paris attacks: What happened on the night. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34818994; Jayalakshmi, K. (November 20, 2015). Paris attacks: Salah Abdeslam tells friend he regrets terror act and could be on the run from Isis. International Business Times. Retrieved from http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/paris-attacks-saleh-abdeslam-who-regrets-act-could-be-run-isis-1529618; Lichfield, J. (November 20, 2015). On the run from Isis: Jihadists ‘targeting Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam for chickening out of killings’. Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/paris-attack-eighth-attacker-salah-abdeslam-could-also-be-on-the-run-from-isis-amid-fears-the-group-a6740781.html; and Perring, R. (November 21, 2015). Europe’s most wanted man was ready to BLOW HIMSELF UP after Paris terror attacks. Sunday Express. Retrieved from http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/621149/Paris-terror-attack-Salah-Abdeslam-suicide-bomber-Islamic-State
 See Speckhard, A. (2012). Talking to terrorists: Understanding the psycho-social motivations of militant jihadi terrorists, mass hostage takers, suicide bombers and “martyrs”. McLean, VA: Advances Press.
 Johnson, Z. (January 25, 2005). Chronology: The Plots. Frontline. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/front/special/cron.html
 See: Naylor, S. (June 9, 2015). Airstrikes killing rhousands of Islamic State dighters, but it just recruits more. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/06/09/airstrikes-killing-thousands-of-islamic-state-fighters-but-it-just-recruits-more/; Kirk, A. (March 24, 2016). Iraq and Syria: How many foreign fighters are fighting for Isil? The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/03/29/iraq-and-syria-how-many-foreign-fighters-are-fighting-for-isil/; Ginkel, B. v., Entenmann, E., Boutin, B., Chauzal, G., Dorsey, J., Jegerings, M., . . . Zavagli, S. (April 1, 2016). The foreign fighters phenomenon in the European Union. Retrieved from http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ICCT-Report_Foreign-Fighters-Phenomenon-in-the-EU_1-April-2016_including-AnnexesLinks.pdf; and The Soufan Group. (December 2015). Foreign fighters: An updated assessment of the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq. Retrieved from http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate_FINAL3.pdf
 Younes spoke English well, but occasionally inverted word order or used poor grammar, which I have corrected here to help make his meaning clear.
 See: Leherte, O. (October 15, 2015). Etat Islamique : le djihadiste belge qui ne regrette rien (The Islamic State: The Belgian Jihadist who regrets nothing. RTBR. Retrieved from https://www.rtbf.be/info/societe/detail_etat-islamique-le-djihadiste-belge-qui-ne-regrette-rien?id=9108437; Sminate, N., & Metsu, K. (October 15, 2015). Hoort een manipulator als Younnes Delefortrie niet veeleer thuis in de gevangenis? DeMorgen.
 See: Esman, A. (December 17, 2011). Never mind “occupy.” The new solution Is sharia. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/abigailesman/2011/12/17/never-mind-occupy-the-new-solution-is-sharia/#28ec32292697 and Your Daily Muslim. (November 28, 2013). Your daily Muslim: Fouad Belkacem. Retrieved from https://yourdailymuslim.com/2013/11/28/your-daily-muslim-fouad-belkacem/
 See Speckhard, A. (2012). Talking to terrorists: Understanding the psycho-social motivations of militant jihadi terrorists, mass hostage takers, suicide bombers and “martyrs”. McLean, VA: Advances Press.
 De Bode, L. (March 5, 2015). From Belgium to Syria and back: How an altar boy became an ISIL admirer. Al Jazeera. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/5/how-one-belgian-went-from-altar-boy-to-isil-fan.html Retrieved from http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/5/how-one-belgian-went-from-altar-boy-to-isil-fan.html
 De Bode, L. (March 5, 2015). From Belgium to Syria and back: How an altar boy became an ISIL admirer. Al Jazeera. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/5/how-one-belgian-went-from-altar-boy-to-isil-fan.html Retrieved from http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/5/how-one-belgian-went-from-altar-boy-to-isil-fan.html
 Leherte, O. (October 15, 2015). Etat Islamique : le djihadiste belge qui ne regrette rien (The Islamic State: The Belgian Jihadist who regrets nothing. RTBR. Retrieved from https://www.rtbf.be/info/societe/detail_etat-islamique-le-djihadiste-belge-qui-ne-regrette-rien?id=9108437
 See Speckhard, A. (2012). Talking to terrorists: Understanding the psycho-social motivations of militant jihadi terrorists, mass hostage takers, suicide bombers and “martyrs”. McLean, VA: Advances Press.
 Speckhard, A., & Akhmedova, K. (2006). The New Chechen Jihad: Militant Wahhabism as a Radical Movement and a Source of Suicide Terrorism in Post-War Chechen Society. Democracy and Security, 2(1), 103-155.
Impact of Terrorist Organizations in the Middle East
Terrorism is a significant variable in security studies and it is hindering a wide range of safety. Likewise, because of the emotional expansion in psychological militant assaults in the course of the most recent twenty years, have economies have found a way broad ways to work on the political, social, and financial circumstances by diminishing outer struggles and fear monger assaults.
The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) distinguishes psychological oppression as a danger or genuine utilization of illicit or vicious power by a non-administrative individual or gathering to accomplish a political, monetary, strict, or social objective through dread. This is on the grounds that these exercises are intended to make mental impacts and their belongings go past the survivors of fear-monger occurrences.
Definitions of terrorism are dubious because of issues of marking activities as psychological warfare advances the judgment of the entertainers, which might reflect philosophical or political predisposition. Definition of terrorism as characterized by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) is termed as “a non-state entertainer’s compromised or genuine use of unlawful authority and viciousness to attain a political, monetary, strict, or social purpose through dread, coercion, or scaring.” The people in issue, or the victims of fear-based oppression, have little in common with the fear-mongers, but they address a larger human population whose response the fear-mongers need. It is critical to comprehend that fear mongers are sane entertainers. They have a particular reason for their utilization of savagery and guess that it will make a response from the crowd that they are focusing on.
According to the GTD (2018), the Middle East has accumulated the greatest number of losses on the planet, notably since roughly 2001. Due to challenges such as high unemployment rates, money shortages, single-item financial elements, low levels of per capita payments, and slow monetary growth in the Middle East, these countries must rely on foreign speculation to beat these problems. Given the financial needs of these countries, bringing in an unfamiliar endeavour can play an important role. Differentiating the effects of capital flight and fear- based negative events in these countries might help policymakers improve or maintain business as usual.
In 2016, Iraq had 2,965 terrorist attacks, Afghanistan had 1,342, and Syria had 366. Conversely, there were 30 fear-monger assaults in all of Western Europe around the same time. However, the Global Terrorism Database notes that the number of fear-mongering attacks in Europe is increasing, the situation in the Middle East is far more concerning—a region where assaults are a piece of day-to-day existence for some residents.
The costs of psychological warfare, on the other hand, go far beyond literal annihilation. There are also significant social and financial consequences in the Middle East. ISIS has scoured a large number of historical heritage places in Iraq and Syria. Given their social and historical significance, the worth of many of these locations is incalculable. According to some sources, the sale of stolen antiques on the black market may be ISIS’ second-largest source of revenue, after oil. Some of these antique relics have been discovered in London’s antique shops. UNESCO has added a number of important locations to its list of endangered places due to pillage and obliteration, including six new sites in 2013.
The emotional drop-off in the travel business inside Syria and Iraq adds to these disasters. The Syrian Ministry of Tourism has attempted to aid the tourism business by distributing a series of YouTube recordings. The recordings show Syria’s recognisable blue waves and beautiful seashores, in an effort to rehabilitate a country that many associate solely with war atrocities. In 2011, just before the Syrian civil war reached its most destructive stage, 8.5 million tourists visited the country, contributing almost $8.3 billion to the economy (around 13.5 percent of Syria’s GDP). In 2014, however, only 400,000 tourists visited Syria. Several nations, including Tunisia and Egypt, have seen similar drops in the travel industry following psychological oppressor attacks, causing massive economic damage.
Oil is one of the Middle East’s most basic endeavours, and terrorism has a huge impact on it. Oil offices have been identified by psychological militants in a few Middle Eastern countries, causing supply shortages. Because of ISIS attacks, Iraqi oil production dropped by as much as 320,000 barrels per day at one time. Various oil offices are included in ISIS’ jurisdiction. The profits from oil sales go to the psychological militant group, diverting funds that would otherwise go to public foundation programmes. ISIS held 60% of Syria’s oil reserves in 2014, and the group made approximately $3 million per day from the illegal oil trade. Despite the fact that ISIS has recently lost a lot of territory, it still controls large wells in northern Iraq, preventing Baghdad from collecting much-needed cash.
Psychological oppression has a considerably greater impact on the Middle East’s economy than it does on the European economy. Given that the Middle East has seen the sharpest increase in illegal intimidation over the past 15 years, it appears to be a basic mistake that assessments have not attempted to gauge the absolute cost of psychological tyranny.
Organizations in Western nations which store these investigations are, maybe justifiably, more concerned about the impact of psychological persecution on their own countries. It is simple for the Western world to excuse the expense of psychological warfare in the Middle East since it is both far away and a piece of day-to-day existence for the area’s kin. Interestingly, demonstrations of terrorism in the West are considered perilous abnormalities.
While the actual effects of terrorism in the Middle East should be the primary focus of counterterrorism efforts, the financial consequences should not be disregarded. Estimating the cost of psychological warfare as a means of identifying knowledge gaps and obstacles has merit. Counterterrorism authorities should help alleviate the excessive financial repercussions that fanatic gatherings have on the Middle East by recognising and securing vital territorial income streams like the tourism industry and oil.
The Deadliest Enemies: China’s Overseas Military Bases in Central Asia and Uyghur’s Turkestan Islamic Party
Amid the burgeoning sentimental relationship between Beijing and the resurrected Taliban’s Emirate 2.0, the al Qaeda-affiliated Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) has aggravated its propaganda war against Communist China, hence cleverly concealing its historically faithful jihadi bonds with the Afghan Taliban. Despite the Taliban’s assurances of non-interference in China’s internal affairs, Beijing is building up its military presence in post-Soviet Central Asia. One example is its establishment of military bases in the Af-Pak-China-Tajik strategic arena near the isthmus of the Wakhan Corridor in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan province.
Although China did not camouflage its contentment with the failed US policy in Afghanistan and sought to leverage the Taliban victory as its foreign policy asset, Beijing has faced the Taliban’s elusive stance in curbing the Uyghur jihadists challenges. Today, the Celestial is well conscious of its harsh realities. With the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan, Beijing lost a safe buffer zone in the strategically critical Afghan-Chinese borders area in Badakhshan, which has afforded with free secure area for over 20 years. While the US’s presence in the region disturbed China, it nevertheless provided Beijing with relative stability and protected from the infiltration of global al Qaeda elements into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Therefore, by showcasing its concern over its instability in the neighboring country, Beijing prefers to pressure Taliban on security matters, claiming that Afghanistan should not become a safe haven for terrorist organizations such as the Turkestan Islamic Party. On October 25, during the bilateral meeting in Qatar’s Doha, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pressed Taliban’s Acting Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi to make a clean break with Uyghur jihadists of TIP and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed of global terrorism.
The Taliban’s Interim government is accustomed in responding to such external pressures from its neighbors and the international community. The typicality of its response lies in the denial of the presence of Central Asian and Uyghur terrorist groups on Afghan soil, further wittily dodging the topic of its ties with al Qaeda. Taliban strategists seeking international recognition have apparently developed cunning tactics to carefully conceal their ties to al Qaeda and Central Asian jihadi groups, while maintaining the bayat (oath of allegiance) of veteran strategic partners in holy jihad.
And this time, Taliban representative Suhail Shaheen voiced a stock answer, stating “many Uyghur fighters of TIP have left Afghanistan because the Taliban has categorically told them there is no place for anyone to use Afghan soil against other countries, including its neighboring countries.” But the Chinese authorities are well aware of the Taliban’s insincerity on this matter. In turn, the Taliban realized that the authorities of China and Central Asian states did not believe their statements. As a consequence, Beijing denied the Taliban’s claims, claiming that approximately 200-300 Uyghur militants of TIP currently live in the Takhar province near Baharak town.
Certainly, to calm Chinese concerns and encourage deeper economic cooperation with Beijing, the Taliban has removed TIP Uyghur jihadists from the 76-kilometer Afghan-China border area in Badakhshan to the eastern province of Nangarhar in early October. The Taliban’s double play testifies their walk on a fine line between pragmatism and jihadi ideology, especially when they simultaneously want to look like a state and maintain a historical relationship with al Qaeda.
A short look at Taliban-China relations
Since the mid-1990s, the Af-Pak border arena has remained at the center of China’s security and counter-terrorism strategy. Chinese policymakers were concerned that the TIP’s Uyghur militants found refuge in Afghanistan’s border region of Badakhshan and are waging a decades-old holy jihad to liberate Eastern Turkestan from the iron claw of Beijing. Within this framework, China’s counter-terrorism policy aims to prevent the challenge of the TIP Uyghur jihadists who have been deeply integrated into global al Qaeda’s structure over the past quarter-century. This undertaking surfaced on Beijing’s agenda since the collapse the pro-Moscow regime of Mohammad Najibullah in 1992 and became extremely acute after the Taliban’s lightning seizure of power in August 2021.
In order to break the long-standing and trusted jihadi ties between TIP and the Taliban, Beijing has emerged as a pragmatic backer of the Taliban’s new rule, promising economic and development support through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For its part, the Interim Afghan government, seeking international recognition, has called China a most important partner and pushed for deeper cooperation with Beijing.
Following the steps of its historical diplomacy of flexibility and pragmatism from the Qing dynasty, Beijing has forged a pragmatic and operative relationship with the Taliban for nearly thirty years. Since Taliban’s first rise to power in 1996, this pragmatic relationship has been centered in China’s counterterrorism strategy. Guided by the “Art of War” strategy of the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, Beijing decided to “defeat the enemy without fighting”. In 1999, China launched flights between Kabul and Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur region, and established economic ties with the Taliban who patronized Uyghur militants of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM – now TIP).
In December 2000, China’s Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin met with the Taliban’s founder leader Mullah Omar in Kandahar, in which Lu voiced Beijing’s position on the need to stop harboring Uyghur jihadists operating in Afghanistan. Consecutively, the Taliban anticipated that China would recognize their government and prevent further UN sanctions. During the meeting, Mullah Omar assured Lu that the Taliban “will not allow any group to use its territory for any activities against China.” But this deal was only half materialized. While Omar did restrain Uyghur jihadists to attack China’s interests in Af-Pak zone, he did not expel them from Afghanistan. And Beijing did not oppose new UN sanctions against the Taliban, it only abstained.
Following the collapse of Mullah Omar’s so-called Sharia regime after 9/11, China did not sever its ties with the Taliban leaving room for strategic change in the future. Putting eggs in different baskets, in 2014-2020, China secretly hosted Taliban delegations in Beijing several times and provoked them to active struggle against foreign invaders for the liberation of the country. However, China’s central focus in their contacts with the Taliban has always been to curb the Uyghur jihad against the Celestial and build a first line of defense in the Wakhan Corridor along the Af-Pak-China-Tajik strategic arena.
Hence, according to China’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, securing BRI strategic projects overseas from TIP attacks and blocking the Salafi-Jihadi ideology in Xinjiang became even more important for Beijing since the Taliban overtook the power. Counterterrorism and concerns of Islamic radicalization were the justification for China’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, where the CCP has imprisoned more than 1.5 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz Muslim minorities in concentration camps, manically depriving them of their religion, language and culture since 2014.
China’s military footprint in Central Asia
Predictably, the abrupt US withdrawal from Afghanistan encouraged Beijing to continue its aggressive and assertive foreign policy toward Central Asia to expand its BRI projects in the region. If before, in exchange for its economic assistance, Beijing demanded from Central Asian nations to adhere the “One-China policy” (recognition Taiwan as part of PRC) and support its war against “three evils” (separatism, religious extremism and international terrorism), then now it is also stepping up the military footprint in the region.
On October 27, the Tajik Majlisi Namoyandagon (lower house of parliament) approved China’s proposal to fund the construction of a $10 million military base in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province near the intersection of the Af-China-Tajik borders arena. The agreement which reached between Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry and China’s Public Security Ministry, indicates the new base would be owned by the Rapid Reaction Group of the Interior Ministry.
This is not Beijing’s first overseas military base in Central Asia. China already operates a military base located 10 km from the Tajik-Afghan border and 25 km from the Tajik-Chinese border in the Tajikstan’s Gorny Badakhshan province on the isthmus of the Wakhan corridor. Thus, the Chinese base overlooks a crucial entry point from China into Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In accordance with secret agreements signed in 2015 or 2016 between China and Tajikistan, Beijing has built three commandant’s offices, five border outposts and a training center, and refurbished 30 guard posts on the Tajik side of the country’s border with Afghanistan.
In July 2021, the Tajik government offered to transfer complete control of this military base to Beijing and waive any future rent in exchange for military aid from China. The Chinese military base in Tajikistan has no regular troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but has representatives of the People’s Armed Police (PAP). It is worth pointing out that China, concerned about the activities of TIP’s militants in Xinjiang and their potential links with transnational terrorism, adopted the first counter-terrorism legislation on December 27, 2015. The law provides a legal basis for various counter-terrorism organs, including the PAP, empowering it with broad repressive functions. PAP members currently serve at China’s overseas military base in Tajikistan, the main function of which is counter-terrorism monitoring of Tajik-Af-Pak border movements.
It is imperative to note that China is concentrating its military facilities not in the depths of Tajik territory but precisely on the isthmus of the vital Wakhan corridor at the Af-Pak-China-Tajik borders intersection. In the mid-90s, Uyghur militants fled China’s brutal repression via the Wakhan corridor to join the Taliban, al Qaeda and TIP in Afghanistan. In their propaganda messages, TIP ideologists often mention the Wakhan Corridor as a “Nusrat (victory) trail” through which the “long-awaited liberation of East Turkestan from the Chinese infidels will come.”
The mastery of the Af-Pak-China-Tajik strategic arena is currently critical to Beijing for several reasons. First, the holding the Wakhan Gorge allows China not to depend solely on the will of the Taliban to prevent attacks by Uyghur jihadists of TIP. Secondly, it gives China an additional lever of pressure on the Taliban to sever their ties with Uyghur militants, playing on the contradictions between Tajikistan and the Afghan Interim government. And finally, Beijing is well positioned to protect its future investments in the Afghan economy through the BRI project.
China’s aggressive and assertive move into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence does not make the Kremlin nervous as much as the US military presence in the region. Quite possibly, China’s expansion of its military presence in Tajikistan was coordinated with Russia, which considers Central Asia to be its southern flank. Because Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are part of the Russian-led CSTO military alliance, opening a foreign military base in one of them requires the consent of this military block. Now, the two most considerable regional powers, Russia and China can be expected to pursue common counterterrorism strategies through the coordination and information-sharing on TIP Uyghur jihadists and Russian-speaking fighters based in Taliban-led Afghanistan.
Propaganda war between Communist China and Turkestan Islamic Party
As Beijing tries to fill the power vacuum left by the United States and expand its political and economic influence over the Afghan Taliban’s Interim Government, the veteran Uyghur jihadi group of Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and newly emerged Katibat al-Ghuraba al-Turkestani (KGT) are respectively intensifying their ideological war against the China’s Communist regime.
The media center Islam Avazi (Voice of Islam), the TIP’s propaganda machine, systematically and vociferously criticizes the Chinese Communist government as “atheist occupiers” and “Chinese invaders” for occupying the lands of East Turkestan. Recently the TIP’s main mouthpiece in its weekly radio program on the Uyghur-language website ‘Muhsinlar’ stated that “China’s overseas military bases are evidence of its evil intentions to occupy new Islamic lands through creeping expansion.” Then the Uyghur speaker insists that “temporarily settling in new lands, the Chinese kafirs (disbeliever) will never leave there, a vivid example of which is the tragic experience of East Turkistan, whose religion, culture and history are Sinicized, and its titular Muslims are being brutally repressed.”
Our research indicates that despite their longstanding involvement in the global jihad in Afghanistan and Syria and their strong alliances through oaths of allegiance (bayat) with al Qaeda, Taliban and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the central ideology of Uyghur Jihadists is the fight against the Chinese Communist regime. The strategic goal of the Turkestan Islamic Party is to liberate the historical lands of East Turkestan, now known as Xinjiang, from the occupation of the Chinese “communist infidels” and to build its own state with Sharia rule there. In their regular statements, audios and videos, TIP propagandists raised the victimization of Uyghur Muslims during China’s occupation of East Turkistan, which has long been a key theme in TIP’s ideological doctrine.
Amid establishing Chinese overseas military bases in Central Asia, TIP’s media center Islam Avazi has sharply intensified anti-Beijing propaganda. Both the Taliban and TIP have double standards in this regard. Criticizing the Chinese Communist regime, TIP deliberately avoids and never condemns Taliban’s recent close ties with the China. At the same time, when the Taliban recently criticized New Delhi for persecuting Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir and call themselves defenders of the oppressed Muslim Ummah, they tried to sidestep the topic of China’s crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Future of Uyghur Jihad in Post-American Afghanistan
Thus, even though the TIP remains an essential player of global jihad and a vanguard for the Uyghur cause, China’s pressure on the Taliban and its military bases in Central Asia will force Uyghur fighters to curb their jihadi ambitions in post-American Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, as before, the Taliban will continue their attempts to marginalize Central Asian jihadi groups in Afghanistan, making them completely dependent on their will and exploiting them for their political purposes.
It is difficult to predict to what extent the Uyghur jihadists have the strength and patience to withstand Taliban moral pressure and Chinese intelligence persecution in the new Afghanistan. Interestingly, researchers at the Newlines Institute claim the Taliban’s collaboration with Chinese military advisers present in Afghanistan. According to a senior source within the Taliban, “some 40 advisers from China (including some military ones) deployed to Afghanistan on October 3.” Therefore, it will be difficult for TIP to maintain its developed propaganda apparatus, to enhance its organizational capabilities in the new realities of Afghanistan, when Chinese overseas military bases are breathing down its neck.
Beijing’s military footprint on the Af-Pak-China-Tajik border arena will force TIP to demonstrate its diplomatic and strategic ability in seeking support and solidarity from numerous umbrellas jihadi organizations such as al Qaeda, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s Haqqani network, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, HTS, and even Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K). Suppose al Qaeda continues to weaken, and IS-K grows stronger via targeted attacks and successful recruitment. In that case, Central Asian jihadists may change their jihadi flag and join IS-K. The most capable defectors from al Qaeda to ISIS were Uzbek, Tajik and Uyghur foreign fighters in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, as their experience has shown.
Any TIP’s move to take the jihad back to Xinjiang for its liberation, undoubtedly, will face steep odds. Beijing’s repressive security measures, such as high-tech mass surveillance and mass detention of Uyghurs in so-called re-education camps, have long deprived TIP of its network in Xinjiang. Worries that TIP is poised to ravage Xinjiang, therefore, seem overblown. With demographic changes in the Xinjiang region, where the Han population is almost the majority, the TIP has lost its social underpinning and perspective of waging jihad within the country.
In conclusion, wary of antagonizing Beijing and its dependence on Chinese economic largesse, the Taliban Interim government will progressively reduce its support for Uyghur jihadists. The establishment of Chinese military bases on the isthmus of the Wakhan Corridor and the strengthening of its anti-terrorism initiatives, combined with the monitoring of the Af-Pak-China-Tajik arena, call into question the extent to which TIP can conduct operations against China’s BRI.
Lastly, a rapprochement between China and the Taliban leaves TIP cornered, limiting room for maneuver and forcing some Uyghur Muhajireen (foreign fighters) to carry out a hijrah (migration) to Syria’s Idlib province to join their fellow tribesmen from Xinjiang. Nevertheless, despite this grim appraisal of TIP’s prospects in post-American Afghanistan, it can capitalize from its commitment to transnational jihad and expand its international network exploiting the Syrian melting pot. Indeed, given the physical remoteness from China’s overseas military bases, the Syrian quagmire will give the TIP a certain latitude, strengthening its ability to assert itself on the global jihad.
Author’s note: This article was first published by a SpecialEurasia Research Institute, which partners with Modern Diplomacy.
Can the Taliban tame ETIM?
The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is a Uyghur Islamic extremist organization founded in the Xinjiang province of China. TIP is the new name, although China still calls it by the name ETIM and refuses to acknowledge it as TIP. The ETIM was founded in 1997 by Hasan Mahsum before being killed by a Pakistani army in 2003. Its stated aim is to establish an independent state called ‘East Turkestan’ replacing Xinjiang. The United States removed it from its list of terrorist Organizations in 2020. The group and its ties to Muslim fundamentalism have compounded Chinese concerns about the rising threat of terrorism within the country.
In Tianjin, the Taliban’s political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar again pledged to “never allow any force” to engage in acts detrimental to China. Suhail Shaheen, the Afghan Taliban’s spokesperson, said in an exclusive interview with the Global Times that many ETIM members had left Afghanistan because Taliban had categorically told them that Afghanistan can’t be used to launch attacks against other countries. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had also asked the Taliban to crack down on the ETIM, which is based out of the Xinjiang province. In view of the Taliban’s pro-China stance on the ETIM, the article will assess the feasibility of the Taliban’s promises of not providing sanctuaries to the groups which are direct threat to the national security of China.
First, this statement surprises the experts in view of the Taliban’s historic relationship with the ETIM. According to a recent United Nations Security Council report, ETIM has approximately 500 fighters in northern Afghanistan, mostly located in Badakhshan province, which adjoins Xinjiang in China via the narrow Wakhan Corridor. Most of Badakhshan is now under Taliban control, but according to some reports, Tajik, Uzbek, Uighur and Chechen fighters comprise the bulk of the local Taliban rank and file, rather than Pashtun fighters. This scenario appears very challenging for the top leadership of the Taliban to deny sanctuaries to such loyalists.
Second, ETIM is operating in Afghanistan since 1990. It has strong links with the local Taliban commanders. The local Taliban commanders may put pressure on the top leadership or hinder the extradition of ETIM members from Afghanistan. Zhu Yongbiao, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at Lanzhou University, thinks that ETIM members in Afghanistan still have some influence. It may not be easy for the Taliban to fully cut ties with all ETIM members in Afghanistan as it may hurt other military militants that used to support it.
Third, the Taliban’s capacity to tame the ETIM is limited because its all members and leadership have scattered across Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey. Zhang Jiadong, a professor with the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Global Times, “In recent years, the ETIM also changed its living areas overseas. The exact number of ETIM members is hard to know but “its core members are living in countries including Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey. More of them stay in Syria than in Afghanistan and have been keeping a low profile in recent years”.
Fourth, the ETIM has developed close ties with international militant organizations, including Al Qaeda. Moreover, Al Qaeda has significant influence over the Taliban. Al Qaeda has ability and resources to sabotage the extradition of ETIM members from Afghanistan. Some militant organizations including IS-K have developed the ideological differences with the Afghan Taliban. IS-K recently used a Uyghur fighter for suicide campaign in Afghanistan just to show fissure between the Taliban and ETIM. So, this trend can be a challenge for the Afghan Taliban.
The Taliban’s new stance of not providing sanctuaries to the ETIM contradicts with some of its founding principles. The Taliban’s new version on ETIM is not easy to follow. Time will be the true judge of the feasibility of Taliban’s new stance.
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