On September 7, 2015, we reported on the start of one of the largest terrorism trials in Dutch history. No less than ten people were charged for a variety of terrorism-related crimes. The main charges were membership of a criminal organisation with terrorist intent, recruitment for violent jihad, and incitement to violence and hatred. On December 10, 2015, in a crowded room of the high-security court in Amsterdam with many journalists, researchers, family and acquaintances of the suspects present, the judge needed 3,5 hours to read the verdict.
Main suspect Azzedine C. received 6 years in prison for membership of a criminal organisation with terrorist intent and incitement to hatred and violence. Two others, Oussama C. and Rudolph H., were both sentenced to 3 years in prison for membership of a criminal organisation with terrorist intent, incitement to violence and hatred, and in the case of Oussama C., recruitment for violent jihad. Two persons allegedly still fighting in Syria were sentenced to six years in prison, and one returned foreign fighter received five years. Jordi de J., who had been in Syria for a few weeks was only sentenced to 155 days in prison. Reasons for this were his very speedy return, the plausibility of his claim that he did not want to join the fight, his (plausible but unverified) cooperation with the general intelligence and security services upon his return, and psychological reports that showed he was easily manipulated, and thus, could only be partially held accountable for his actions.
In two cases related to four* persons of the group that had gone to train and/or fight in Syria, the sentences handed down by the judges were higher than demanded by the public prosecution. The presiding judge defended the verdict by stressing the need for a strong deterrent signal to prospective foreign fighters. He also stressed the responsibility of The Netherlands to combat terrorism, referring to the situation in Syria and Iraq, as he also stated that there were no signs the suspects were preparing a terrorist attack in The Netherlands itself.
In general, the court went at length to explain the verdict in detail. Moreover it explained the position of this trial in the wider context: stressing it was not Islam that stood trial, nor the thoughts, faith or ideology of the suspects. The judge even went as far as to say that openly sympathising with terrorist organisations like Islamic State is not a crime. However, incitement to hatred and violence, and recruiting for terrorist organisations is a crime. Hence, it were only the actions of the suspects that were punishable.
Perhaps the most important part of the verdict was that the judges regarded some of the suspects to have formed a ‘criminal organisation with terrorist intent’, or in other words, a terrorist organisation. The presiding judge explained that there was a clear distinction between the ‘inner circle’ – Azzedine C. Oussama C., Rudolph H. and Anis Z. – and the ‘outer circle’ – the other suspects who sometimes visited meetings, but were not regarded full-fledged members.
The evidence in this court case heavily relied on claims by several witnesses and experts. For instance, the evidence given by Ahmed S. was central to convicting Oussama C. for recruitment for jihad. Ahmed S. stated he was recruited by Oussama C., although he later tried to withdraw his testimonial. Another example was the statement by a Belgian returned foreign fighter, Jejoen B., who claimed he had seen Jordi de J. in a jihadist training camp. Also, claims by the expert witnesses (De Koning, Peeters and Van Koningsveld) were decisive when determining the nature of the organisation and the ideology of the suspects.
After several court cases in which persons suspected of jihadist activities walked out of court without any or a significant punishment, the verdict in this case has brought The Netherlands the long awaited and much needed jurisprudence. Thanks to the detailed verdict and the elaborate explanation by the judges of its various aspects, public prosecutors and other law enforcement agencies now have a benchmark they can use when trying to stop recruitment for the violent jihad or those who plan to join the fight in Syria, Iraq or elsewhere.
*NOTE: Originally there were five persons of the group who travelled to Syria. The charges against Soufiane Z. were, however, dropped as it is believed he has died and can thus, according to the court, no longer be prosecuted.