More than 100 foreign fighters have returned to Belgium, with more to follow. Some want to leave their past behind, others want to "disappear" and pose a headache for the authorities.
Teri Schultz reports.
European governments have been warned for years to be prepared for some dreaded homecomings — radicalized citizens returning from "Islamic State" (IS) war zones. As the global coalition retakes territory that IS once claimed as its "caliphate," some fighters who hold European passports are expected to make full use of them.
Belgium is the European country with the highest per capita number of so-called foreign terrorist fighters and the prospect of weapons-trained, ideologically hostile individuals showing up back in their old neighborhoods makes everyone nervous. Earlier returnees trying to start anew refuse to discuss their reintegration.
Antwerp City Councillor Hicham El Mzairh has tried to get returnees to speak out publicly, including to DW, in part to convince other Belgians not to follow in their footsteps. But none have been willing to come forward.
He says it's disappointing, but understandable. "Many of them came back with a huge feeling of shame," El Mzairh told DW. "And they don't want to show that or to show their name or to be on TV to say 'OK, I went there and I was a fool and I came back.' They are trying to build a new life and a new beginning."
But there's pressure from a more sinister place too. After the brother of a Belgian-born fighter gave a television interview, even with his identity disguised, he was quickly identified by IS supporters and badly beaten, as a warning to others to keep quiet.
Returnees and their jihad journeys
Just a couple of years ago, the environment was significantly different. A Belgian woman named Laura Passoni, for example, wrote a book about her experiences as a militant's bride in Syria. For months Passoni was ubiquitous in the media, posing with her book and talking about her nine months in the caliphate. She said she'd finally realized what a mistake that was when her 4-year-old son came home and showed her how he'd been taught to behead a teddy bear. The family escaped back to Belgium.
Now, however, Passoni has largely dropped from public sight. She occasionally visits schools or appears at official events, but only in tandem with the co-author, an expert on Islamic studies, of a new book discussing how to react to radicalized individuals. Interviews must be arranged by her book publisher, who responded to DW's requests by saying Passoni doesn't want to talk.