BRUSSELS — Her hair pulled back neatly from her face, eye shadow dramatic and flawless, Laura Passoni bears little resemblance to the jihadi bride she was less than two years ago, when she fled in darkness across a barbed-wire fence, her pregnant body betraying her with fatigue and terror.
Convicted on March 23 in Belgium of joining Islamic State — the day after members of the group struck the Brussels airport and metro — Passoni’s decision lost her custody of her children to her parents and is forbidden from contacting the baby’s imprisoned father.
She spends her time trying to persuade young people that her decision to go to Syria in June 2014 was the worst mistake of her life.
Her book, “In the Heart of Daesh with my Son,” had been published in French for now.
“For Daesh, I am a traitor because I left and I’m denouncing them. For Belgium, I am a terrorist because I joined them,” Passoni said, using an Arabic acronym for the group that has recruited thousands of foreigners to travel to the war zone or strike at home.
Others who have lived to speak about their regret for joining Islamic State do so with faces covered, their identities masked, but Passoni said she made a deliberate and personal choice — describing it in the same terms as her decision to stop wearing the headscarf.
In Syria, she soon encountered other recruits, including a 15-year-old French girl who met her husband on the Internet and a young German woman who said she was simply visiting family. More would follow at the height of Islamic State’s drive for women in the Muslim caliphate it hoped to build. For most, Passoni says, the choice to travel to Syria would be the last any woman there could make freely.
“Why women? Because we make babies and especially boys, the future cubs of the caliphate as they say. They need descendants,” Passoni said.
Passoni became interested in Islam because her best childhood friend was Muslim, and she formally converted as an adolescent.
She was a 29-year-old single mother when she met a man named Oussama online. Within weeks, he persuaded her to marry and travel to Syria with her 4-year-old son.
She went, she said, because she hoped to reset her life and because recruiters on Facebook told her that Belgium could never be home to a good Muslim.
Passoni said she realized the gravity of her mistake almost immediately. But going to Syria is one thing. Leaving is another thing entirely.
“It was above all my little boy. I didn’t want him to be like them. I didn’t want him to be a terrorist,” she told The Associated Press, sitting in a hotel bar in central Brussels. “It was at that moment that I said, ‘I can’t do it.’ And then for my baby, because I was pregnant. And finally for me, because as a woman, to be always closed in, not to be free. That was no life. I had a job, I worked in Belgium. I came and went as I pleased. It was no life there. I didn’t like it one bit.”
Trapped inside, with other mothers deliberately raising their children to be indifferent to violence, Passoni said she did not dare speak out. The consequences of dissent were already clear from the videos of torture and death passed from person to person. Her pregnancy was going badly. Oussama told her he was having doubts as well, but would not explain what he saw or did during the day.
It took nine months of frantic, secret calls to her parents to leave, and another year in the court system before she was convicted and received a suspended sentence, with conditions of probation. Oussama, a Belgian who both recruited her to go to Syria and then dashed the three of them across the Turkish border in darkness, got four years in prison. Passoni thanks him in the book, saying “he took risks there and knew what consequences he faced in returning to Belgium.”
She is forbidden to have direct contact with him for five years, as part of her sentence. She also cannot contact anyone in Syria, including the French teens she considered her only friends there. She does not know what happened to them, but she did learn that the house where she last stayed in Syria was hit by an airstrike soon after they left.
Passoni said she understands Europe’s fears that people like her are a danger. But Passoni said her time in Syria changed her, and for the better.
“Because I saw death very close, as did my child,” she said. “I feel more mature, more responsible, and now, above all, I’m ready to face these things.
As for her two boys, one now 6 and the other 16 months old, she said she thinks about their future all the time. The lesson she has for him is the same she hopes to carry to young people in Belgium — she must stay within its borders for five years.
“For my now 6-year-old, I have explained to him as a child — of course I cannot explain everything — but I explain the mistake that I made, and ask for forgiveness,” she said. “And when he’s bigger, I will teach him to live the truth and not to fall into a trap like this.”