The home-grown jihadist movement in the Netherlands is experiencing sudden and explosive growth, according to a new report published by the Dutch intelligence service, AIVD.
The Dutch jihadist movement is not only growing in size and strength, it is also becoming increasingly open and provocative, both online and on the streets, according to the report, which warns that the increasing momentum of Dutch jihadism poses an unprecedented threat to the democratic legal order of the Netherlands.
The 58-page report, entitled "The Transformation of Jihadism in the Netherlands: Swarm Dynamics and New Strength," provides an in-depth analysis of the various factors underlying the "new dynamism" of the jihadist phenomenon.
According to the AIVD, the Dutch jihadist movement began a process of far-reaching change in late 2010, when several jihadists were prevented from leaving the Netherlands to join fellow jihadists in Pakistan and Somalia.
Their subsequent interactions with Dutch police and judicial authorities prompted the jihadists and other members of their networks to improve their modus operandi, which eventually led to a wholesale internal professionalization of the movement.
At the same time, Dutch jihadists began adopting propaganda methods developed by fellow jihadists in Britain. Inspired by Islam4UK, a now-banned jihadist group founded by the British Islamist firebrand Anjem Choudary, Dutch jihadists launched their own activist movements, namely Sharia4Holland and Behind Bars/Street Dawah (Straat Dawah).
"By making use of activist techniques like demonstrations and leafleting to disseminate provocative jihadist propaganda openly, these groups were able to mobilize some fellow Muslims and attract new recruits," according to the AIVD. "Many young people, in particular, found a way of venting their jihadist ideals through such activities."
Social media has added another entirely new dynamic into Dutch jihadism. Beyond allowing far more intensive flows of information and communications between jihadists, both domestically and internationally, social media has also changed the nature of those flows.
Before the emergence of social media, information flowed vertically (hierarchical) from one to many. By contrast, information on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter flows horizontally (peer-to-peer) from many to many, thus greatly expanding opportunities for interactivity. According to the AIVD:
"Jihadists are constantly influencing one another through social media. Young people undergoing radicalization trawl Facebook in search of like-minded individuals and post jihadist material on their own profiles, thus influencing their own circle of friends. On Twitter, jihadists debate quite openly with each other and with their critics, who often face abuse or worse. They also post photographs of Dutch fighters in Syria on Facebook, which are then shared by members of jihadist communities. Lectures are announced as Facebook events, too, so that potential attendees can see whether people they know will be there as well. The Dutch jihadist world has become simultaneously large, small and fast-moving."
Social media has also enhanced jihadist recruitment efforts:
"For adherents unable or unwilling to join the armed struggle in Syria or elsewhere, such activity provides another form of involvement that allows them to identify themselves as jihadists. It is their way of being part of 'Syria,' or the 'holy war' in general, without actually having to fight. After all, the movement also considers 'dawah'—preaching the 'call to Islam'—a form of jihad. This parity strengthens the links between those who stay at home to practice dawah and those who leave to fight.
"There is no doubt that the chance of coming into contact with jihadism—particularly on social media—has increased substantially in recent years. Consequently, it has become possible for a person to go far more quickly from being a passive recipient of its propaganda messages to a sympathizer and then a supporter. There is also a real danger that such new 'online jihadists' might continue radicalizing to the point where they actually commit acts of violence or leave for a conflict zone. In fact, this is exactly how many of the Dutch fighters now in Syria came to be there. They evolved very quickly from followers at home to front-line jihadists. The AIVD has established that a large proportion of them have been trained in Syria in the use of weapons and have taken part in actual combat. Some are also known to have been involved in atrocities, such as beheading prisoners."
The Dutch-Turkish jihadist known as Yilmaz, pictured in Syria, has proven adept at the use of social media for jihadist "public relations".
According to the AIVD, social media has changed the structure and cohesion of the jihadist movement in the Netherlands to such an extent that it has taken on the characteristics of a "swarm" (in the group behavior sense of the word). This means that it is highly decentralized, with numerous individual elements that are largely autonomous. Collectively, however, they maintain their cohesion and direction almost as if a single entity.
"The jihadist swarm may be very dynamic and changeable, but it still knows how to move like one tightly ordered body, despite sometimes seeming capricious and unpredictable," the report says, adding:
"The upshot of all this is that government attempts to tackle particular jihadist individuals or structures will probably have considerably less effect now upon the movement as a whole than they previously would have done. Particularly when they are one-off actions. The movement can only genuinely be disrupted, in a way that prevents the emergence of new guiding figures and structures, if such efforts are maintained over an extended period."
In addition to the internal and structural developments that have transformed Dutch jihadism, several contextual factors, both domestic and international, have also contributed to its growth.
Domestically, Dutch Salafism has undergone an important ideological shift.
Salafism is a movement that calls on Muslims to return to the form of Islam that was practiced at its inception. Its adherents reject many of the ideas and customs that have become part of Islamic tradition in subsequent centuries.
Present-day Salafism has three main strands: apolitical, political and jihadi. All three pursue the same ultimate objective: the establishment of a society based solely upon the tenets of "pure" Islam.
Unlike their jihadi counterpart, however, the apolitical and political strands argue that the principal means of reaching this goal should be "dawah," or the "call to Islam" in the form of preaching and proselytization. By contrast, jihadi Salafism prioritizes the "necessity" of violent jihad.
In recent years, a new group of dawah Salafist preachers has emerged in the Netherlands who are more radical than their predecessors, and who have effectively blurred the lines between dawah Salafism and jihadism. The AIVD explains:
"Theirs is a radical message, which not only promulgates intolerance but also smooths over the ideological differences between dawah Salafism and jihadism in respect of the legitimacy of the 'holy war.' These preachers do not consider themselves part of a movement separate from that of the jihadis (a distinction the established dawah Salafists draw far more clearly). And it is they who exert the greatest influence over young people with jihadist tendencies or sympathies.
"Due in part to the emergence of preachers operating outside the established non-violent tradition, dawah Salafism has now become something of a breeding ground for jihadism in the Netherlands."
Internationally, the conflict in Syria, which began in March 2011, has acted as a catalyst, amplifying the effects of all of the other developments to produce an explosive growth of jihadism in the Netherlands.
According to the AIVD, the large numbers of Dutch jihadists travelling to Syria show that "this particular conflict has significantly reduced the barriers to active participation in jihad." It adds that the propaganda generated by the conflict is fuelling the growth of an "assertive Dutch jihadism" in which jihadist groups are "deliberately pushing at the boundaries of what is permissible under Dutch law."
The AIVD concludes with a warning:
"Already, reports of jihadists' supposed progress in Syria in establishing an Islamic caliphate under Sharia law are having a visible effect in the Netherlands, in that they are further radicalizing backers of that ultimate goal. Emanating primarily from groups like [the Islamic State], such stories convince supporters and sympathizers that the caliphate is not some utopian dream but an achievable reality for Syria and other Muslim nations—and even for the Netherlands."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.