The trial of 14 young radical Muslims is attracting widespread attention in Holland and elsewhere. This article examines the network and explains how young second-generation immigrants are radicalized to pose an unprecedented security threat to the Dutch state.
Mohammed Bouyeri, who is already serving a life sentence for the murder of controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in November 2004, is among the 14 young Muslims whose trial started on 2005 December. All 14 have been charged with membership in a criminal terrorist organization, the so called Hofstadgroup (Hofstadt being another name for The Hague), of which Bouyeri was one of the leading figures.
The Hofstadgroup is mainly comprised of second-generation Dutch youth of Moroccan descent. Members of the Hofstadgroup were under surveillance by the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD since 2002. Group members are thought to have been planning attacks on Dutch politicians and institutions. Houses where the boys lived were wired, and excerpts of the taped conversations form part of the evidence against them. Moreover, the contents of their computers and their postings on radical websites and in Internet chat rooms will also be used as evidence.
This small organization has been called the Hofstadgroup because it was in The Hague where members used to meet. For some time they would gather for Qur’an meetings at a phone shop in the city. It was here that a number of them became radicalized after listening to their Qur’an teacher, the Syrian Abu Khaled, who disappeared just before Bouyeri murdered Van Gogh. Abu Khaled would show them jihadi videos and convinced them that jihad was an obligation for “pure” Muslims. Some members traveled to Pakistan, presumably to attend training camps. They called themselves the Polder Mujahideen, or Mujahideen of the lowlands.
Apart from Bouyeri, who killed Van Gogh, only two other members of the group were actually caught in a criminal act. Jason Walker is charged with throwing hand grenades at the police team that came to arrest him last year, badly wounding some policemen. Moreover, Nouredine el Fathni was arrested last June in Amsterdam with a loaded machine gun in his sports bag. Dutch intelligence had reason to believe he was on his way to assassinate a politician in Amsterdam. Both he and another of Bouyeri’s friends, Samir Azzouz, provoked a state of high alert among the Dutch security services. Consequently, special security was put in place for all members of the Dutch cabinet, the parliament, the buildings of ministries, and Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
Their success in discovering and dismantling this network notwithstanding, the Dutch authorities have made clear there are likely many more similar networks in operation. Home minister Johan Remkes has claimed that there are ten to twenty networks of radical Muslims in the Netherlands that have the propensity to resort to terrorism . Hundreds of people are believed to be involved and the networks are described as “fluid,” as members enter and leave the organization. Some of the groups are exclusively local, while some have strong and wide-ranging international contacts.
In order to deter members of these networks from engaging in violence, the Dutch police have been using what they call “interference,” which is basically overt surveillance. Jason Walker’s younger brother Jermaine has told the press he has been followed by the police ever since he was set free after the arrest of Jason and other members of the group in November.
Jermaine Walker is a good example of the problems associated with very young Muslim radicals who are under the strong influence of older people. He is 18 years old, the son of a Dutch woman and an alcoholic American man who converted to Islam. Subsequently both his sons became Muslims as well. After his release, Jermaine became more radical, telling Dutch journalists he understood Mohammed Bouyeri’s murderous assault on Van Gogh: “it was good…who dares to talk dirty about Islam now? No one!” .
Samir Azzouz was set free in April after being acquitted by the court (the appeals court later followed the ruling) of planning attacks on Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, the parliament and the AIVD building. In his house, police found maps and fertilizers and chemicals that could be used for bomb-making. Yet the court decided that evidence of planning alone was not enough to convict him.
While Azzouz was free he established a new network which included drug addicts, and tried to turn them into takfiris . Samir Azzouz is the only known member of the group who has made a video testament, in which he declares his admiration for Bouyeri, and advises other Muslims that armed jihad is their duty. When he was arrested again in October, the AIVD discovered that Azzouz was looking for weapons and explosives.
Nouredine el Fathni was also building a new network, while he was on the run from the police after most of the group’s members were arrested in November 2004. It appears that Fathni had been giving Qur’an lessons at the house of a Dutch friend in The Hague. Three girls and a boy were present at three sessions or more . One of them was a young Muslim girl with whom he had got married under Islamic law; another was a former girlfriend of Mohammed Bouyeri. As his knowledge of the Qur’an was negligible, Fathni used his laptop to read aloud Qur’anic verses and other details about what he called “pure Islam.” The girls were also shown videos of decapitations.
These sessions became known to the police after the girls decided to report them. They were confused, because Fathni’s sermons were radically different from the ones they had heard at the as-Sunna Mosque in The Hague, which is known as one of the most radical mosques in the Netherlands. Most members of the Hofstadgroep frequented this mosque, until they become even more radical than the Salafist Sheikh Jneid Fawaz who preached at as-Sunna. The girls initially reported their concerns to Fawaz, who called the takfiri group a bunch of madmen and advised the girls that they were on the wrong path . Moreover, he urged them to report the matter to the police. The girls took this as a fatwa, religious guidance that they could not ignore. They consulted another Salafist imam in Tilburg, who gave them the same advice.
At the opening of the trial this week, one of the women refused to repeat her allegations in court, allegedly after receiving threats. The women’s testimony shows the spread of radical thinking between friends, as described by the American forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman . Sageman’s study of Islamic terrorists showed that many of them had no religious background, and became radicalized among a group of people in the same position: in a foreign country, lonely, homesick and feeling in some way humiliated. The Hofstadgroup is interesting because it clearly shows the dynamics of the group as Sageman describes it, and also the attraction of it for other young people. For even after most of the members had been detained, the group remained attractive to other young Muslims. While in prison, Bouyeri and Samir Azzouz found new followers, prompting the authorities to incarcerate the two young men in solitary confinement.
Politicians in the Netherlands have called for stronger laws to prevent people like Samir Azzouz from being acquitted. Dutch law makes it difficult to try people for their intentions. This problem might arise in the trial of the Hofstadgroep, which is expected to last for at least two months. The Dutch parliament is still waiting for the bill Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner promised last summer, which would make glorification of violence a crime, thus enabling judicial action against potential jihadis.
Political opinions are split between left and right over such a bill, with opposition parliamentary member Femke Halsema strongly against. This law would really be all about Muslims, she said. “The law seems mainly aimed at changing the minds of a rebellious group of young people…it will work the wrong way for this specific group as young people will be affirmed in their conviction that they are persecuted because of their opinions,” she said .
Even Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner lately made clear he is not sure that strengthening the law would be the right step. “Prevention is important in the case of terror, but the law is made to punish actions…If a judge can also punish someone for what he is saying or thinking, then you also undermine the freedom of expression,” he said . Freedom of expression remains a contentious issue in the Netherlands, over a year after the murder of Theo van Gogh.
Van Gogh’s distasteful verbal attacks on Islam and Muslims and his placement of Qur’anic texts on a naked woman’s body in the film Submission led to his murder. Many Dutch people feel that the assault on Van Gogh also murdered freedom of expression in the Netherlands. Yet, some people are also voicing criticism of Van Gogh’s extreme insults against the Islam and Muslims. Moreover, people feel that the anti-Islamic sentiments that have grown since Van Gogh’s murder are undermining multicultural Dutch society. The trial of the Hofstadgroep is not only seen as the trying of the Polder Mujahedin, but a trial for Dutch society as a whole at a time when it is nearly universally agreed that the terrorist threat is indeed real.
1. Ikon TV, interview with Home minister Johan Remkes, July 17, 2005.
2. NRC Handelsblad: Jermaine Walker gets star treatment, October 15, 2005.
3. “Samir Azzouz recruits criminals,” Trouw, November 5, 2005.
4. “How Nourddine El Fathni wanted to form a new group,” NRC Handelsblad, August 6, 2005.
5. “Maneuvering between the law and Allah,” NRC Handelsblad, September 19, 2005.
6. Marc Sageman: Understanding Terror Networks, 2004
7. “Donner’s law goes too far,” Trouw, September 20, 2005
8. Buitenhof TV, interview with Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner, November 20, 2005