Not for the first time, media in the Netherlands report on Dutch jihadists that join the fight of Islamist groups against president Bashar al-Assad in Syria [in Dutch]. But now one of these so-called foreign fighters actually appears in an interview. It concerns a professionally trained soldier named Yilmaz, who still wears his Dutch military uniform and claims to train fellow-jihadists in Syria. Yilmaz is said to be one of the approximately 120 foreign fighters in Syria that originate from the Netherlands. He claims to be in Syria to fight and die and not to return to the Netherlands.
What are Yilmaz' motivations? Why does he seek media attention? What can or should the Dutch government do? And what if people like Yilmaz return from Syria to the Netherlands? Professor Edwin Bakker comments on the interview with this foreign fighter [in Dutch, English subtitles available for the interview with Yilmaz]. Although this fighter indicates that he has no links to terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda or Jabhat al-Nusra, many Western countries are afraid that these fighters will come into contact with extremist networks in Syria. The concern is that these fighters might return radicalised and battle-hardened and decide to launch a terrorist attack in a Western country.
This is not merely a Dutch phenomenon. In a recent report of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, it has been estimated that the total number of Western Europeans fighting in Syria could be as high as 1,900: a steep rise since April 2013 when the highest estimate was "just" 600.
In the Netherlands, this development has led the NCTV (National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism) to elevate the threat level to substantial. In the years to come, we will find out whether individuals such as Yilmaz will indeed pose a threat or that most of them will limit their activities to fighting in Syria as these fighters themselves claim.