This article was published in Dutch here.
In 1999, a car mechanic left Brussels with his family to settle in Afghanistan, where he joined al-Qaeda. By the time he returned to Belgium in 2002, two of his relatives had landed in Guantánamo and he faced trial for terrorist offences. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.
His wife divorced him and raised their five children while he was behind bars. But even after a youth away from radicalism, one of his daughters was captured this year among Islamic State ranks after she followed her father to Syria, who had joined Islamic State after his release from prison.
In a picture taken on a sunny beach in 2010, Hafsa poses like a movie star, sporting an adorable smile while hiding her eyes behind sunglasses, her hair still wet from a swim in the sea. She was fourteen years old back then, and clearly not a child from a radical Islamic family. For that kind of family, even the chaste swimsuit that she wore was revealing way too much.
Ten years earlier, however, she lived in Afghanistan. More precisely in Jalalabad, the bulwark where al-Qaida was plotting its most deadly terror in the West. She was taken there by her father, alongside her mother, her brother and her three sisters. The oldest of her siblings was given away to a man almost twenty years her senior for marriage, after which she gave birth at the age of just thirteen.
The father was Amor Bin Mohamed Sliti, born on the 3rd of October 1959 in Oran, Algeria’s second most important city, but of Tunisian descent. He moved to Belgium in 1976 and married a native Flemish girl in 1984. At that time, he wasn’t overly religious, it seems. He was partying and drinking, while he made a living from all kinds of odd jobs until he finally settled as a car mechanic.
His life changed dramatically, however, after about ten years of marriage and the birth of his first three children. At that point, he crossed paths with Tarek Maaroufi, a fellow Belgian-Tunisian who would soon gain notoriety as one of the pivotal figures of Belgian jihad. Maaroufi persuaded him to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca and converted him to radical Islam.
From then on, Sliti forced his wife to cover herself, to stay away from male visitors, and to ask for his permission before leaving the house. In October 1999, Sliti took his entire family – with five children by then – to Afghanistan, the only country in the world, according to his later declarations, where it was possible to be a genuine Muslim.
“I went there for the desire to raise my children in an Islamic state”, he said. “There are people longing for a life in Saint Tropez, while others do prefer Afghanistan. It is as simple as that.” He insisted that he wanted to establish a school and serve as a teacher, but in 2003 he would be convicted as an al-Qaeda terrorist.
His offense was serious and significant – a Brussels court found him guilty of being an accomplice in the plot against Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan warlord leading the resistance against Taliban rule. Massoud was killed a few days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a part of that very same plot. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was well aware that his Afghan hiding place would be attacked, and that it would be wise to deal with local enemies in advance.
For Sliti’s wife, Afghanistan became a hell. She spent most of the time imprisoned and could only escape by leaving her children behind. When she was interrogated by the Belgian police, she reportedly admitted that Nizar Trabelsi – an acquaintance of her husband later convicted for a terrorist plot against a U.S. Air Force base in Belgium – told her in Afghanistan about “a big thing” that was going to happen in September 2001.
She had to wait until the 25th of February 2002 to be reunited with her children, after Sliti had fled from the American invasion and was extradited back to Belgium by Iran. At that time, she had divorced him already and officially obtained full parental rights. She also took care of her granddaughter, the child born in Afghanistan. The father of that girl had never seen his daughter, since he was captured before she was born. Adel Hkimi, 33 years old at the time, was transferred by U.S. forces to Guantánamo.
Hkimi’s thirteen year-long stay in the notorious prison can be largely attributed to his acquaintance with Sliti in Afghanistan. According to Hkimi himself, he had only traveled to that country hoping to find a bride. His al-Qaeda membership was never proven and because U.S. authorities didn’t find a better solution, he was transferred to Kazakhstan in December 2014.
Hkimi is not Sliti’s only relative who ended up in Guantánamo. His cousin Hisham suffered the same fate. Hisham lived in Italy, where he became addicted to drugs. His family sent him to Brussels in order to work in Sliti’s car shop, hoping to get him clean that way. But Sliti had a better idea for rehab – he pushed his cousin to go to Afghanistan. Hisham was captured and spent twelve years in Guantánamo before being transferred to Slovakia in December 2014.
Sliti’s former wife got her family back on track remarkably well despite what her children had experienced. One of her daughters is now a teacher in a Dutch speaking public secondary school while her son has finished university and is working for a Flemish governmental institution in Brussels.
Their father served his time in jail and in 2010 he became one of the first Belgian terror convicts to be stripped of their citizenship. The very first person to lose his Belgian citizenship was Tarek Maaroufi – the man responsible for Sliti’s conversion to radical Islam. Maaroufi distanced himself from radicalism and apologized for his past. But Sliti didn’t follow that path.
Last year, we reported already that he had left for Syria. Now we know that he departed in December 2014. He joined Islamic State, settled in its capital Raqqah, and became a member of the ‘Diwan al-Zakat’ – the tax authority of the self-styled caliphate. We know that since his second youngest daughter recounted it to a French journalist.
Antoine Malo interviewed her last month in al-Roj, one of the detention camps in which the Syrian Kurds are holding captured IS members. It is Hafsa, the girl in the swimsuit, who is imprisoned there. She is 22 years old now, and mother of two boys. The oldest was born about two years ago in Raqqah, the youngest eleven days before Malo met her in al-Roj.
Hafsa followed her father to Syria after she got a phone call from him. “I did not know the slightest thing about Islamic State”, she claims, according to the notes that Malo kindly shared with us. “But my father means the world to me.” She left from Belgium on the 19th of January 2015 and crossed the Syrian border in the Turkish town of Gaziantep.
She doesn’t want to say who helped her with that. But we know that the Turkish police found a copy of her passport in February 2015 on the computer of Mohammed al-Rashed, a Syrian citizen who had allegedly smuggled several Islamic State recruits into Syria.
Al-Rashed was also involved in the journey to the caliphate of Kadiza Sultana (16), Shamima Begum (15), and Amira Abase (15), the three British teenagers who joined Islamic State from London that same month.
Hafsa says that she crossed the border in the company of two French girls. “Then we were put in a house with other women, where I spent a week. It was horrible. Not enough water, not enough food, no electricity. They asked for my name, took my phone and asked if I already knew someone within Islamic State.” Finally, her father came and picked her up.
In Raqqah, Hafsa married a 25 year old Tunisian man. Just as with her sister before, it was her father coupling them. “They were friends”, she admits. Her husband had to fight for Islamic State in Iraq. “But after a couple of months, he didn’t want to go there anymore. He was arrested several times by Islamic State and has spent most of his time in prison.”
Hafsa says that she never “gave a damn” about Islamic State, but her father was an ardent supporter. “At least, in the beginning he was. But then he realized that there was a lot of injustice. Against the Syrian people first, but against muhajireen (emigrants) as well. If you were not Syrian or Iraqi born, you were sent straight to the front line. No need to hope.”
She says that she and her father attempted three times to escape, the first time in November 2016. Twice they were intercepted and imprisoned for a while. “It was much easier to flee when you had a lot of money. Saudis for example, they all managed to flee, even when the Kurds were already attacking.”
The third attempt, on the 23rd of March 2017, ended dramatically. “We had paid a smuggler, but he betrayed us”, she says. “Our car was stopped at the very last checkpoint, and when my father tried to continue afoot, they started to shoot. I was with my baby of only two months, and I got a bullet in my back and in my leg. But my dad got shot in the heart and he died.”
In January 2018, when Islamic State had been defeated in Raqqah, Hafsa was captured by the Kurds. “They are holding me now for almost a year, but I still hope that Belgium will pick me up”, she says. ”I regret that I came here, and I’m ready to take responsibility for what I did.” Asked whether she would agree to let her children return on their own, she insists: “No, never. That’s impossible!”
It is very hard to ascertain whether she truly never has been an Islamic State supporter. “They are monsters”, she says now that she has been captured. But one day after the November 2015 Paris attacks, she wrote on her Facebook page: “What goes around comes around”, followed by a winking smiley.
Her mother, now at risk of losing a daughter to jihad, also says that Hafsa never has supported Islamic State. “She only went to Syria in order to deepen her faith”, she said to us in a brief phone conversation. She did not want to elaborate, not about her daughter, not about her family’s past. “We have suffered enough”, she insisted, “and bringing it all up again does not make any sense to me.”