AMSTERDAM—Luca Opdam is just about to turn 9, and in his school ID picture posted on the Dutch National Police site he looks like any other cute kid from the Netherlands, with long hair and bangs and a big smile. His sister Aysha, who just turned 8, also has a big, happy grin, but there are two pictures of her on the police site: one with a few locks of her wavy hair held back by a little clip, the other with her hair covered completely by a blue hijab, or veil.
Both children have been missing since October 29, according to the police, who reported they were “taken by their mother,” and “the suspicion is that she wants to travel abroad with the children.” Now, it appears, their whereabouts are known. Their mom, identified on her Facebook page only as “Umm,” which means mother in Arabic, has taken them to live in the so-called Islamic State.
Luca and Aysha had nothing to say about the move, of course, and neither did their father, a Dutch national, who put out the alarm in October and has now told the haunting story of his relationship with their mother, a Chechen refugee resident in the Netherlands since 1999.
According to the newspaper De Limburger, the man, identified by the pseudonym Mark, met the now-32-year-old Umm around 10 years ago, when she was still in the Netherlands on a temporary visa. At the time, he said, she was almost secular. Didn’t go to mosque. Didn’t pray. It wasn’t until 2009 that she started to wear the headscarf, but by then her life, and that of her children, was dedicated to Islam, and her relationship with Mark was coming to an end. Umm’s religious fervor only seemed to keep growing after that. In 2011, without the father’s consent, she decided to take her kids out of the Dutch public school system and enroll them in the Islamic Al Habib school in Maastricht.
The story in De Limburger goes on to say that Umm met a Chechen man in the El Fath mosque in the same Dutch city, and she had a third child with him, but the little boy was never recognized by his Chechen father. By some accounts, that man left to join the extremist Al-Shabaab organization in Somalia and was put on the terrorist watchlists of both the United States and the Netherlands. Umm subsequently had a daughter with yet another Chechen lover, all the while professing the profoundest faith. She abandoned both of the younger children when she left the country. The boy is living with his grandmother in the Netherlands, the girl reportedly has gone to be with her father’s family in Belgium.
Umm’s kidnapping of the older children was not a complete surprise. The father of Luca and Aysha had grown increasingly worried about the possibility that Umm might take his kids. She appears to have been under surveillance because of her relationship with the man in Somalia and reportedly was questioned several times. The children’s school was on notice that she might try to take the children away, and was supposed to notify the father and authorities as soon as there was anything suspicious to report.
Then last October 29, Umm kept Aysha out of school, claiming the little girl was sick. Then she went to pick up Luca early. The deputy head of the school “became alarmed when they found a ticket—Dusseldorf-Alexandroupolis—on the school’s computer,” according to Public Prosecutor’s Office spokesperson Elsbeth Kleibeuker. “The mother had asked to use it for a printout.” Unfortunately she had left at least an hour before the discovery was made.
The flight from a German city that is close to Maastricht to a Greek city almost on the Turkish border would have given Umm ample ways to lose anyone trying to track her. But she did not take that flight. She hid for several days—no one is sure where—before departing from a Belgian airport with false papers and making her way to Syria.
By then, the police had put out an international arrest warrant for her, but she evidently had tapped into a jihadist support network in Europe that protected her and facilitated her travel. In December she posted a photograph of her “back yard” on Facebook claiming she was in Raqqa, which normally would mean the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State. But researchers at the investigative organization Bellingcat, famous for geolocating various atrocities, determined that the photograph was from the town of Tal Abyad in Raqqa province near the Turkish border. This was the same town that was the last known location of three British schoolgirls who recently disappeared into ISIS-land.
The most recent communication from Umm was in early January when she called her mother and confirmed she was in Raqqa, but whether in the city or the province is not clear.
Did Umm feel pressured by Dutch authorities? Did she go to join a man? Some putative holy warrior? (Many of the top battlefield commanders for ISIS are of Chechen origin.) What will happen to her children? How will they be treated? The little boy certainly will be taken to the ISIS schools where he will be encouraged to seek martyrdom in suicide operations. The little girl—what future will she have in a world of public beheadings, crucifixions, immolations, and, for women, slavery?
Realistically, Luca and Aysha’s father has little hope he will ever see them again.
This is the first case of kidnapping from the Netherlands to the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But, according to Dutch Child Protective Services, in the last two years no fewer than 31 Dutch children traveled to the so-called caliphate. Fifteen of them were minors who left for Syria and Iraq on their own.
Others were persuaded not to make the trip.
There are signals that can be caught about families planning to leave, according to Child Protective Services spokesperson Richard Bakker: “You see a narrowing of the perspective. They feel they simply have to go, it needs to be done. They live in a small circle and with a ‘truth’ that is contradicted less and less by those around them. Especially young people have no idea what they are facing in the caliphate.”
“We know these kinds of situations,” says Bakker. “We are contacted by the public prosecutor and Dutch intelligence services when they know of a family that wants to leave. … If the signs are caught early by others close to them, and we focus with them on the children, you can prevent them going. That’s when you realize how important it is to talk to people.“
Asked about the two kids abandoned by Umm, Bakker says, “The children are doing well, they are both living with family members, but their mother is not in their lives.” He says over the long term it is hard to know how they will fare. “I presume they will start asking questions like, ‘Where are my other brother and sister?’ They are not there.”
Nadette De Visser reported from Amsterdam, Christopher Dickey reported from New York.