But fast forward twenty years, and Michael had changed his name to Younnes, traded his Christian faith for Islam, and the sleepy Belgian suburb he’d grown up in for the front lines of ISIS’ war in Syria.
Now, back in Belgium, he still expresses open support for the group’s warped ideology and says he wishes he could return to the group’s self-proclaimed Islamic State.
“I regret coming back,” he told me. “I want to live under the caliphate.”
Despite his shocking words, the most striking thing about the 28-year-old is how utterly unremarkable he appears. The first time we meet, in a café in the port city of Antwerp, he wears a hooded sweatshirt, sneakers and jeans (cuffed just above the ankle in a style that emulates the Prophet — though most people wouldn’t even notice).
He doesn’t shake hands with me, as a woman, but he is polite, makes eye contact, apologizes for being late, cracks jokes and even flirts a little with my young producer.
And while he dismisses his own nationality — “I’m not Belgian. I am Muslim” — and wants to see Western democracy replaced by the strictest form of Sharia law, the returned ISIS fighter is more than happy to accept welfare checks from the Belgian government.
Is this the new face of Islamic extremism in the West? After spending years studying and talking to dozens of jihadis from the UK, Belgium, France, Denmark, Australia, the US and other countries, I believe the answer is yes… and no.
Catholic upbringing, Islamic conversion
Growing up in an ordinary white, middle-class family in Belgium, Michael Delefortrie was baptized a Catholic.
“We were raised like normal Catholic people, with their holidays,” he remembers. “On Sunday, we thank God, and that’s the way it is.”
But after a rocky childhood that he says was marred by his mother’s alcoholism, his parents’ divorce and his own ADHD diagnosis, he began smoking weed, experimenting with harder drugs, and doing badly in school.
“You’re searching for your identity, like everybody else in the world,” he says as he remembers his troubled teenage years.
At about 16, he came across a book that he says changed his life. It was called “The Way of the Muslim.”
He says Islam offered him the promise of purpose and structure, providing strict rules and moral clarity in a world where the prevailing liberalism favored shades of gray over black and white.
Michael became Younnes, Arabic for dove.
He saw his new religion as a step up from Christianity: “I can compare it with buying a computer. If you know there’s a Windows 10, you’re not going to go with Windows XP … It’s an upgrade.”
Radicalization, Joining ISIS in Syria
Upgrading opened the doors to Belgium’s large Muslim community, where a small but vocal subset of fundamentalists was emerging, and over time, Delefortrie was radicalized.
Thrice-married Delefortrie even named one of his sons after Osama bin Laden.
“I’m proud of it, because that man is a hero,” he says, unapologetic about his decision to honor the architect of the 9/11 attacks, in which 2,977 people were killed. “If we have to condemn everybody who kills people, hell will be full.”
While working as an apprentice in a bakery in his early 20s, Delefortrie fell under the spell of a silver-tongued Svengali — a former used car salesman who had turned his back on a life of petty crime to become a street preacher.
Belgian Fouad Belkacem was the leader of Sharia4Belgium — a group initially dismissed by Belgian authorities as “a bunch of clowns with long beards and white gowns,” according to former state security chief Alain Winants.
But the group was far more sinister. It was a pipeline for young Belgians to travel to Syria and join Islamic militant groups like ISIS. Delefortrie became one of them.
“You can hold back and do your prayers and be satisfied, or you can go further and try to practice what you’re learning,” he says, explaining that going to Syria was the answer to his prayers: “Finally, there’s a place on earth where we can be a Muslim for the full 100%.”
He says he chose to join ISIS, the most ruthless and violent of all the Islamist groups on the ground, because they were the most committed to establishing Sharia law: “they were clear in what they’re trying to accomplish: to fight for the sake of Allah.”
He’s dismissive about the jihadist terror group’s barbaric acts.
“It’s a war zone, so it’s a normal thing. People die,” he says. “In America, they are executing people with needles, with electric chairs. This is also execution.”
When I ask directly whether he was personally prepared to kill, he tells me: “That is Islamic law. And believe me, it’s not a funny thing to execute people — it’s something terrible, but yeah.”
“I didn’t kill somebody over there; I didn’t shoot somebody over there,” he adds.
Instead, Delefortrie says he arrested suspects and guarded prisoners.
But he defends other Sharia4Belgium followers who have boasted online about shooting people in the face or cutting their heads off, saying “we don’t criticize Muslims in public.”
“They’re young people – who wouldn’t [show off]?” he says. “It’s not the right thing to do, of course. If you’re executing somebody or you’re killing people on the battlefield, keep it for yourself and Allah, because you’re doing it for him, not to brag.”