The record number of jihadists leaving Europe to fight in Syria (and to a lesser extent in Iraq) has rapidly become one of the continent’s top security concerns. A major worry is that hard-pressed European intelligence services will be overwhelmed by the numbers of returning radicals and thus unable to cope effectively with the rising threat, and there is already evidence that this is happening.
It therefore caused a sensation at the end of June when the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (Algemene Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdienst – AIVD) informed the public that, according to its analysis, there has been “huge growth” in local jihadism, with about 130 Dutch Muslims having gone to Syria to fight against the Assad regime, of whom almost thirty have already returned to the Netherlands and some fourteen have been killed. While most of the volunteers are of Moroccan descent, there are many converts among them as well, plus Dutch citizens of Turkish, Kurdish, Caribbean, Somali, and Afghan background. Most of the departing jihadists are between twenty and thirty years of age, though there are older volunteers and teenagers too.
Some twenty of the jihadists are women, most of them wives of fighters who have gone to support their men and the cause. AIVD Director Rob Bertholee said he is “flabbergasted” by the large number of Dutch women who have gone to Syria and Iraq. Concerns are rising in the Netherlands about what these jihadists will do when they return home, as most of them will. At best, they will serve as agitators and propagandists for radical Salafi causes, while it can be judged a near-certainty that some of them will attempt terrorism domestically. There seems ample room for concern, particularly because AIVD’s budget is being cut by nine million Euros (about USD 12 million).
But even the AIVD’s dire assessment of the threat may be too optimistic. Malika Elmouridi, a former local politician and activist among the Dutch Muslim community, warned that the government is undercounting the true number of jihadists by a considerable margin. To a large extent, AIVD relies on self-reporting from families whose children have left for Syria or Iraq but, Elmouridi notes, “It is only a very small group of parents who raise the alarm and say: ‘My child has gone to Syria’.” Many fear the stigma and shame of having produced radical offspring, and stay quiet. Very few have been radicalized at home, though those who fall sway to the Salafi jihadist message are “enormously suggestible,” she states, adding that many have troubled backgrounds.
The majority of the radicalization that leads young Dutch men and women to wage jihad in Syria and Iraq is happening neither at home nor in the mosque, but virtually, in the online world. Facebook and Twitter are the preferred venues of these would-be holy warriors, who demonstrate “no regard for religious or other leaders in the Muslim community,” observes Dutch journalist Hans Wansink. He adds:
The battleground in Syria is functioning as a catalyst; the caliphate is not a dream any longer but a genuine prospect. The successes of ISIS constitute appealing propaganda material. The number of Dutch-language websites glorifying jihadist violence and denouncing the West has multiplied many times over since 2013. As a travel destination, Syria is fairly easy to get to via Turkey. Returning veterans from the civil war are mentally and physically in a position to plan attacks and to carry them out. The terror threat has thus increased sharply in a short time, while the resilience of states and population groups has actually decreased.
Moreover, there is little under current laws that AIVD and Dutch authorities can do to prevent this process. “Programs for ‘de-radicalization’ have little effect,” notes Wansink, regrettably accurately, while much of this social media activity undertaken by Dutch extremists falls under the protections of free speech. AIVD counts several hundred active Salafi radicals in the Netherlands, as well as a few thousand sympathizers, a huge number of potential problems for the underfunded security service to contend with.
Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten has assured the public that “all available means” are being employed to prevent Dutch citizens from waging jihad abroad, adding that it is “not acceptable” for them to be doing this. The risk of domestic terrorism is “genuine,” he admits. Welfare payments of jihadis who have left the country have been stopped and some thirty people have had their passports revoked. But the Netherlands to date has done little more concrete to prevent its citizens from going to Syria and Iraq as fighters — and returning home more radical and more proficient at killing. Such are the dilemmas facing all free and democratic Western societies as they confront this rising threat. In truth, as long as Turkey continues to make it easy for European jihadists to reach Syria through its territory, this problem promises only to get worse.