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Hidden away in a forest near Brussels is an unassuming wooden cabin. It is here that the man credited with doing more to halt the march of Islamist terrorism in Europe than almost anyone else has lived in secret for the past six months.
Montasser AlDe’emeh, a 29-year-old Islamic academic, is one of the best-known figures in Brussels’ benighted district of Molenbeek, once described as the epicentre of Islamist terrorism. He rose to prominence while conducting research into young Muslim men who had rejected Western values to answer the call of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leaders of al-Qaeda and Isis. He won their trust and even visited some of the fighters in Syria. But last year his cover was blown. During a court case – in which he was accused of forging a deradicalisation certificate for a known extremist– AlDe’emeh was forced to disclose to the judge that he was an agent working closely with the Belgian security service.
News of his “betrayal” didn’t go down well with the leaders of Isis and Jahbat al-Nusrah, which issued death threats against him. One Isis spokesman, who accused AlDe’emeh of helping the Americans target jihadi training camps, vowed to hunt him down and end his life very slowly and very painfully. AlDe’emeh was forced to seek asylum in Canada but returned to Belgium after the government offered to help him. Sitting on rickety wooden chairs, the only furniture in his sparse one-bedroom hideout, AlDe’emeh explains how dramatically his life has changed. “The [Belgian] security service knew what I was doing but they hadn’t told the police, who had started tapping my phone and come to the wrong conclusion – that I was someone they needed to be worried about.” The security service refused to allay police fears because it didn’t want to disclose that it was running agents the counter-terrorism police knew nothing about. When the case got to trial, the prosecutor presented supporting testimony but the Belgian court still imposed a six-month suspended prison sentence: “I told the judge that the security service always knew what I was doing but even on appeal the conviction against me stood.” His new life means taking special precautions against Isis-sent assassins or violent extremists who have read about the death threats on social media.
A few weeks ago he says he discovered from one of his sources that MI5 had prevented a plot to kill him. “This person who I had never met before travelled all the way from Israel to find me to inform me that I had been in grave danger. He said MI5 had found out about it and somehow stopped it.” Whitehall security sources have declined to confirm or deny this story. “I want to do everything I can, to protect Belgium. I will always help Belgium no matter how I am treated because this is the country I love.”
The story of AlDe’emeh is unusual and yet all too familiar. His parents were born in Palestine when it was a British protectorate but were forced to leave when their village was ethnically cleansed by Zionist militias. The family fled to the West Bank and Jordan before settling in Europe. Two-year-old Montasser, born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, arrived in Brussels in 1991 with some of his brothers and sisters. He tried to fit in with his new home. But like many young Muslim men the 9/11 terror attacks roused him from his adolescence. The day after the attacks he found himself sitting in school being asked to explain to the rest of the class what had happened: “I was a 12‑year-old boy being held up as a spokesman for Osama bin Laden.” Until that day he had been an ordinary Belgian kid interested only in football and computer games. “I started to want to know more about Islam and this kind of fundamentalist ideology that was changing the world. I read all the books I could find and I travelled to Jordan and Saudi Arabia to learn Arabic and find out all about Islam.” AlDe’emeh was no different from many other Muslim men growing up across Europe. “My first reaction was to join my fellow Palestinians and become a freedom fighter. But what I couldn’t make sense of was why Arab groups like Hamas and Fatah were fighting each other? It made me question everything about the politics of the Middle East.” After completing his masters degree in Arabic and Islam Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven he resolved to serve Belgium. “It was 2012 and the Arab Spring was well under way – so I offered my services.” And his contacts with Belgium’s flourishing circle of jihadis meant he was of great use to the security service. Part of his research included a trip to Syria in 2014 to visit Belgian, Dutch and British fighters as they tried to establish a caliphate. Back in Molenbeek, AlDe’emeh opened a counter-radicalisation centre working with young jihadis who had either returned from Syria or intended to travel there to fight. “[Isis] fighters were telling me about attacks – locations and dates. I passed this information on to my contacts at the security service.”
Today he holds no grudge against the Belgium security services and continues to work with them. “One thing everyone in Britain should know: there are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Muslims out there who hate you. They look at the history of the Palestinian problem and blame Britain; they look at Iraq and Syria and blame you for creating the conditions for the wars and then for joining the Americans in the indiscriminate bombing of the brothers and sisters. They blame you for the Middle East and all its problems, from Saudi Arabia to Yemen to Iran.” The terror attacks on London and Manchester have shown what happens when Islamist groups exploit this hatred. If we are to beat terrorism and defend ourselves against more attacks we will need more Muslims like AlDe’emeh to offer their services to their country.
Montasser AlDe’emeh’s book, ‘Dubbel Leven’ (Double Life), is published by Lannoo