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The Dutch foreign fighter contingent in Syria.

SINCE THE START of the Syrian civil war in 2011, foreign fighters have increasingly traveled to Syria to fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Many of these foreign fighters have joined the more extremist Salafi-jihadi rebel groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra or Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa-al-Ansar. They have come from several different countries, including Western states such as the United Kingdom and Sweden.

This article examines the presence of Dutch fighters in the Syrian civil war. It also identifies the Netherlands-based networks and individuals to which these foreign fighters have links and describes what is known about their activities in Syria. It finds that at least 20 people from the Netherlands have joined the war in Syria, and at least six of them have died there. (1) Although the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) of the Netherlands has not found evidence that Netherlands-based networks have actively recruited Dutch Muslims to fight in Syria, the AIVD does believe that groups such as Sharia4Holland, Behind Bars, Hizb al-Tahrir and Millatu Ibrahim are increasingly utilizing the developments in Syria to promote their cause, which in turn has a potential radicalizing influence on their supporters. (2)

Background on the Fighters

The AIVD considers Dutch nationals fighting in Syria as a significant threat to the national security of the Netherlands due to their radicalizing influence on Dutch society. (3) This has resulted in several attempts to address the issue on a judicial level by criminalizing so-called "jihad travel." (4) The AIVD maintains that there are no recruiting networks or individuals in the Netherlands, yet several concerned parents of foreign fighters have approached the media claiming the contrary. (5)

This author has identified at least 20 individuals from the Netherlands who have fought or are fighting in Syria, although there could be more than 100. (6) At this point, it is not possible to access specific details about the fighters' backgrounds--such as their socioeconomic positions--but in some of the cases there is enough information to paint a rough sketch of these foreign fighters.

The majority of the 20 identified Dutch foreign fighters came from Moroccan, Somali and Turkish communities in the Netherlands, although one Dutch man was originally from Bosnia. (7) Most commonly, the individuals in question are of Moroccan descent. (8) They largely came from the Dutch cities of Zeist, Delft, Rotterdam and The Hague (specifically the notorious Schilderswijk (9) neighborhood). (10)

There are several organizations that are at least affiliated with some of the 20 individuals in question. This affiliation ranges from featuring obituaries and supportive statements on the website De Ware Religie (11) (The True Religion) to alleged recruitment through individuals active in the groups Behind Bars and Sharia4Holland, several of which have been on "jihad trips" before and enjoy respect and authority within their communities. (12) Most of the men in Syria are estimated to be between the ages of 23 and 26, with the exception of a couple of Dutch minors who managed to undertake the journey to Syria. (13)

Based on pieces of information drawn from the 20 profiles, most of the fighters reached Syria by flying from either the Netherlands or Belgium to Turkey, where they crossed into Syria from the Turkish border. (14)

Profiles and Recruiters

In September 2013, the Dutch website De Ware Religie posted an obituary for a 19-year-old Dutch man, known as Abu Abdurrahman, who fought alongside "Islamic rebels" since June 2013. (15) Abdurrahman, from The Hague, left for the north of Syria with one of his best friends, where he fought with several other Dutch people. (16) The website claimed that he died during a surprise attack on the enemy, launched from a recently captured area which Abdurrahman was in charge of patrolling. His real first name was Soufian, and he was killed along with one other Dutch national. Abdurrahman is the most recent Dutch casualty in the Syrian conflict. De Ware Religie appeared to acquire the details on Abdurrahman's alleged activities from a statement (17) published by the Dutch-language Facebook page "Nederlandse Mujahideen in Syrie" (Dutch Mujahidin in Syria). (18)

The first known Dutch national to die in Syria was 21-year-old Mourad Massali, a Dutch-Moroccan man from Delft, who was killed in March 2013. (19) According to his friends and family, who cooperated with a Dutch news organization in a series of interviews, Massali became more radical after the death of his father. (20) He was part of a Delft-based group of friends of about 20 young people, many of whom have criminal records. (21) According to friends, many of these young people viewed engaging in the conflict in Syria as a form of penance for their sins. (22) Massali's friend, 20-year-old Soufian Elfassi from Delft, was the second Dutch national to die in Syria; he was killed in March 2013. (23) Elfassi played for the local soccer team Delfia, whose president was surprised to hear of Elfassi's travel to Syria as he did not perceive him to be radical, nor did he ever hear him voice a clear opinion on Syria. (24) When Elfassi left for Syria in December 2012, he told his colleagues that he was leaving to study at a university in Egypt. Massali's 26-year-old brother Choukri was killed in July 2013, according to a statement by the Dutch fighters.

Alleged recruiters have received significant attention from the media and the government in the Netherlands. A 19-year-old woman from Zoetermeer, known as Oum Usama, was suspected of recruiting people to join the war in Syria. (25) Her arrest in July 2013 triggered a campaign in which Behind Bars and Sharia4Holland demanded her release. (26) In August 2013, her Facebook page claimed that she had left the Netherlands for Syria. (27)

An April 2013 article in De Volkskrant voiced the frustration of parents of Dutch fighters, who felt that their concerns about the recruitment of young Muslims had not been taken seriously by the AIVD. (28) Murat O fkeli (also known as "Ibrahim the Turk," "Abu Jarrah" or "Abu Zer") from Schilderswijk in The Hague was one of the names mentioned by these parents as a potential recruiter. (29) The AIVD had monitored him since 2001 after suspicions arose that he might be recruiting young Muslims for jihadist conflicts abroad. (30) Two years later, Ofkeli was cleared of charges accusing him of recruiting individuals for jihad. (31) In 2005, he came to the authorities' attention once again when three young men from The Hague, who he had allegedly recruited, were arrested in Azerbaijan on their way to fight in Chechnya. (32) He was also suspected to be a member of the Hofstad Group, (33) but he was cleared of all charges due to a lack of evidence. (34)

The parents of the young Muslims who Ofkeli allegedly recruited told De Volkskrant that he remained active as a recruiter even after 2005. (35) He would wait for young people to finish praying in the Turkish M imar Sinan mosque in Schilderswijk in The Hague, the parents alleged. (36) Several parents said they overheard Ofkeli speaking about the jihadist struggle and about conducting attacks. (37) Ofkeli was already banned from the As-Soennah Mosque in The Hague for his controversial behavior. (38) In June 2013, Dutch media reported that Murat Ofkeli had died in Syria. (39)

Azedine C. (also known as "Aboe Moussa") is another name mentioned in three separate accounts of concerned parents. (40) He is an active member of the group Behind Bars. (41) Azedine is a frequent commentator on the website De Ware Religie, where he has also published a statement regarding his alleged recruitment of young Dutch M uslims to join the struggle in Syria. He denied any form of brainwashing and did not take or deny responsibility for facilitating their travel, but insisted that these individuals were voluntarily committed to a just cause. (42)

Activities in Syria

The leader and spokesperson of Dutch fighters in Syria, Abu Fidaa, gave a critical interview to De Volkskrant in June 2013. (43) The interview is the single most useful source for uncovering details about the activities of Dutch fighters in Syria, even though it is difficult to verify the extent to which his account is true. Abu Fidaa stated that Dutch fighters do not leave for Syria without preparation, although it is difficult to adequately prepare for jihad in the Netherlands without drawing the attention of the AIVD. (44) He mentioned that in his case he would read American and Chinese books about power and warfare such as 48 Laws of Power and The Thirty-Six Stratagems of War, books which were recommended to him by likeminded friends. (45) For physical training, he said, some "brothers" go out and jog together in the Netherlands. (46) Anything more combat-specific than that is not possible, but at least this allows them to be in adequate shape before arriving in Syria for more serious training. (47)

Abu Fidaa explained that when a new "brother" arrives in Syria, he receives training that lasts six weeks. (48) After a minimum of six weeks of training, one has the right to seek martyrdom. (49) According to Abu Fidaa, there are daily meetings during which Dutch "brothers" talk to each other and receive news updates from fellow fighters who are able to speak Arabic. (50) Dutch fighters mix with other nationalities to improve their integration into a strong jihadist community. (51) Abu Fidaa, however, did not identify which rebel groups the Dutch fighters have primarily joined.

Although Abu Fidaa and the fighters that surround him are reportedly located in Aleppo, this is not the only place where Dutch fighters are based. According to Abu Fidaa, they are spread across the entire country. The fighters attend classes by scholars and "knowledgeable brothers." (52) They also take time to relax and swim, exercise or visit Dutch fighters in other areas. The locals often invite the fighters over for dinner, during which the fighters tell Syrians about the manner in which Muslims are treated in the Netherlands--how they live as a minority that is regarded with contempt, as slaves under a capitalist system. (53) There are at least three Dutch women in Syria, according to Abu Fidaa. These women joined their husbands when they decided to fight in Syria.

Abu Fidaa was confident that the jihadists in Syria have an excellent strategy. He claimed that they can easily uncover a spy, and that their long-term vision gives them ideological and strategic strength. This is the advantage they have over secular groups, said Abu Fidaa. The non-secular rebels do not look at Syria in a vacuum; after freeing Syria from Bashar al-Assad, he explained, they will help their Palestinian brothers. According to Abu Fidaa,
   We are not planning to return [to
   the Netherlands]. Freeing Syria will
   take a while. A true mujahid will
   never be able to leave Syria ... If we
   give up at any point, all our efforts
   and the efforts of people before us
   will have been for nothing. That is
   why it is so important to be honest
   and to cleanse your intentions
   during the jihad. Brothers from the
   Netherlands and Belgium feel good
   here and they do not want to return.
   The Armageddon will happen in
   this area and we do not want to miss
   this. The mujahidin who risked
   their lives for this cause will not
   accept anything else than Shari'a
   for Syria. They will not make the
   mistake of replacing an unjust
   tyrant for another unjust tyrant. (54)


Abu Fidaa also addressed the biggest concern for Dutch authorities: what will these fighters do if they return to Europe or the Netherlands? "The media claims that Muslims who go to Syria can be a danger to the Netherlands, " Abu Fidaa acknowledged. "There is fear for possible attacks in the Netherlands when these people return. The opposite is true, however. " He then said, "If the West keeps stopping Muslims and making it difficult for them to go to Syria and other Islamic countries ... then certain diligent Muslims--whose conscience will bother them--will plan attacks on Western soil. We advise the Dutch and other Western governments to stop forming an obstacle for Muslims that wish to leave for those places in need of help." (55)

Conclusion

Unfortunately, there is not enough data on fighters from the Netherlands to draw meaningful conclusions about what has driven them to make certain decisions, the extent to which recruiters influenced their decisions and whether or not they will return to the Netherlands. For now, their focus remains on Syria, although the networks linked to them in the Netherlands might prove to be a more immediate threat in terms of radicalization.

Much of this is linked to broader political and societal developments in the Netherlands, such as the problems that second and third generation immigrants face and the continuing polarization of Dutch society. At the same time, the obstacles that these individuals confronted in Dutch society are memories they carry with them and share with their fellow jihadists abroad. (56) While Dutch territory is not the main battlefield for these fighters at this point in time, they carry grievances about the treatment of Muslims in the Netherlands. These grievances might fuel frustration, and in time may prove to be a threat to the Netherlands. This is where the existing networks in the Netherlands and their radicalizing potential must be understood, as their actual connections to transnational jihadist networks are unclear.

(1) In February 2013, the head of the AIVD, Rob Bertholee, said in a Dutch news broadcast that "tens" of young Dutch Muslims were fighting in Syria. The estimate of 20 people from the Netherlands fighting in Syria is based on the author's research. After identifying Dutch fighters in Syria through social media and other open sources, the author attempted to corroborate those names with AIVD and Dutch government publications and statements, available police records, and sources such as community blogs and websites. By cross-checking all available open source information, the author tried to paint a rough sketch that is as accurate as possible. One limitation is that unless the AIVD or Dutch government confirms that a Dutch citizen has traveled to or died in Syria, it is not possible to determine whether a Dutch fighter is a Dutch citizen or a former resident. They might have a Dutch passport but they could also hold a permit. What was more important to the author, however, was that all 20 of the fighters had a clear history of living in the Netherlands, whether as citizens or residents, which made them part of a certain network and community and part of the Dutch socioeconomic and political context. For some of the details on the deaths of the fighters, see "Opnieuw Nederlandse Syrieganger gedood," Trouw, October 17, 2013.

(2) According to the AIVD, "Several members of radical Islamist organisations such as Sharia4Holland and Behind Bars are among those that left to Syria to join the jihad. This is indicative of how blurred the line between radicalism and jihadism has become. These movements have created an environment in which people with similar ideas meet and develop radical ideas into jihadist ideologies. This group dynamic has led to a rapid radicalization of many individuals as well as concrete attempts to join the jihad in Syria." See "Jaarverslag 2012: technologisering bepaalt dreigingsbeeld," General Intelligence and Security Service of the Netherlands, 2012, p. 24.

(3) As the AIVD states on their website, "The number of jihadist travelers is growing every year. Dutch jihadists are becoming more and more successful in connecting themselves to key international figures in these networks. If these people return to the Netherlands they will take with them all the contacts and skills that they acquired during their period abroad. This makes it possible for them to commit attacks or to support other jihadists in planning attacks in the West. Returning jihadists enjoy a significant degree of prestige, they are militant and they are capable of influencing others. They are therefore a radicalizing force." See the AIVD statement on movements of terrorism: "Reisbewegingen jihadistisch terrorisme," General Intelligence and Security Service of the Netherlands, September 2013.

(4) The legal aspects of this issue are complex and seem to be developing rapidly as the Netherlands attempts to cope with this phenomenon on a judicial level. A new Dutch law, Article 134a, states that any acts that serve as preparation for terrorist acts are punishable by law. It is a broad article that can encompass a wide range of "terrorist" activities as well as "preparatory acts." In October 2013, for the first time Dutch "Syria fighters" were convicted in the Netherlands for planning to undertake a "jihad trip." It remains to be seen what the effect of this sentence will be in terms of preventing more Dutch citizens from attempting to undertake such travel, but the sentence will probably prove to be an important legal precedent for the criminalization of traveling abroad to join jihadist causes. See "First Conviction of Syria Travellers," NOS News, October 23, 2013.

(5) "AIVD: geen aanwijzing ronselen jihadstrijders," De Volkskrant, April 16, 2013; Janny Groen, "Ouders woedend op AIVD: wel ronselaars voor Syrie'," De Volkskrant, April 18, 2013.

(6) Although this author has identified 20 people from the Netherlands who have traveled to Syria to fight, other estimates and claims of the leader of the Dutch jihadists in Syria, known as Abu Fidaa, place the number at about 100.

(7) Various newspapers have identified several Dutch nationals fighting in Syria. They include: Saddek Sbaa (Moroccan-Dutch, died in Sahil, at age 20), Sofian M. (21-years-old from Zeist), Jordi de Jong (20-years-old from Delft), Soufianne Elfassi (20-years-old from Delft/ Rotterdam, died in Syria), Choukri Masali 'Abu Walae' (Moroccan-Dutch man who died in Syria and was possibly fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra), Mourad Masali (20-year-old Moroccan-Dutch man from Delft who died in Syria and was possibly fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra), Abu Fidaa (leader and spokesperson of the Dutch fighters) and Victor Droste (also known as Zakaria al-Holandi, a 26-year-old Dutch convert to Islam). More recently, obituaries have been posted on the new Facebook page for Dutch jihadists in Syria, available at www.facebook.com/pages/Nederlandse-Mujahideen-in-Syri%C3%AB/142765595912474. An archive of past statements from that Facebook page is located at www. ahlussunnahpublicaties.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/ archief-nederlandse-mujahideen-in-syrie. For videos showing theDutch-Bosnianman, seewww.youtube.com/ watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ceNsOnDon90 and www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6u5whMS0us.

(8) At least nine out of the 20 are of Moroccan descent. There are about 360,000 Moroccans in the Netherlands, most of whom are second-generation immigrants, making them the second largest non-Western group of immigrants in the country. Turks are the largest minority group in the Netherlands, with a population of approximately 390,000 (of the 20 Dutch people fighting in Syria, at least three are of Turkish descent). These details are drawn from "Bevolking; kerncijfers," Central Bureau for Statistics of the Netherlands, April 5, 2013. A 2010 research study examined these groups, and it found that differences between Moroccans and Turks are at times significant: Moroccans scored much higher on all indicators of religiousness than Turks. For details on that study, see Paul M. de Graaf et al., "Sociaal-culturele verschillen tussen Turken, Marokkanen en autochtonen: eerste resultaten van de Nederlandse LevensLoop Studie (NELLS)," Central Bureau for Statistics of the Netherlands, 2011.

(9) The Schilderswijk neighborhood of The Hague was recently the focus of a report in Trouw because of the actions of some of its Salafist residents. Salafists in Schilderswijk have tried to enforce Shari'a-like social laws on residents, such as dress codes for women or norms about alcohol and smoking. Dozens of residents told the Trouw newspaper that the neighborhood is known as the "Shari'a Triangle"--a reference to the part of the neighborhood called the "forgotten triangle" after it was left out of an urban renewal plan. The area is also home to the Salafist As-Soennah Mosque. For details, see Perdiep Ramesar, "Haagse buurt domein orthodoxe moslims," Trouw, May 18, 2013.

(10) These trends became clear as the author continued to document all information available about the Dutch fighters. It is also confirmed by Edwin Bakker, professor of Terrorism and Counterterrorism at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who stated that many of the young Dutch fighters in Syria are from The Hague. See "Veel Nederlandse strijders Syrie komen uit Den Haag," Omroep West, April 18, 2013.

(11) De Ware Religie (The True Religion) is a Dutch-language website that expresses radical Islamist views, publishing relevant news articles, opinion pieces and sometimes even obituaries for Dutch jihadists in Syria.

(12) These groups all operate openly in the Netherlands, although they are controversial and their activities are monitored by the AIVD. See "Sharia4Holland speelt rol bij jihad-reizen," De Volkskrant, April 24, 2013; "Nederlander vast in Marokko om ronselen voor Syrie," De Volk skrant, May 25, 2013.

(13) This estimate was from Abu Fidaa, who was interviewed in Janny Groen, "Lees hier de onverkorte versie van het interview met de Nederlandse jihadstrijders," De Volkskrant, June 15, 2013.

(14) For one case, see "Tegengehouden Syrieganger voor de rechter," De Volkskrant, July 31, 2013.

(15) These details were reported on the controversial website De Ware Religie in September 2013. For details, see "Actueel Opnieuw martelaarschap voor Nederlandse man in Syrie," dewarereligie.nl, September 19, 2013.

(16) Ibid.

(17) A PDF of the statement is available at www.app.box. com/s/6o9ppnwafisatkpkxlcj.

(18) The Facebook page "Nederlandse Mujahideen in Syrie" started in May 2013. It publishes pictures and obituaries for Dutch fighters in Syria. It has also posted several pictures of a Dutch-and Arabic-language Qur'an being held up in front of a pile of weapons (a picture that was not spread through any other source). It is unclear who runs the website, although some original postings of pictures and statements (such as obituaries) indicate that either individuals in Syria are updating the page or that the people who run the Facebook page have good contacts with fighters in Syria. The page is located at www.facebook.com/pages/Nederlandse-Mujahideen in-Syri%C3%AB/142765595912474.

(19) Janny Groen, "Nederlandse jihadist gedood in Syrie," De Volkskrant, March 20, 2013.

(20) "'Mourad was een goede jongen,'" NOS Journaal, March 20, 2013.

(21) Ibid.

(22) Ibid.

(23) "Tweede Nederlandse jihadist gedood in Syrie," Algemeen Dagblad, March 21, 2013.

(24) "Na Mourad Massali ook Sofian Elfassi: van voetbalspeler met een baardje tot jihadist," Media Werkgroep Syrie, March 21, 2013.

(25) "Demonstratie voor vrijlating Zoetermeerse Oum Usama," Omroep West, July 29, 2013.

(26) Ibid.

(27) "Oum Usama vertrokken naar Syrie," dewarereligie. nl, August 26, 2013.

(28) Groen, "Ouders woedend op AIVD: wel ronselaars voor Syrie."

(29) Ibid.

(30) "Ambtsbericht," General Intelligence and Security Service of the Netherlands, August 27, 2007.

(31) "Five Suspects in Jihad Case Cleared of Charges," De Volkskrant, October 31, 2007.

(32) Ibid. Dutch authorities did not have sufficient grounds to convict him. For details on this case, see Janny Groen and Annieke Kranenberg, "Vrijspraak vijf verdachten jihadzaak," De Volkskrant, October 31, 2007.

(33) The Hofstad Group was a network of radical Islamic youth, 14 of whom were suspected of participation in terrorist activities. The individual who killed Dutch artist Theo can Gogh was a member of this group. The group was founded in 2003 and it is listed as a terrorist organization by the Dutch National Coordinator for Counterterrorism (NCTb) and the Council of the European Union.

(34) "Recherche arresteert zes 'jihad-ronselaars,'" Elsevier, November 7, 2006.

(35) Groen, "Ouders woedend op AIVD: wel ronselaars voor Syrie."

(36) Ibid.

(37) Ibid.

(38) "Recherche arresteert zes 'jihad-ronselaars.'"

(39) "Derde Nederlandse Syrieganger gesneuveld," Omroep West, June 29, 2013.

(40) Groen, "Ouders woedend op AIVD: wel ronselaars voor Syrie."

(41) See the YouTube video of Azedine C., posted by Behind Bars, available at www.youtube.com/ watch?v=5N6gEsPvz2s&feature=c4-overview&list=UUj Jd66kwqfHotkOqKB3Rd0g.

(42) "'Iedereen is schuldig, behalve wij!'" dewarereligie.nl, May 7, 2013.

(43) Janny Groen, "Interview met Nederlandse strijders in Syrie: 'De jihad werkt therapeutisch,'" De Volkskrant, June 15, 2013.

(44) Ibid.

(45) Ibid.

(46) Ibid.

(47) Ibid.

(48) Ibid.

(49) Ibid.

(50) Ibid.

(51) Ibid.

(52) Ibid.

(53) Ibid.

(54) Ibid.

(55) Ibid.

(56) These obstacles include socioeconomic marginalization, discrimination against non-Western immigrants and the lack of a comprehensive integration plan for non-Western minorities in Dutch society. Apart from affecting the prospects of non-Western immigrants on a socioeconomic level, these obstacles contribute to the more general climate of polarization and segregation in the Netherlands, in which radical Islamism, and also the far right, experiences a surge in popularity and activism. See the annual integration report of the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics for more information on the obstacles that non-Western immigrants face, available at www. cbs.nl/nl-NL/menu/themas/dossiers/allochtonen/publicaties/publicaties/archief/2012/2012-b61-pub.htm, as well as the 2008 trend analysis by the Dutch government called "Polarisation and Radicalisation."

Samar Batrawi is an intern at the Clingendael Institute for International Relations in The Hague. She has previously worked with the Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling in Ramallah and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence in London. She is the co-author of an analysis of online jihadist reactions to the Boston bombings, which appeared in Foreign Affairs. She has recently completed an MA at King's College London. All views expressed in this article are the author's and do not represent the Clingendael Institute.
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