Radical Islam in the Netherlands

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 1

Islamists have been known to be active in the Netherlands for at least the past decade. Their activities have been reported in various documents by the Dutch authorities [1], especially the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD), whose first public statements date back to 1991. In its most recent reports, the AIVD warns against the growth of radical Islam in the Netherlands:

“Radical Islam encompasses a multitude of movements, organizations and groups. Although they have several ideas in common (particularly relating to religious standards and anti-western sentiments), they may also have very different opinions about the aims to be pursued and the means to be used. In addition to radical Islamic organizations and networks focusing on the jihad (in the sense of armed struggle) against mainly the West, other movements prefer to concentrate on ‘Dawa’ (preaching radical Islamic ideology), while some groups and networks combine these two elements.” [2]

Despite the generally non-violent aspects of Islamists in the Netherlands, the negative consequences are, nonetheless, becoming increasingly manifest. The two most worrisome developments are the growing social polarization of Islamic groups and the increasing preparedness to engage in a violent jihad.

The polarization is partly a result of radical Islam seeking to “re-Islamize” Muslim minorities in Western Europe. In addition, radical Islam preaches an extreme isolationism and often propagates intolerance towards others in western societies. Such groups include homosexuals, Jews, and those, both Muslims and non-Muslims, who in their eyes insult Islam. The latter group consists of politicians, opinion makers, academics and advocates of women’s liberation among Muslims. The murdered movie maker Theo van Gogh was one of the most well known persons who publicly and consistently criticized Islam.

The numerical strength of Islamists was estimated by the Secret Service to be between one and two hundred activists. [3] According to the AIVD, this group included so-called veterans from Afghanistan and Chechnya who play an important role in the development of young Muslims into potential jihadis. According to a conservative estimate by the AIVD, several dozens of young Muslims are being prepared for jihad. [4] This jihad includes both conflict areas in the Muslim world and potential targets in Europe.

The role of the “veterans” is not the only decisive factor in the development of the new recruits. Indeed internal dynamics within groups of radical young Muslims play an important role. For instance, the developing patterns of strife in arenas of conflict like Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq are subjects of intensive discussions (on the internet) among groups of young Muslims. Some members of these “discussion groups” are very young (aged 16 and 17). Indeed a few of them took their first steps towards the realization of a jihad before the age of 18. Such was the case with several young persons of Moroccan decent arrested in 2004.

The radicalization within the Moroccan community, therefore, receives a lot of attention from the intelligence community. The focus is primarily on the radicalizing role of representatives of Salafism in the Netherlands. A number of Imams who call themselves Salafis are known for their anti-integration and radical attitudes. They focus their preaching mainly on young Muslims and create a climate of intolerance within which these young people may become susceptible to radicalization and recruitment. [5] The AIVD also monitors developments within the ultra-orthodox Jamaat Al-Tabligh Wal-Dawa (Society for Propagation & Preaching) movement. This movement is essentially a non-political movement which claims to limit its activities to observing the religious and spiritual strictures of Islam. However, the outcome of its activities is social isolation and radicalization of segments of the Moroccan community. Finally, the AIVD also focuses on the radicalization process that takes place outside mosques and other places of worship, such as private addresses and internet sites.

Growing radicalization

Before the terrorist attacks in Madrid in March 2004 and even until the murder of Van Gogh in November 2004, the radicalization of young Muslims within the Netherlands was not regarded as a particularly acute and imminent threat. Dutch authorities repeatedly emphasized that the vast majority of the Muslims residing in the Netherlands are averse to extremism and violence and that there was relatively little support for radical Islam. After the murder of Van Gogh by a “Dutch Moroccan” and the subsequent arrests of mainly Dutch Islamists, this overly optimistic assessment was abandoned. Towards the end of 2004, the authorities exhibited growing awareness of the fact that radical Islamic individuals and groups appear to be increasingly successful at targeting and recruiting erstwhile “moderate” Dutch Muslims. A recent report by the AIVD “Van Dawa tot Jihad” (From Dawa to Jihad) clearly warns about the rapid radicalization among young Muslims and indicates that the group of potential Jihadis is increasing. [6] Moreover, the report claims that even the more Dawa-oriented forms of radical Islam constitute a potential threat to the Dutch democratic system.

Since the murder of Van Gogh, there have been many media reports about contacts between Dutch Islamists and individuals in Spain, Switzerland and countries in the Middle East. More specifically, possible links with the Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain has exercised the attention of the intelligence services. Clearly the Dutch authorities were aware that international Islamist terrorist networks extend into the Netherlands. For instance, it was known that these networks focused on recruiting Muslims for Jihad and on providing, amongst other things, false documents and accommodation. A popular book on radical Islam in the Netherlands even claimed that some groups finance jihad by trafficking drugs. [7] Nonetheless, it seems that the Dutch authorities were surprised by the extent of the networks and the close link with individuals connected to the Madrid bombings. At the same time, they were also taken aback by the primarily endogenous nature of Theo van Gogh’s murder.

Countering radical Islam

Countering radical Islam and radicalization of young Muslims requires a wide range of measures and activities at the local, national and international level. Such measures have been proposed (and have been partly implemented) after 9/11 and the more recent Madrid bombings. However the most specific set of measures were presented as late as December 23 by the Interior Ministry and its AIVD in the aforementioned report “From Dawa to Jihad”.

This report distinguishes different types of threats posed by radical Islam and lists a wide range of measures to counter them. At the social level, counter measures include cooperation with moderate forces within the Muslim communities and supporting and stimulating more moderate ideologies. It also proposes the development of positive role models, self-responsibility and self-criticism within these communities. The educational system is assumed to have an important role to play. First and foremost, schools can identify radicalization and inform the competent authorities. Secondly, the educational system is an important vehicle for the internalization of western democratic norms and values.

In the area of political and executive measures, the report proposes tougher immiggration policies and financial oversight of radical organizations. It also proposes direct communication with radical agents in order to impress upon them that their activities are unacceptable and non-complinace with the wishes of the authorities could lead to direct action by the law enforcement agencies. After stressing the imporantance of the freedom of the media, the report also indicates the need for more correct and objective reports on Islam. From a security perspective, the media can diminish mutual distrust and consequently undermine the radical recruiters. Finally, the report lists a number of measures related to arresting individuals (with the help of new anti-terrorism legislation), infiltration and disruption of potential terrorist operations, and cooperation between national and international governmental organizations.

Although these measures are welcome and may effectively counter radical Islam, one can not avoid feeling that many of these actions have come too late. Much of the damage has already been done. Even worse, much of the damage could have been prevented. Awareness of the existence of radical Islam in the Netherlands is not a post-9/11 or post-Madrid phenomenon. Neither was this awareness restricted to a select group of non-governmental experts. The AIVD itself has consistently reported on radical Islam for years. Whether it was wishful thinking or political correctness that dissuaded the Dutch authorities from acting more timely is anyone’s guess.


1. The Dutch intelligence community includes the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD), the Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) and the National Signals Intelligence investigation services.

2. General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD), Annual Report 2003, www.aivd.nl.

3. AIVD, Backgrounds of jihad recruits in the Netherlands, March 2004.

4. AIVD, Recruitment for the jihad in the Netherlands, December 2002.

5. AIVD, Annual Report 2003.

6. AIVD, From Dawa to Jihad, December 2004.

7. Siem Eikelenboom, Jihad in de polder. De radicale islam in Nederland (Jihad in the polder: Radical Islam in the Netherlands),Veen Publishing, 2004.