A leaderless jumble

How the hierarchy among Dutch jihadists dissolved

Foto Taco van der EbA policeofficer in the Laakkwartier area in The Hague in 2004. After a 14 hour siege two members of the Hofstad jihadist network were arrested.

By Vincent Bongers

Initially, Dutch networks of radical Muslims were headed by experienced fighters from abroad. However, at present, home-grown jihadists in particular are fighting among themselves for the top spot.

(De originele Nederlandstalige versie van dit artikel staat hier)
“One of jihadists in my research wears Nike shoes”, say Jasper de Bie. “A trivial detail, perhaps. But some of the group believe that it’s obvious that you can’t wear a Greek goddess on your feet. You are only allowed to worship Allah and wear orthodox clothing. In fact, if he keeps on wearing those shoes, some of the jihadists won’t have anything more to do with him and he would be declared an infidel.”
The criminologist has discovered that there is plenty of deep dissension on radical websites. “They frequently discuss ideological issues: what is the true religion? But evidently, clothes are a topic, too. Points of view are vigorously defended, they try to make fools of each other and slanging matches are common, causing disputes that can weaken a network.”
De Bie has analysed fourteen Dutch jihadist networks from the period between 2000 and 2013. He studied police files, attended court hearings and spoke to jihadists’ lawyers to map out links. He is hoping to be awarded his doctorate for his research next week.
He applied a network analysis to the contacts between 176 men and 33 women. “It’s a numerical tool that allows you to see the connections between people and then determine who the most important player is. I used police information and so on to trace who has contact with whom and how often, in other words, I ‘tallied’ them. But it’s also important to find out what they discuss among themselves.”
The networks were anonymised. “The police made that a condition for using the confidential data. It would be great if scientists could have access to those sources more often and by quicker means”
Clashes within networks sometimes have major consequences. De Bie read, in reports of police interviews from 2004, how one jihadist spread a rumour about someone in the network: the man allegedly visited prostitutes. Seeking revenge, the victim of the rumours reported that the rumour-monger was a potential terrorist to the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, who immediately prevented him from travelling. “Rows like that can temporarily put a network out of operation.”
He adds that, in thirteen years, the division of roles has changed considerably. “In the 2000-2003 period, quite hierarchical networks were set up by people from abroad who had ‘jihad experience’. They mainly recruited people who weren’t born in the Netherlands. A number of leaders had already fought abroad, which was considered prestigious by the rest. They also spoke Arabic fluently and knew more about the ideology – even more reason to look up to them.”
To illustrate, De Bie describes a network from that period. “It consisted of 34 people who tried to persuade people to fight, mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the analysis, I make a distinction between key members and supporters. The first network had four key members: the leaders, who each supervised a cell. The key members communicated with each other but the rest of the cells hardly communicated among themselves, although there were some connections. Some of them started recruiting very openly, for example, at amateur football matches or at the mosque while others engaged in criminal activities to facilitate the network: shoplifting, housebreaking and forging passports. Those networks contained may illegal aliens who would find forged documents quite useful. Some of the key members were deported, as they were often in the country illegally – in fact, that network ceased to exist because a lot of expertise was lost that way.”
Between 2005-2006, the hierarchical cell structure started to disappear. “The networks became more obscure, more fluid and – remarkably – there were more home-grown radicals, people who born in the Netherlands or grew up here. There was less seniority, with hardly any age difference between the people who made themselves leaders and the rest. That caused quite a lot of friction. Many of the guys also knew each other through the social media. It was a leaderless jumble of jihadists, which made it difficult to tackle the entire network.”
The same dynamics can be found in networks from the 2008-2013 period. “Those networks mainly consisted of radicals who were either born in the Netherlands or who grew up here too. They realised that the police were far from always achieving convictions for recruiting, shanghaiing or for membership of a terrorist organisation: ‘Hey, we’re not going to be prosecuted so let’s move our activities a bit more into the open.’ So their activities were less secretive. The training sessions to prepare for fighter for travelling to war zones were more visible, even though they were not very substantial, mainly runs through the woods and the dunes.
At the same, the international aspect gained in importance as more jihadists who had acquired experience abroad as fighters returned to the Netherlands to share their knowledge. “Those people had better foreign contacts too, which is very important. You see, they need a broker, an agent who arranges meetings with the people at the other end, otherwise the efforts to fight abroad usually come to nothing.”
If experienced jihadists become too influential among the networks, should the government jail returning Syria fighters as a precaution? De Bie: “I can understand the fear, but without grounds for suspicion, I don’t think it’s either feasible or desirable. How long would you detain them? And on what grounds? I think it would be a dangerous move.”
De Bie is already very careful with his opinions on current affairs. “A scientist should stay close to his research. I won’t say anything about matters I know nothing about in the media. Recently, Radio 1 sent me an email asking: ‘Would you say something live on our programme?’ They didn’t say what it would be about, but presumably they were discussing the aftermath of the attacks in Brussels. I don’t do those kinds of interviews.
“There were jihadists who were travelling to Belgium or France in the networks I studied. I suspect that they don’t operate very differently there, although the way a country deals with integration issues affects the extent to which people radicalise. But I couldn’t say whether the Netherlands has its own ‘Molenbeek’; I hardly know that district and what I know is what I have read in the papers. Sometimes I’m annoyed by the fact terrorism experts don’t know any more about a certain case than the journalists who interview them, although the commentary by those specialists is regarded as ‘science’. We need to be more careful about that.”

“Jihadists brag about their arrest”

Criminologist Jasper de Bie has some recommendations for the government for dealing with jihadist networks.

“Jihadist networks have something to offer illegal immigrants: housing and money, so be careful how you treat refugees. At the moment, most of them are fleeing from extremists so it’s unlikely that they’d join a jihadist network. However, if you make accommodation for refugees too stark, they might start looking for something better in alternative places that are beyond our control.”
“An arrest raises the status of a jihadist. They brag about it, especially if the police deployment was impressive. ‘We were very defiant and we resisted arrest’, they’ll boast. Or they’ll claim that they have learned the prison’s layout off by heart so that escape is an option. On arrest, a jihadist was blindfolded and conveyed to the court jail; during the trip, he named all the streets along the route, much to the driver’s annoyance. Some men turn their arrest into encouragement for the rest of the network: ‘We’ll carry out our mission for our brothers and sisters in prison too.’”
“More exposure could reinforce a jihadist network. The government can’t control the media, which is a good thing, but authorities can decide to keep out of the spotlight. Or just report: ‘The suspect has been arrested.’”

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A leaderless jumble

Initially, Dutch networks of radical Muslims were headed by experienced fighters from …