Authorities in Belgium are running a deradicalisation programme to understand why young people in Europe are giving up everything to go and fight with the so-called Islamic State group in Syria. RTÉ's Europe Editor Tony Connelly met one 17-year-old who underwent such a programme, but then attempted to travel to Syria a few days after his interview.   

*'Nasim' opens the door on a quiet street in a mixed neighbourhood.

Soft-spoken and bashfully apologetic about his English, he wears a headscarf and a loose-fitting robe over jeans. 

We're welcomed into the family living room, a space softened by North African furnishings. The home is not opulent, but not down-at-heel either.

Watch: Belgian authorities trying to establish how teenagers are being convinced to join ISIS

It was 10 December, a month after the Paris attacks, I had arranged the interview with 'Nasim' through a discreet deradicalisation programme run by the local authorities.

The idea is to understand why an otherwise bright 17-year-old should become seduced by the IS, whose ambition to carve out a caliphate based on 7th century strictures and brutality is so at odds with modern-day Belgium.

'Nasim', I was told, had come through the programme, having denounced the pro-IS views he had promoted through his own anti-western, anti-democracy website. 

However, over the next two hours it became clear he hadn’t abandoned his views at all. 

Across a range of subjects he was unrepentent.

The attacks in Paris, he said, were not a big surprise. "When you look at it, France was one of the most active countries in Iraq and even in Syria … One should not think that Muslims will react as sheep, and that they will come with flowers, whilst children and women are being murdered [in Syria]. Every action has a reaction."

Although he had some doubts about IS due to their attacks on mosques, he said: "I was convinced [at the time] by 80-90% of what they said, that they were the truth, that they spoke the truth. [But] I'm not someone who will declare the whole of IS as apostates because of some of the mistakes of the leaders."

Listen: The views of a teenage jihadist

On Jihad: "I will never, ever in my life, even if there is a knife against my throat, step back from Jihad. Even more, Allah gave us the duty to hold Jihad more dear than our parents …

"Have [the Paris attacks] made me step back from ISIS? Actually no. Because, if we look at it, Jabhat Al Nusra [the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria] were happy with the attacks. Al Qaeda was happy with the attacks, I think every true group agreed with the attacks."

When I asked if he would still travel to Syria, he said everything depended on "the will of Allah" – but also on some misgivings about Is attacking fellow Muslims, and an internecine conflict with Jabhat Al Nusra.

"It could happen if it's Allah's will," he said cautiously. "If you ask now, I would say not at this moment, for various reasons. If I can't do my Jihad there because of conflicts between Muslims I will do my do Jihad here.

"But I won't do it with weapons; I will do it with my voice …"

As it turned out, that would not be entirely true.

A few days after the interview, one of 'Nasim''s friends called the police. He was worried that Nasim might attempt to travel to Syria. The police at Charleroi Airport, south of Brussels, were tipped off, and Nasim was duly arrested as he attempted to board a flight. 

He is currently in a Belgian juvenile detention centre.

What it is that turns an apparently normal teenager like 'Nasim' into a potential killer is an issue which has convulsed the authorities in Belgium.

More foreign fighters per capita have gone from there than from any other country, and some of those who have returned have wreaked havoc.

The mastermind of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was born in Brussels and had been a childhood friend of the Abdeslam brothers - Ibrahim, who blew himself up outside the Comptoir Voltaire café, and Salah, who was arrested in Brussels on 17 March after a four month manhunt. 

Both were from the deprived neighbourhood of Molenbeek.

Bilal Hadfi, the 20-year-old member of the Paris cell who blew himself up outside Stade de France on 13 November, was a French national of Moroccan parents who had grown up in Brussels. His mother told a local television station that he had grown disaffected in Belgium due to “discrimination”.

Figures quoted in a new study by Rik Coolsaet, Professor of International Relations at Ghent University, indicate that by January 2016 some 470 Belgians had travelled, or attempted to travel, to Syria and Iraq.

At least 130 had returned, more than 80 had been killed and 190 were still active in Syria and Iraq (it’s thought around 60 Belgians had failed in their attempts to get to the battlefield).

At its peak, 15 Belgians, mostly of Moroccan origin, were travelling to Syria every month.

Professor Coolsaet draws on intelligence and academic findings to suggest that the current wave of Belgian youngsters are part of an international "fourth wave" of flocking to fight against the supposed enemies of Islam.

The first were those Islamic fundamentalists, including Osama Bin Laden, who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s; the second were Middle Eastern middle-class expats, often educated in the West, who joined Al Qaeda in the 1990s; the third were Muslims enraged by the US invasion of Iraq, and the fourth are the current breed of Jihadists inspired by the Syrian civil war.

What distinguishes the fourth wave is that they are on average younger, much less religiously inclined, less well educated, and much quicker to be radicalised.

Another differential is the existence of a physical battlefield in a country relatively easy to get to from Belgium.

Affecting these young men – and often women (17% of foreign combatants are female, according to the International Centre for Counter Terrorism in the Hague) – is a cocktail of social forces that one could typically find in Molenbeek.

These include a kinship forged in street gangs or through close family ties, a sense of alienation towards the "host" society, and a craving to simplify a hostile world by conforming over time to the opinions of fellow gang members.

"Because of their difficulty of fitting into a (perceived) hostile society, they look for alternative networks where they can blend in,” writes Prof Coolsaet.

"Gang activities and the foreign fighters’ undertakings alike are carried out on the margins of the local environment, where they grew up. They create a parallel environment, based upon kinship and friendship bonds, that provide them with support, protection, and shelter in case of need."

Foreign fighters often come from same neighbourhood - survey 

A survey by the International Counter Terrorism Centre in The Hague found that foreign fighters often "originate from the same neighbourhood, which seems to indicate that there are pre-existing (extremist) networks operating in these areas, that a circle of friends radicalise as a group and decide to leave jointly for Syria/Iraq, or recruit each other from abroad."

Tellingly, the new recruits join when they’re much younger with Belgian combatants aged as young as 13 travelling to the Middle East. Radicalisation appears to occur much more quickly the younger the recruit.

In our interview 'Nasim' talks of the many "brothers" he has remained in touch with, kids he knew at school, from his neighbourhood, from Twitter and Facebook.

He speaks of Abu Nusaybah Al-Baljiki, the nom de guerre of Abdelmalek Boutalliss, a 19-year-old from the Flemish city of Kortrijk, who carried out a suicide attack in western Iraq on 10 November last year. 

Experts talk of a dangerous mix of boredom, alienation, a yearning for adventure and the phenomenon identified by scholars as far back as 2008 as "jihad-cool", where escaping to the glamour of the battlefield to engage in a fight for something bigger than one’s own life and limited surroundings becomes the ultimate act of teen rebellion.

Indeed, Belgium’s legion of fighters have imported teen narcissism to the Middle East, frequently taking "selfies", or posing in black combat fatigues, sunglasses and hoisting the ever-present Kalashnikov.

Some of those involved in the Paris and Brussels terror plots were less religiously motivated, and more prone to petty crime. 

Salah Abdeslam and his brother Ibrahim dealt in the cannabis trade from their pub in Molenbeek. Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, who blew themselves up in Brussels Airport and Maelbeek metro station, were not particularly religious either. They had both received prison terms for armed robbery and carjacking.

A second group identified by Prof Coolsaet would include youngsters more withdrawn than those in the street gangs. They are quieter, more introspective, but equally resentful of parents, teachers or whoever else fails to "understand" them.

'Nasim' may fall into this category. He displayed none of the street-bragging toughness you would encounter in Molenbeek, where “western” journalists are often intimidated out of the place.

He was at all times courteous and helpful. His religious devotion, however, was not in doubt. Like any troubled teen he had made sense of a harsh outside world by reducing its complexities to us-versus-them certitudes. Islam was good, democracy bad.

“Eventually you start practising, and you find things you never got before, like for example Allah's law, the Sharia. You start to see democracy as non-Islamic, you go outside Islam when you go to vote. You see Jihad, striving with your soul, but also striving against non-believers, according to Allah's word. 

“Once you see this, it all starts to make sense.”

It was impossible to reconcile this 17-year-old with the happy young boy who flirted with girls, joked about Justin Bieber and posted images of boxing champions on his social media page just four years previously.

'Nasim' was born into a large family with a Moroccan background. His parents weren’t particularly religious, although he said his mother had sent food parcels and donations to those fighting the Assad regime in Syria.

He had “discussions” with his parents that “food and money weren’t enough,” but his parents were sufficiently alarmed by his behaviour, which included creating a website to support IS and denounce democracy, to alert the local authorities.

But it was the group known as Sharia4Belgium which fired 'Nasim'’s 16-year-old imagination.  A Salafist organisation which operated between March 2010 and October 2012, it promoted, as its title suggests, Sharia law for Belgium and published bloodcurdling threats against Belgian politicians. 

Sharia4Belgium was charged with incitement to hatred and its leader, Fouad Belkacem, sentenced to 15 years in jail in February 2015.  But during its existence the group managed to radicalise and then send numerous fighters to Syria to join Islamic State or Jabhat al Nusra.

Europe has been subjected to dozens of actual and attempted Islamic State-directed atrocities in a short period of time. 

The New York Times has reported, based on leaked French intelligence documents and court proceedings, on the existence of an advance cell of fighters, trained in Syria between 2014 and 2015, and sent back to carry out attacks in Europe. 

The attacks on Paris and Brussels caught the most attention. But even smaller operations succeed in keeping Islamic State as an ever-present threat, never far from the headlines.

In May 2014 Mehdi Nemmouche murdered four people at a Jewish Synagogue in Brussels.  Sid Ahmed Ghlam attempted to attack a church in Villejuif, south of Paris, but the operation was botched after he shot himself in the leg.  Ayoub El Khazzani had planned to open fire in a packed high-speed train between Brussels and Paris in August 2015 but was tackled by passengers after his weapon jammed.

The authorities in a number of countries have accepted that the pattern was not fully understood, and the real threat posed by Islamic State in Europe underestimated.

According to Thomas Renard, a senior research fellow at the Egmont Institute in Brussels, the Paris and Brussels attacks, and their mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, indicate that the threat is worse than thought.

“The impact of Abaaoud’s death is still to be assessed, but the Brussels attacks emphasise the resilience of his network,” Mr Renard said. "In addition, other terrorist cells or possibly networks may still appear elsewhere in Europe, unconnected to Abaaoud.

"Second, ISIS operations in Europe are becoming increasingly sophisticated. The attacks in Paris and Brussels involved more professional logistics, weaponry and coordination than previous attacks of a similar vein.

"Clearly, ISIS has scaled up its operations in Europe," he wrote in a paper for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The soul-searching and recrimination over errors and systems failures has been intense. Belgium has been subject to relentless criticism from the international media and unnamed intelligence officials over its failure to prevent the Paris and Brussels attacks.

But if the debate has focused only on combating home-grown religious extremism in Europe’s urban ghettos then, according to Professor Rik Coolsaet, it is going in the wrong direction.

The fourth wave of foreign fighters, he argues, is not comprised of Islamists who have been radicalised, but young radicals (read petty criminals) who have converted to Islam.

Belgium’s migrant communities, especially those linked with the influx of Moroccan guest workers in the 1960s and 1970s, have spawned younger generations who are acutely exposed to the prevailing socio-economic problems that young people across the world are facing anyway.

These include unemployment, social immobility, exorbitant housing costs and poor prospects. Add to the mix the grinding belief among migrant communities that they are still not welcome in Belgium, even several generations after their grandparents arrived.

A report from the Belgian department of social security found that the country was among the worst in the EU in terms of the socio-economic position of those from an immigrant background. Migrant communities are at particular risk of social exclusion, and the numbers of those who are at risk is higher than the EU average, increasing from 50% in 2004 to 60% in 2013.

Frustration, alienation, and the sense of having no future are all in the frame.

Geraldine Henneghien’s son Anis went to Syria in January 2014. "He kept saying, 'I have no future in this society. When I am in Belgium they say I’m Moroccan, when I’m in Morocco they say I’m Belgium.'"

Listen: Morning Ireland report - Why do young urban Muslims give everything up to go and fight in Syria?

Anis, whose father is Moroccan (his mother is Catholic and Belgian), was turned down for one job opportunity after another when he left school.  He complained that his North African background was always used against him.

His frustration boiled over. He told his mother that, if he was not going to be accepted as a Belgian, then he would become more Moroccan, and more Arabic.

Geraldine said he became more and more involved in the Syria issue, saying he was helping the people there through charity work.

When he told her he planned to travel to Syria two weeks later she became alarmed and asked the police to place an order preventing him from leaving the country.

On the appointed day she received a phone call. "I thought it would be my son saying, 'Mum, why did you block me from travelling.'

"Instead a voice said, 'Your son is here in Turkey and he is going to Syria.'"

Geraldine confronted the local police as to why they hadn’t prevented her son from travelling.  They told her that since he was no longer a minor they had no power to stop him. 

He had just turned 18.

She was able to speak to Anis several times a week in the following 12 months. He told her he was working in "logistics", keeping inventories of cars and trucks for the organisation (she was never sure whether it was Islamic State or Jabhat al Nusra that he was involved with. If she asked too many questions her son threatened not to talk to her any more.)

In February 2015 Geraldine received a short text message from Syria that would change her life.

It told her that her that her son was dead. 

"I was destroyed. My family was destroyed. I’m crying, for sure. But instead of crying I must help the other families, to support them, to support also the brothers, the sisters of the young people who go to Syria.

"I must speak to all the young people to avoid that they want to go there."

Geraldine has joined forces with 49 other families from all parts of Belgium to form a group called 'Concerned Parents'.

Their sons or daughters have either travelled to Syria, been killed there, or attempted to go, but were stopped. 

Watch: EU authorities struggling to find out why so many young Belgians are travelling to fight for extremists in Syria

Another parent is Olivier whose son Sean converted to Islam as a teenager but was then targeted for recruitment in a restaurant near Brussels North Station by a group whose members were later imprisoned.

"In the last year [before he travelled to Syria] he began to change. He didn’t want to eat any more with the family. He wished to be more strict in his belief. We didn’t go to the cinema. He didn’t listen to his music any more, he stopped his dance.

"I started to worry about his behaviour."

Like Geraldine, Olivier was helpless in trying to stop his son Sean from travelling. He told his father he had been doing charity work in Brussels for the Syrian people and that he would also do "humanitarian" work in Syria.

Then he received word that Sean had, indeed, travelled to Syria and appeared to be fighting with Jabhat al Nusra.

Less than a year later Sean’s mother received a phone call.

"My son was dead," said Olivier.

Sean had been killed on 15 March 2013 during a raid on a Syrian army position near Aleppo.

"He was 24, just 24 years old …" Olivier told me in a community centre in Molenbeek.

"He was a really nice boy, very kind, nothing bad, very generous …"

Olivier believes his generosity was what made him attractive to the recruiters. Sean did not share the deep sense of alienation and resentment over unemployment that Geraldine’s son Anis had exhibited.

Olivier wonders if Sean’s background had left him searching for some kind of identity. While Olivier is white, Belgian, raised a Catholic, his partner – with whom he had separated when Sean was five – had a Congolese mother and a Russian father.

In reality, the decision to travel can be prompted by a range of factors.

"None of them taken in isolation explains the motives behind a departure to Syria," says Professor Rik Coolsaet of the University of Ghent.

"But these things add up. Perhaps this combination of (perceived) lack of prospects and a less than welcoming environment comes closest to identifying a significant, but often neglected, feature contributing to the ‘no future’ subculture that is the main driver of the comparatively high number of Belgian youngsters leaving for Syria."

'Nasim' has since turned 18. He could face the new charge of travelling abroad for terrorism purposes, a crime that carries a maximum jail term of ten years.

The judge does have the discretion to impose a lesser, correctional penalty on those under 23, one which would involve counselling. 

I understand that 'Nasim' has been tended to by an Imam in the correctional facility, but in the light of the obvious failure of his earlier deradicalisation programme, it is not difficult to become sceptical.

'Concerned Parents', meanwhile, is starting to come out from the shadows and, despite the stigma attached to having an offspring who went to Syria, are giving talks in schools, and trying to convince teenagers that there is no future in Syria.

"It is a one-way ticket," says Geraldine Henneghien. "It is not your war; Syria is not your country. If you want to help Syria you can do it in Belgium."

*'Nasim' is not the real name of the interviewee.