On September 5, in an earlier post about the issue of families from the Dutch town of Huizen arrested on the suspicion of migrating to IS-controlled areas, it was written that three of the four arrested adults had been released. A week later, the fourth individual was also released.
The events of past weeks put this case in a somewhat different light. Firstly, a family from Amersfoort including three young children (allegedly) departed to the area. This was soon followed by families from The Hague and Hilversum, showing the reality of this parents leaving with young children to settle in Islamic State (IS) controlled territory in Syria and Iraq.
The past weeks showed diverse aspects of the current developments.
- The activities of the intelligence service (AIVD) and the mayor should not be directly linked to the decision of the judge to release the detained individuals. Neither should the legitimacy of these actions be linked to the outcome of the court case. The aim of these actors was not to prepare a court case leading to convictions but to disrupt and prevent these families from (allegedly) going to IS-controlled area. This is in line with the new national Action Programme that puts more focus on the disruption of jihadist-inspired scenes.
- The decision to arrest these individuals needs to be evaluated on its own terms. The magistrate of a juvenile court claimed that he had found no signs that one of the two families was planning to leave the country. Such decisions and practices should be evaluated by assigned authorities although public transparency might be difficult to attain.
- While it is illegal to join a terrorist organisation – and the Islamic State is listed as such – it is not illegal (by definition) to migrate to an area controlled by such a group. Nevertheless, as stated by National Coordinator for Security and Counterterorism Dick Schoof, you do not travel to Syria to “cultivate vegetables”. However, to proof that in court is not that simple. It also raises the question to what extent the Dutch government should stop its citizens from making decisions it might not agree with.
While these actions show the determination of authorities to curb the phenomenon of people travelling to Iraq or Syria, it also potentially outrages certain parts of local communities. Exemplary was the online statement of a local Muslim group present during the City Council meeting which read that from now on, individuals are guilty unless innocence is proven.
This signals a tough question if not dilemma for the authorities. On the one hand, there is a strong desire to show that something is being done, to draw a line and disrupt jihadist-inspired propaganda and travelling to Syria and Iraq. On the other hand, strict measures could also have a polarizing effect on communities. If not well-explained, it could also be interpreted or even be abused by others to spread the idea that certain ethnic or religious communities are indiscriminately targeted.
According to Shiraz Maher and Peter Neumann of the renowned International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, tougher measures towards prospective and returning foreign fighters should be implemented with great caution and can only be part of a larger strategy. They write that “ [London Mayor] Boris Johnson proposed that all the British fighters in Syria should be presumed guilty unless proven innocent. Based on our extensive research and contacts with Western foreign fighters that are currently in Syria and Iraq, this is a dangerous and counterproductive proposal that would increase — rather than diminish — the terrorist threat to [Britain]”. Further on, they continue that “(a)rrests and prosecutions will be needed, but they are just one part of the government’s armoury. It must also offer a way out. This is not about being soft: it’s about being smart.”
These latest developments signal only a change in the debate about foreign fighters. While first, it was only a handful of individuals, the numbers soon increased with also many women departing for the Levant, and now entire families. This asks for more research into who these people are, why they decide to join (a question addressed in this article of CTC-researchers) and to what extent they would (not) pose a risk to society upon returning (see this related article of CTC-researchers). Only when these dynamics are being properly understood, policies can be designed to counter it most effectively and proportionally.