Fatima Benmezian (24), a Belgian national and member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), was arrested Friday in Kilis, Turkey, the Kurdistan24 news website reported, citing Belgian news outlet Het Laatste Nieuws.
Benmezian had escaped from a refugee camp in northeastern Syria that was reportedly bombed by Turkey a few weeks ago.
Belgian Interior Minister Pieter De Crem in early October had claimed no ISIL members would be able to escape since the camps were protected by French and British forces following a controversial incursion by Turkey against Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria.
On Oct. 13 hundreds of women belonging to the terrorist organization escaped from the Ain al Issa camp after it was reportedly struck by a Turkish bombardment.
Ilham Ahmed, a senior Syrian Kurdish official of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), told a US congressional hearing on Oct. 23 that a total of 600 escaped, including six French nationals, two Belgians and 10 other foreigners.
Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens at the time said only “a few women escaped,” as reported by Algemeen Dagblad news. However, OCAD, the Belgian Threat Analysis Agency, later confirmed that two Belgian ISIL fighters had also escaped from a local prison.
Minister Geens tried to ease concerns over their return and claimed that the Turkish border was closed and “very well-protected,” so there was no threat of returning Belgian nationals from ISIL.
The recent arrest of Benmezian shows how porous the Turkish border is. The arrest follows recent news of two female ISIL members from the Netherlands who escaped from the infamous al-Hol camp and crossed the Syrian-Turkish border before traveling all the way to the Dutch Embassy in Ankara to turn themselves in to authorities.
Belgian journalist Guy Van Vlierden, working for Het Laatste Nieuws, told Kurdistan 24 that the incident is “quite embarrassing” for the Belgian government. “The Belgian government has based its policy entirely on what it thinks the public opinion wants: to not allow foreign terrorists fighters [FTF] to come back,” he argued.
“They first said the chance was slim for any FTF to escape. After it happened, they alleged that men were still safely imprisoned. And after the men escaped, they said the Turkish border would stop them.”
“It has since adapted its entire narrative that leaving them in the conflict zone is the best solution, which backfires time after time.”
Both the United States and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-led anti-ISIL coalition’s main ally on the ground, have called on countries in the European Union to bring home thousands of their nationals who joined ISIL and who were captured in Syria by Kurdish-led forces, as Iraq has done on a limited scale.
However, most European states have been reluctant to bring back the fighters, women and their children, who are currently trapped in Syria.
Turkey’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, on Monday warned that Ankara would be sending captured ISIL members back to their countries even if their citizenship had been revoked, Reuters reported.
Benmezian is not the only Belgian woman to have escaped from ISIL. Tatiana Wielandt (27) and Bouchra Abouallal (27) escaped from the Ain al Issa camp in October and are now staying in a tent in Syrian territory under Turkish control. Analysts and experts fear the possibility that they could also be smuggled to Turkey in the future.