BRUSSELS—One morning in November 2015, Ahmed Khaddine, then 25, was in his apartment in central Brussels, typing away on his computer at his desk, when the front door flew open. Before he really knew what was happening, two policemen burst in, grabbed him, pushed his face down onto the wooden floor and handcuffed him before taking him to the police station.
For Ahmed, a son of Moroccan immigrants who was born and raised in Brussels, the arrest had been a long time coming. Many years earlier, during his final years of high school, he had begun attending a local mosque in an attempt to establish a stronger connection to his Moroccan roots. As he became more religious, he decided to travel to Egypt to learn Arabic. Over time, Ahmed fell in with worshippers who were sympathetic to militant groups, including at least one who traveled to Syria to join the self-styled Islamic State, which by then was seizing territory and attempting to establish a caliphate governed by Sharia law. In 2014, Ahmed left his job as a restaurant worker and, along with his wife, made the trip to Syria himself.
Ahmed stayed in Syria for almost six months. Life under the caliphate failed to live up to his lofty expectations, he says, and the violence especially put him off. He decided that he had made a mistake and that he needed to return to Belgium, even if it meant being killed trying to leave or being arrested once he reached Belgian soil. “I was scared,” says Ahmed, who spoke to WPR on the condition that his name be changed, citing possible repercussions if his identity were disclosed. “But I wanted to come home.”