As parents we worry about many things. Over the last decade parents in western countries be they Muslim or Christian have a new source for concern – The Islamic State or ISIS. It seems many of their children have become vulnerable to ISIS’ slick online propaganda or the radicalization that is preached at a number of Mosques. In Dimitri Bontnick’s new memoir the nightmare of losing a child to the “Caliphate” is real and destructive. In his book, RESCUED FROM ISIS: THE GRIPING TRUE STORY OF HOW A FATHER SAVED HIS SON he details the recruitment of his son, his physical return, and the temporary loss of his mind. In addition, Bontnick is able to convey the stories of numerous other families who try and gain the freedom of their sons and daughters.
(father and son, Jejoen)
After beginning the book with his own life story and how he raised his son Jejoen or Jay, Bontnick seems confounded by what led up to his son joining ISIS. He was raised in a bi-racial liberal Belgium family with few restrictions. The author points out a number of factors that he thinks contributed to Jay’s recruitment. First, he was forced to change schools; second, the breakup with his girlfriend of three years; and third, their home was on the edge of a neighborhood that was a hotbed of jihadism. Throughout the book Bontnick tries to wrap his head around why his son and so many others have given up their families and lives to join what they hoped to be the Caliphate. The author takes us through his son’s recruitment as well as many others as they make the decision to travel to Turkey and cross the border into Syria. From there we learn of their training, brain washing, and existence as part of radical Islamists.
Bontnick describes in detail how he went about trying to save his son, who ostensibly had turned his back on him. Jay’s actions destroyed his family and resulted in his parent’s divorce. We travel with Bontnick on numerous occasions into Syria and the minefield of Aleppo and Raqqa in search of his son, and after finally gaining Jay’s freedom, the sons of many parents pleaded to him for help. Bontnick conveys what he was up against, first Sharia4Belgium, an organization designed to bring Belgium under Sharia law and a member of the Caliphate; then he had to deal with a series of characters in Syria, many of which were very dangerous as he was captured, beaten, and released. During his odyssey he did come across a number of journalists, Islamists, rebel fighters, and Syrian citizens who did their best to locate Jay and allow his father to bring him home.
(Some of the contacts Bontnick made in Al-Hamraa, Syria that helped him locate his son)
The first question a parent asks is why did I not see this coming? In retrospect the answer is they did, but did not want to admit that their child, as in the case of Jay was becoming a stranger. Bontnick explores his parental errors and warns parents how not to behave if they want to protect their children. The author points out the difficulties in navigating Syria due to the many factions, armies, and ideological groups. Bontnick traveled to Kafr Hama, a very dangerous enclave where Belgium jihadis were located. He did and said a number of things that he feels guilty about, but justifies his actions in trying to save his son.
As Bontnick tells his story he does briefly integrate the political and military history of the Syrian Civil War. Once he is able to free his son he will return often to Syria to bring medical supplies and assist other distraught parents in trying to free their children. These endeavors were rarely successful, but Bontnick should be praised for all of his efforts. The greatest fears of the sons in returning home was being prosecuted and going to prison. Bontnick’s attitude is based on the belief that they were brainwashed as teenagers by a predatory organization that recruited westerners in “the hope of rewriting the software in the heads of children” should be taken into account. His argument that Belgium authorities have no programs or policies in place to deal with individuals who have given up on radicalization and want to return home is very sound. His suggestion to use their experiences as intelligence or allow them to provide information from within the Islamic State is something authorities should consider.
Once Jay returns we learn of his trial, conviction, and suspended sentence. But despite his freedom he informs an interviewer from New Yorker magazine that his recanting of his radicalization was a sham, breaking his father’s heart. Later their relationship would improve and the author’s experience changed his outlook on life to that of helping others rather than chasing money and a career. The book is a heart rendering journey of a father who is attempting to keep what remains of his family together, and a successful dismantling of a major terrorist network in Belgium. It is also a handbook for parents who must confront the issues laid out in the narrative. Bontnick offers a great deal of advice, some of which is naive, but overall it is a chilling tale that is part of the larger war being fought against terrorism by the west.