The social life of terrorists

A researcher interviewed Dutch jihadists

Taco van der EbPolice at the arrest of two members of the Hofstad Network in The Hague, 10 November 2004.

Terrorism researcher Bart Schuurman was granted access to the whole police report on the Hofstad Network and spoke to six of its members. “It wasn’t all radical opinions: they talked about football and just chatted, you know, all boys together.”

(Het originele Nederlandstalige artikel staat hier)

“I arranged to meet him at Amsterdam Central Station, then I thought: where do we go? A café? But he’s Muslim and they serve alcohol there. Wouldn’t that show a lack of respect? I was so inexperienced that in the end I decided on Burger King and they serve pork there, of course; luckily he didn’t mind. So there I was, interviewing someone about terrorism. I actually wondered whether people were eavesdropping”

Bart Schuurman will be awarded his doctoral degree today for his research on the Hofstad Network. The Hofstad Network was a group of radical Muslims; its most infamous member is Mohammed B., who murdered Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker, on 2 November 2004 after the latter had expressed his – critical – opinion of Islam. B. shot Van Gogh off his bike, cut his throat and spiked a note threatening activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a member of Dutch parliament, into his chest.

As a researcher working for the Institute of Security en Global Affairs (ISGA), Schuurman already had access to the police report. “It contained so much information, I wanted to write a dissertation on it.” He had to wait a year for the Public Prosecution Service’s permission. “The conditions were strict: I can mention no names and of course I’m not allowed to publish anything about the investigative methods either.”

Grapevine

He also tried to contact the former members of the Hofstad Network, spending months looking for them. “Most wouldn’t respond, or said ‘no’ straight away. One member’s uncle rang up and asked me to please stop harassing his nephew, as he had only just started to move away from his radical ideals. In the end, I managed to speak to six people. One of them had heard through the grapevine that I was looking for people. He said: ‘No one will help you but I’ll talk, because I feel sorry for you.’”

Why would someone want to be a jihadist? Schuurman replies: “We tend to think that it’s to do with ideals and beliefs but there are actually lots of different reasons.” Initially, the man in Burger King didn’t have any radical notions.

“He had to do an internship for school, but no one would give him a place. To him, it felt as if ‘those Dutchies’ didn’t want him because of his Moroccan parentage. He didn’t radicalise immediately but it had an impact on his daily life: he wasn’t doing an internship so he had nothing to do. When he, bored, started hanging round the mosque, he ran into someone who introduced him to the Hofstad Network. They embraced him as if he had been best friends with them all his life. He explained that it was simply great to hang out with them. It wasn’t all radical opinions: they talked about football and just chatted, you know, all boys together. He enjoyed seeing these new friends. Well, anyone would.

“He joined for the friendship and kept meeting them for the matey atmosphere. They were new friends with radical opinions, but hey. Gradually, he started joining in. He was eventually arrested on suspicion of preparing terrorist crimes.”

So what was the tipping point: why turn to violence? “Firstly, he saw a propaganda video showing Israeli soldiers attacking a woman who looked just like his mother, which made it all very personal. He was also inspired by Van Gogh’s murder. Here was someone – a mate – who not only talked about being a “true believer” but actually lived it.

Something bigger

“Group pressure was another aspect: they frequently discussed attacks, especially the hard core of about ten members. There was a lot of bragging, too. But after the attack on Van Gogh, they couldn’t say ‘I didn’t really mean it’ anymore, so the ones who had been in favour of violence felt they had to do something as well.”

Ideology was a large part of it, of course, he explains. “But if we only look at ideology when we talk about radicalisation, we lose sight of other factors, most of which are related to the group itself: the dynamics, the close friendships and their identities. They felt they could finally be someone; they felt part of something much bigger and that’s a very appealing feeling.”

Nonetheless, some people dropped out. “Members would hold each other to account: is your beard long enough? Do you really denounce that person in our religious community? The Hofstad Network was turning into a kind sect so some members left. One man realised he’d had enough nagging about his beard at one point.” The consequences were: “The members who stayed were mostly radical.”

The reason why they didn’t actually commit many violent acts compared to other terrorist organisations was that they weren’t really well organised as a unit. “There wasn’t any central power: nobody really ran the group. It was, he admits, quite amateurish. “For instance, they wanted to build a bomb but they bought the wrong kind of fertiliser. We can laugh, but remember they committed a horrific murder and these are the kind of people who go to Syria or Iraq, places where they can learn how to do far more damage.” AK

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