DUTCH FOREIGN FIGHTERS CONTINUE TO TRAVEL TO SYRIA

By Samar Batrawi and Ilona Chmoun \ CTC

As the war in Syria continues, the Netherlands faces a number of challenges in monitoring Dutch foreign fighters. In a worrying note published in June 2014 by the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD), the agency claimed that budget cuts paired with “new dynamics” in the jihadist movement have triggered a serious capacity crisis.[1] The AIVD teams in charge of tracking jihadists are barely coping with the workload, and additional planned budget cuts will reportedly force the agency to drop several of these teams. Nevertheless, the dynamics of the radicalization and recruitment of jihadists in the Netherlands are continuously evolving.

This article addresses recent developments among the Dutch foreign fighter contingent in Syria. It examines a manifesto that describes the motives and goals of the Dutch fighters, reviews these fighters’ visibility on social media and profiles two of them, and concludes with an analysis of the measures taken by the Dutch government. It finds that the visibility of and popular concern surrounding Dutch jihadists in Syria has increased, while the government’s response remains tepid.

The Dutch Foreign Fighter Manifesto
Through social media, the Dutch press and information released by Dutch authorities, the authors have identified 37 Dutch individuals who have fought in Syria. This means that an additional 17 people have been identified since October 2013,[2] including three women and two minors.[3] The general composition of the 17 newly identified fighters does not differ significantly from the 20 fighters identified in the CTC Sentinel in October 2013. The main component is Dutch-Moroccan, while other backgrounds include Turkish, Iraqi, Kurdish, the Balkans, and at least one person with a Somali background. Among these names are two Dutch converts: Anwar Abu Ibrahiem al-Rumi[4] from the Hague, and Victor D. “Zakaria al-Holandi”[5] from Heeten, both of whom are in Aleppo. The average age of the additional 17 fighters based on the authors’ dataset is 22-years-old. Most of the fighters are from the Hague, Zoetermeer, Delft and Arnhem. According to an AIVD report, out of a total of 100-150 Dutch jihadists in Syria,[6] two have committed suicide attacks in Syria and Iraq[7]; twelve Dutch fighters have died in Syria[8]; and at least 30 fighters[9] have returned to the Netherlands. Approximately 20 Dutch women[10] are currently in Syria, most of whom are thought to have followed their husbands to the battlefield.

In October 2013, a 150-page manifesto called De Banier[11] was published by, among others, Abu Fidaa’, the man who called himself the spokesperson of Dutch jihadists in Syria until his death in November 2013.[12] The book opened with a rejection of Western capitalism. Happiness, the manifesto stated, is merely a paradoxical illusion, as the rate of suicides, prisoners and childhood depression is higher in the West than anywhere else. Islam is presented as the solution to these problems, but also as the solution to the moral bankruptcy and double standards of the West, exemplified by U.S. school shootings, the abuse at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghurayb, and the general mistreatment of women.

The next chapters discussed recent political events, which have, in the eyes of the authors, deprived Muslims of Islamic law. The book claimed that Western countries, spearheaded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), have given the tacit U.S. ally Bashar al-Assad the green light to kill Muslims using any means necessary. As the resistance against al-Assad can mainly be ascribed to foreign fighters and Syrian mujahidin, the authors claimed that they are the fighters on which the Syrian people can rely. Based on a collection of ahadith (Islamic scriptures), the authors expect the Syrian conflict to become a legendary, decisive war that might trigger a third World War. An alternative to Western democracy is presented in a 13-point chapter, which included topics like economic stability, freedom of religion and women’s rights, all of them based on traditional Islamic principles. The overtone of this alternative is the return of society to the early days of Islam, opposing not only Shi`a Muslims, but “corrupted” and status quo Sunnis as well.

Social Media Presence
Dutch fighters have become more visible in social media and in the Dutch press, especially those who joined the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[13] The ISIL and its Dutch fighters also seem to be slightly more active than the al-Qa`ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in spreading Dutch-language propaganda.[14] As part of this larger charm offensive, a group of Dutch jihadists under the name of “Fighting Journalists” uploaded a promotional video on YouTube titled Oh Oh Aleppo Spookstad on June 24, which was distributed on the popular Dutch jihadist hubs De Ware Religie and Shaam Al Ghareeba. In the video, jihadists walked through the rubble of Aleppo, and spoke to the viewers while shooting from and being shot at in an abandoned apartment. The overtone of the video seemed to be both opposition to the Syrian Arab Army, described as inhumane slaughterers, and the persuasion that jihad in Syria is worth the effort. On the former, the jihadists repeatedly expressed their anger and frustration at Muslims getting killed by al-Assad while the Muslim society remained inactive. Jihadists, they argued, are the protectors of the innocent. On the latter point, they gave the impression of a close, brotherly community of jihadists who support each other when under fire.[15]

This interactive approach became all the more evident in an announced questions and answers session via YouTube published on June 26, 2014, in which viewers could have their questions answered by fighters in Syria. The aim of this session was to debunk the image of the fighters that counterterrorism experts have painted.[16]

Profile I: Ashraf, the Underage Fighter[17]
Ashraf, a 16-year-old Dutch-Moroccan boy, became known to the Dutch public after his father held an emotional plea on Dutch television. His father, Farid, was open about the process that resulted in his son’s travel to Syria in December 2013. Ashraf’s doctor, his school youth protection services, the city council and the police were all involved by the request of his father in an attempt to deradicalize him, yet Ashraf still succeeded in sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night.

According to an extensive media interview with Ashraf’s father, Ashraf was a polite yet social boy.[18] His father raised him as a Muslim. Ashraf wanted to become a police officer or work with the Dutch Ministry of Defense. Three months before Ashraf’s departure to Syria, he started to change. His father first noticed this when Ashraf started locking the door to his room and ceased attending the family’s mosque, saying it was full of infidels. His father tried to take him to different imams and gave him names of Muslim scholars who could benefit Ashraf, but his son refused any dialogue. Farid also tried to connect his son with an Islamic psychologist, but Ashraf never showed up to meetings.

Ashraf became so estranged from his father that he started calling him an infidel and a devil. One day, Farid noticed a bearded man in a car waiting outside his house. Farid wanted to know who was influencing his son and started following him. He followed Ashraf to a house where a group of people gathered on a regular basis. After the first gathering, his son exited the house with the same bearded man that Farid had seen outside their home. Farid notified the police of this address immediately. He confronted the man, who insisted they were only discussing some verses from the Qur’an.

Ashraf refused to eat meat anymore—claiming it was not halal enough—and to be in the same room as women. He began criticizing his sisters and telling them what to wear. He grew his hair and beard. Farid tried to prevent his son from going outside, afraid that he would not return. Once, when Ashraf left his computer to use the restroom, Farid went into his son’s room and accessed his computer. He found many radical websites, videos of beheadings and pictures of dead bodies. Farid shut off the internet, and after Farid found out that Ashraf was still connecting to other networks, he broke his computer.

On the day that Ashraf left for Syria, he had agreed with his father to see the police and the city council. His father insisted that he hand his passport to them, but Ashraf refused. The police and the city council promised to keep an eye on him but did not force him to hand over his passport. He fled the house that same evening and never returned. On March 28, 2014, Ashraf was online in Turkey, near the Syrian border, where his father suspects he received training before crossing into Syria.

Profile II: Robbin, the Returned Convert[19]
Robbin van D., at 18-years-old, found Islam through his Muslim friends in Arnhem, but gradually started to take an interest in more radical Muslim figures such as Malcolm X. He struggled to decide what he wanted to do with his life. He rapped a lot with his friend Marouane, another Dutch fighter in Syria. He stopped seeing his non-Muslim friends after he converted to Islam, and, halfway through 2013, Robbin and Marouane stopped rapping about girls and started rapping exclusively about Islam. They scored a YouTube hit with the song Ramadan.[20]

Robbin, Marouane and another friend named Hakim[21] often went to the Al Fath mosque in Arnhem to pray.[22] The authors of an article on the three friends from Arnhem claimed that they discovered flyers announcing sermons by Dutch Salafist preachers in the mosque, such as Abou Sayfoullah and Al Khattab. Robbin and Marouane also took Arabic lessons at the Omar Al Khattab Foundation in Arnhem.[23] The director of that foundation, Anoire Rharssisse, claims to fully oppose fighting in Syria, although he preaches quite the opposite in social media under the name Aboe Nusaybah.[24]

Robbin and Marouane spent a lot of time in Marouane’s room, praying and reading the Qur’an. Images of suffering Syrians touched them, according to Marouane’s mother. The friends received pictures from an older friend who was already in Syria, and who they considered a role model. The boys started consulting the Qur’an about the concept of Holy War, and began reading books on the topic as well as manuscripts such as those from Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. They read everything on De Ware Religie, a Dutch extremist website. They also listened to speeches by Fouad Belkacem, the leader of Sharia4Belgium, and became convinced that they were useless for not helping out their Muslim brothers.

Robbin and his friend Marouane crossed the border between Turkey and Syria in November 2013 and both spent time in Aleppo. Robbin returned to the Netherlands in March 2014. His activities since his return are unknown, although he seems apologetic about his decision and claims he fled Syria in secret.[25] Marouane remains in Syria.[26]

Government Measures Against (Returned) Fighters
Thus far, in the absence of a collective approach, the Dutch government has only pushed through a few measures against Dutch jihadists. Most concerning is the reported lack of adequate budgeting for intelligence gathering. The Dutch National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV) has expressed its concern about Dutch jihadists in Syria and has warned about the possibility of new generations of fighters, resulting in a sustainable threat to Europe. Because of the ISIL’s recent advancements, the NCTV fears that the popularity of jihadist factions will only increase among radicalized Dutch youth. It recognizes that the Netherlands is not immune to attacks similar to the one in Brussels on May 24, 2014, which was committed by a returned Syrian foreign fighter.[27]

The NCTV has attempted to force the extremist website De Ware Religie—one of the most important platforms for Dutch jihadists—offline, so far without success.[28] Despite the fear of the ISIL in particular, on June 20 the city of the Hague allowed[29] a pro-ISIL demonstration to take place because it saw “no ground” to prevent it—even though the ISIL is listed as a terrorist organization by the United Nations.

The Dutch government promised an increase in cooperation between different branches to enhance internal security, and a recent report claims that the AIVD shared a list of names with the Turkish security services to prevent the flow of these people into Syria from Turkey.[30] Yet Turkey’s willingness to act on the list is questionable. A visa is not required to cross the Turkish-Syrian border, and the border is easily passed with the aid of recruiters who are present in abundance in Turkey’s southern province of Hatay.[31]

One preventive measure that was announced in the Dutch press in February was the denial of passports to 10 men and women who were suspected of planning to travel to Syria for jihad.[32] The legal basis for this was article 23 of the passport law[33] of the Netherlands, which makes it possible to withdraw someone’s passport or deny the renewal of it if the person in question wants to go abroad to engage in activities that would endanger the Netherlands or other friendly states. A different measure was taken against two suspected jihadists from Arnhem in February 2014 who were caught in Germany while they were allegedly on their way to Syria. The charges against them were dropped on the condition that they wear ankle bracelets, stay in the Netherlands and refrain from coming near airports.[34]

There have also been individual measures against fighters who remain in Syria. In June, the social welfare of “tens” of Dutch jihadists was stopped.[35] In the same month, it was announced that fighters receiving any student benefits from the Dutch government will have those benefits revoked.[36] Khalid K., a Dutch jihadist who posed with the decapitated heads of five Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, was denied entry to the Netherlands for 20 years, and if he does decide to return after this period, the Dutch Public Prosecution will attempt to charge him with crimes against humanity.[37]

In November 2013, it was reported that the Dutch city councils were attempting to help rather than punish returned fighters. Delft currently supervises a group of young ex-fighters that it aims to reintegrate into Dutch society by helping them find employment or education and stimulating them to engage in local activities.[38] The idea behind this, according to the city councils, is to avoid further radicalization through isolation and repression.[39] This does not mean that the police and the justice department will not prosecute individuals if any evidence of criminal activity is found; it merely means that on a social level the city councils opt for reintegration.[40]

As rapidly as knowledge about Dutch jihadists in Syria has grown in the past six months, it is far from complete. With the recent developments in Syria and Iraq, the problem of Dutch foreign fighters will continue to escalate. As the Netherlands struggles to agree upon a unified approach to the fighters, it expresses great concern about its future security, while insisting on upholding a tolerant and inclusive approach—a balance which may be impossible to achieve. With the capacity problems faced by the intelligence services, the Netherlands is in danger of falling behind the curve.

END NOTES
[1] “New dynamics” refers to the shift from forums and preachers to the more dynamic platform of social media as the foundation of homegrown radicalization. For more details, see “Veiligheidsdienst AIVD verliest zicht op escalerend jihadisme,” NRC Handelsblad, June 20, 2014.

[2] See the author’s previous article on the Dutch foreign fighter contingent in Syria: Samar Batrawi, “The Dutch Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:10 (2013).

[3] For the full interview, see http://www.eenopeen.incontxt.nl/seizoenen/2014/afleveringen/10-04-2014.

[4] Anwar Abu Ibrahiem al-Rumi is a Dutch convert from the Hague fighting with the ISIL who posts a mix of Arabic and Dutch information on his Facebook page, where a picture of him is shown with another Dutch ISIL fighter from the Hague called Abou Hatim La Haye. In Dutch-language comments on several pictures, friends call them “the lions of the umma from the Hagueistan.” For more details, see http://www.facebook.com/abu.ibrahiem.96.

[5]Abdelkarim honing – Interview met Zakariya al Hollandi deel 1, April 2, 2013, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjK_j3OrjCc.

[6] “Ruim 100 Nederlandse jihadstrijders zijn naar Syrië gereisd,” Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau, July 27, 2014.

[7] “Annual Report 2013,” Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service, 2013.

[8] These twelve are: Mourad M. (21-years-old) from Delft; Soufian E. (20) from Delft; Yasine B. (23) from Zoetermeer; Choukri M. (26) from Delft (Mourad’s older brother); Saddek S. (26); Ibrahim A.; Soufian H. (19) from the Hague; Abu Fidaa’ (also known as Abu Jandal) (26) from Delft; Moerad Ö. (“Ibrahim the Turk”) from the Hague; Abu Obayda al-Holandi; Abu Hamza; and Abu Usama al-Holandi al-Maghribi from the Hague.

[9] According to the AIVD, as quoted in: “Primeur: jihadist gepakt na reis naar Syrië,” De Volkskrant, April 29, 2014.

[10] The Dutch newspaper Trouw interviewed Fatima’s father in March 2014, who expressed great concern about Fatima’s sister who wanted to follow her sister to Syria. For the interview, see Perdiep Ramesar, “‘Had ik Fatima maar thuis gehouden,’” Trouw, March 4, 2014.

[11] An online PDF copy of De Banier can be found at http://www.alminara.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/de-banier3.pdf. The document is divided into seven chapters: 1) Capitalist Liberalism; 2) Neocolonial Despotism; 3) The Legendary Conflict; 4) The Shifting Balance of Power; 5) The Future Alternative; 6) The Ethical Fundament; and 7) The Ideological Front.

[12] Abu Fidaa’ was the spokesperson whose interview with the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant was quoted in Batrawi. He was a 26-year-old Dutch businessman from Delft. His death was announced by the radical Dutch website De Ware Religie and later confirmed by his family.

[13] In June 2014, the ISIL shortened its name to the “Islamic State.” This article, however, still refers to the group by its more common name, the ISIL.

[14] This text can be found on the picture at http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=247442092112391&set=a.106652169524718.1073741828.100005398058758&type=1&theater.

[15] The full version of the controversial video that shows a glimpse into the lives of Dutch jihadists in Syria is called Oh Oh Aleppo de Spookstad (Oh Oh Aleppo the Ghost Town), a reference to the popular Dutch song Oh Oh Den Haag (Oh Oh The Hague) and the more recent Oh Oh Cherso, the Dutch version of the MTV series Jersey Shore. For the video, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miqGbVdj2xQ.

[16] A video titled Vraag het een Syriëganger! (Ask a Syrian Foreign Fighter) was published to announce a Q&A session. For details, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUbuYrRgfsY.

[17] This profile is based on the interview held with Ashraf’s father in April 2014. For the full interview, see Farid – vader van minderjarige Syrië-strijder, Een op Een, April 10, 2014.

[18] Ibid.

[19] This profile is largely based on a detailed report about three jihadist friends from Arnhem. See “Van vrolijke rapper tot jihadist Dag mam, ik ga naar Syrië!” NRC, December 28, 2013.

[20] Their music video is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtXP_9nv1d0.

[21] Hakim attempted to travel to Syria but was stopped in his car in Germany.

[22] “Van vrolijke rapper tot jihadist Dag mam, ik ga naar Syrië!”

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Bart Olmer, “Polderjihadist vlucht voor geweld,” De Telegraaf, March 13, 2014.

[26] For more details, see http://www.facebook.com/MaruOne026?fref=pb&hc_location=friends_tab.

[27] Periodical updates on the threat level in the Netherlands are given by the NCTV. This level is mainly determined by developments surrounding Dutch foreign fighters. See “Actueel dreigingsniveau,” National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism, June 30, 2014.

[28] “Antiterreurbaas treedt op tegen jihadsite,” De Telegraaf, June 19, 2014; “Providers gevraagd jihadsites te wissen,” De Telegraaf, June 18, 2014.

[29] “ISIS-demonstratie Den Haag mag,” NOS Journaal, June 17, 2014.

[30] “‘AIVD geeft Turkije namen Nederlandse Syriëgangers,’” Novum, June 16, 2014.

[31] It is possible to travel from the Netherlands to Syria in 48 hours when using the Turkey route. For more details, see “Binnen 48 uur van Nederland naar Syrië,” De Telegraaf, June 30, 2014.

[32] “NCTV: tien paspoorten jihadgangers geweigerd,” De Volkskrant, February 21, 2014.

[33] See the website of the Dutch government at http://wetten.overheid.nl/BWBR0005212/geldigheidsdatum_20-06-2014.

[34] “‘Syriëgangers’ onder voorwaarden vrij, maar moeten enkelband dragen,” De Volkskrant, February 4, 2014.

[35] “Uitkeringen tientallen Nederlandse jihadstrijders stopgezet,” Het Parool, June 17, 2014.

[36] As stated in a written response to parliamentary inquiries about the student benefits that jihadists in Syria receive. For the statement, see “Onderwerp Antwoorden kamervragen over studiefinanciering voor jihadstrijders,” Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice, June 16, 2014.

[37] Suspected individuals appear in a special register which is visible to border security and the city council, both of which can withdraw the passport or choose to reject its renewal. For details, see “Nederlandse jihadist van gruwelfoto mag land niet meer in,” De Volkskrant, April 3, 2014.

[38] The original report can be found at “Teruggekeerde jihadi’s niet opgepakt maar geholpen,” EenVandaag, November 6, 2013.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

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About chainsoff.

Intelligence Media Service, Monitors and Analyzes Extremists’ activities, including and not limited to: The Muslim Brotherhood, Kurdish Terrorism, Syrian Politics, Jabhet Al-Nusra, Hezbollah, Cyber Crime, and Taliban activities in Syria. Well known for her deep knowledge on Terrorism. Open Source Exploitation expert in the discovery, collection, and assessment of foreign-based publicly available information, also known as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), HIMNT
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