VILVOORDE, Belgium - As chairman of the Annasr mosque, Mimoun Aquichouh personally knows a number of young men who left the small Belgian city of Vilvoorde to wage jihad in Syria.
They worshipped at his mosque on a quiet street in the former industrial city just north of the capital Brussels as they fought their own personal struggles before finding the path of jihad, much to Aquichouh's dismay.
Their stories offer a glimpse into the minds of some of the estimated 325 young Muslims from Belgium and around 3,000 from across the European Union who have joined the Islamist militant cause in Syria and Iraq.
"I know some of them, those who frequented the mosque just before leaving," Aquichouh told AFP in the offices of his mosque.
The place of worship has no minarets and stands behind a grey-stone building on a street of terraced houses.
"They were young people with no diploma, who had problems with the law, who had problems with society and who did not work," he said.
"These were young people who had a background of drugs and theft." He recalled one young man who struggled with both a drug problem and confusion over his cultural identity in a Flemish city with a large community of Moroccan origin.
"Sometimes you see him dressed 100 per cent in European clothes, and sometimes you see him in (traditional) long clothing. He was lost," Aquichouh said.
He was waging a "jihad al-nafs," or personal struggle to fight his "bad desires," and found the power to do so in religion, the Muslim community leader said.
Sense of injustice
Per capita, Belgium has produced the highest number of so-called foreign fighters in the EU, an estimated 325, according to officials. European capitals have been clutching at responses for stemming the flow of jihadists to Syria and Iraq.
Aquichouh said the lure of Islamist militant propaganda was another factor.
He cited an Internet video showing how the militants had four-wheel drive cars, were armed and were masters of their own destiny with plenty of land and money.
"What they forgot to say in the propaganda is that behind all that there are bombs, there are tanks, there is a dirty war with people killed and seriously wounded," he said.
The propaganda also plays into a sense that "Muslims are unjustly treated in the world," he said.
He said he never had the chance to intervene to stop anyone because "these were young people I never thought would leave." Vilvoorde mayor Hans Bonte, who also knows some young Muslims who became jihadists, said the process of radicalising young men and even young women can take only a few months.