The Gloves Come Off: The Dutch Response to Jihadists in Syria and Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 19

Omar Yilmaz, one of The Netherland's most notorious jihadists who traveled to Syria and Iraq (Source: Instagram).

In December 2014, a video testament emerged in which 19-year-old Sultan Berzel, from the Netherlands’ southern city of Maastricht, called on Muslims to make hijra (a religious migration) to the self-proclaimed Islamic State group. He delivered his message in a quiet voice and with a local Maastricht accent. The video, however, ended with the message that Berzel, a.k.a. “Abu Abdullah al-Hollandi,” had carried out a suicide bombing at a police office near the Iraqi capital Baghdad, killing over 20 officers.

Earlier that year, the Netherlands’ public got a first glimpse of the Dutch jihadists in Syria through an interview with Omar Yilmaz, a Dutch citizen of Turkish descent, on the current affairs TV show Nieuwsuur. [1] Yilmaz stood out as a highly charismatic character who argued that his sole reason for traveling to Syria was to help the suffering Syrian people. He also made the case that Western inaction essentially forced him to act, a rationale given by many of the European fighters who traveled to Syria in 2012 and 2013. By emphasizing how much he missed a specific Dutch snack, he became even more likable to a wider public. A year or so later, however, evidence emerged that Yilmaz had joined the Islamic State (De Telegraaf, September 4).

The cases of Berzel and Yilmaz perhaps elucidate the variety of Dutch jihadists. Yilmaz was a former Dutch soldier and traveled to Syria in the early days of the civil war. By contrast, Berzel arrived after the Islamic State had declared a caliphate and committed his martyrdom operation within months of arrival. Some estimates of the numbers of people who are thought to have traveled to Syria and Iraq:

· 200 Dutch jihadists have traveled to Syria or Iraq, of which 32 are confirmed dead;

· Most joined the Islamic State; relatively few joined Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in the region, and other groups;

· Over 35 women have made the journey, with most based in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital;

· At least 3 individuals are known to have committed suicide attacks in Syria or Iraq;

· Around 35 have returned to the Netherlands. [2]

The cases of Yilmaz and Berzel illustrate that Dutch jihadists are not afraid to reach out to Muslims back home, and even to the wider public. This contrasts with countries like Belgium, where jihadists have been fairly quiet. [3] While this difference could simply reflect different national characters—Belgians are known to complain that Dutch are loud and arrogant—this development calls for a response by the Dutch authorities.

The ‘Dutch Approach’

During the 1970s, some acts of politically motivated violence in the Netherlands—culminating in the infamous hostage taking of a whole train in 1977 by Moluccan youngsters—stood at the base of a policy framework that came to be known as the “Dutch approach”: talking them down and out. [4] Through endless conversations the government tried to keep all (violent) parties aboard its democratic system, stressing that communication is more significant than any other form of response, such as a violent intervention. Much has changed since the seventies, but current Dutch counter-terrorism policy still values dialogue and communication as vital elements of a coherent strategy for defending a pluralist society.

But where Moluccan youths did not exclude themselves from the democratic system, today’s jihadists fundamentally reject the Western state and its democratic legal order. And as jihadists focus on the power of the individual to act and/or decide whether violence is permissible and legitimate, unbound by any other community (or religious) authority, it is a valid question to what extent the Dutch approach can still work when its adversary does not want to join the conversation, does not recognize the state and its institutions and values actions over words. [5] For example, during a rally in The Hague in June 2014, for “Abou Yazied,” who had been detained on suspicion of planning to travel to Syria for terrorist purposes, the main speaker—Abou Moussa—made very clear that “Democracy = hypocrisy,” and that “Western civilization is like a Fata Morgana [mirage]. From a distance it looks promising, but from a closer look, it turns out to be nothing.” [6]

The Gloves Come Off: An Integrated Approach to Jihadism

During the summer of 2014, the Dutch government’s efforts to counter the threat from jihadists in a robust and proactive way were set out in a new comprehensive program of action called “An Integrated Approach to Jihadism.” [7] This has three objectives: (1) protecting the Dutch democratic system and the rule of law, (2) combating and weakening the Dutch jihadist movement and (3) removing any breeding grounds for radicalization. It focuses both on individuals and on the Dutch jihadist movement as a whole by targeting hard-core jihadists with penal and administrative measures, and aims to prevent the growth of the movement by countering radicalization. The 38 measures listed in the program can be divided into five main categories: addressing the issue of jihadist travelers, travel interventions, tackling radicalization, social media and information-sharing and (international) cooperation. This approach may be familiar, but the integrated execution—prompted by pressure from top government officials—is new.

Three individual proposed measures particularly stand out: the proposals to take away Dutch citizenship without the need for a criminal conviction, to combat online dissemination of violent jihadist content and to record the travels of all Dutch citizens. However, after being heavily disputed on privacy grounds, the plan to keep travel records was shelved, but the proposal to refuse or declare Dutch passports and ID cards of potential Dutch jihadists invalid, to prevent them from traveling abroad, was recently agreed upon by the Dutch Council of Ministers. [8] [9]

Coming Home to Roost?

Considering these measures, the Dutch government has clearly chosen to take the offensive in combating the jihadist threat. Regarding its action program, it even speaks of “defending our legal order, through which our free society will prevail.” [10] As has been said in the context of the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, Western governments have the clock, while jihadists have the time. Similarly, past evaluations of Dutch counter-terrorism policies have shown that—through electoral or budgetary reasons, or a false sense of “mission accomplished”—the threat tends to resurface again when it is ignored and deprioritized by the state. Symbolic of this was the decision by the Dutch Council of Ministers in 2012, to cut the budget of the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (Algemene Inlichtingen-en Veiligheidsdienst—AIVD) by one-third, at a time when the first signs that Dutch jihadists were gearing up for the armed struggle in Syria were already visible. The decision left deep scars in the AIVD, which will be felt for years, and threatens its desired intelligence position and its operational capacity to deal with the jihadist threat. [11]

Another challenge is the widespread sentiment that the government should not intervene if Dutch jihadists want to travel to (not from!) war zones. This opinion was voiced most notably by the Dutch-Moroccan mayor of Rotterdam, Achmed Aboutaleb: “If you do [not] like our freedom… sod off” (NOS, January 7). One less jihadist in the Netherlands is one less threat to homeland security appears to be his reasoning. However, recent attacks in Australia and Canada have showed that if stopped at their borders, would-be jihadists are liable to turn against their own country and conduct domestic attacks (Time, September 24, 2014; CBC News, October 21, 2014). On the other hand, giving jihadists a free pass to commit war crimes in Syria and Iraq is a policy option clouded with moral ambiguity.

More problems arise with the reach of certain measures: although Dutch passports and ID cards can now be annulled, this does not seem to affect jihadists who have already traveled to Syria much. Some jihadists have burned their own European passports to emphasize that they do not recognize the nation-state system, and argue that there will be no borders when the caliphate is established across the globe, meaning that revoking their nationality will have little ideological impact on jihadists. Jihadists do not have to fear the Dutch government efforts to freeze financial assets either: investigations take months, and when Dutch jihadists return to the Netherlands, they can still legally sign on for Student Welfare. [12] Underlining the measures’ relatively limited impact on committed jihadists, as Dutch Islamic State fighter Yilmaz said on his Tumblr page; “I have a home to go to and a wife to go to, so I consider myself a rich man yes 🙂 Alhamdulillah.” [13]

Looking Ahead

Several Dutch jihadists have committed suicide attacks in Syria and Iraq instead of in the West. This signifies that jihadists from the Netherlands are already involved in an increasingly intertwined civil war in Syria and Iraq, and underlines that their operations currently primarily target the Islamic State’s local and regional foes, not the country they grew up in. However, due to the complexity and unpredictability of the jihadist threat and its links with networks in Europe, this could change in time. Having come to this conclusion, the Dutch government has decided to take off their gloves and go on the offensive. The question remains, however, if such national solutions are sufficient to counter a global problem.

Anno Bunnik is a Ph.D. Fellow at Liverpool Hope University, the Centre for Applied Research in Security Innovation. Thomas de Zoete is a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam’s Ad de Jonge Centre for Intelligence & Security Studies.


1. Nieuwsuur, Uitzending, January 21, 2014,

2. NCTV, “Samenvatting Dreigingsbeeld Terrorisme Nederland 39,” June 2015,

3. Pieter Van Ostaeyen, “Dutch Foreign Fighters – Some Testimonials from the Syrian Front,” Jihadology, October 13, 2013,

4. De Graaf, B. (2010), Theater van de angst, Amsterdam: Boom; Bootsma, P. & Dortmans, H. (2000), De Molukse Acties, Treinkapingen en gijzelingen 1970-1978, Amsterdam: Boom.

5. “Global Jihadism: Analysis of the Phenomenon and Reflections on Radicalisation,” NCTV, 2014,

6. “Vrijdaggebed: Hun democratie, niet de onze,”, June 27, 2014,

7. “Actieprogramma Integrale Aanpak Jihadisme,” NCTV, August 29, 2014,

8. Maartje van der Woude, “Radical Times, Concerning Measures?,” Leiden Law Blog, September 3, 2014,

9. “Wijziging Paspoortwet maakt vervallen paspoort en identiteitskaart jihadgangers mogelijk,” Rijksoverheid, September 4, 2015,

10. “Actieprogramma Integrale Aanpak Jihadisme,” Tweede Kamer 2013-2014, 29 754, nr. 253,; “Bezuinigingen en intensiveringen bij de AIVD – gevolgen van de budgettaire turbulentie in de periode 2012-2015,” Algemene Rekenkamer, 2015,

11. Ibid.

12. “Asscher wil uitkering jihadisten sneller stopzetten,” NRC, July 15, 2015,

13. Yilmaz answer one of his anonymous followers on Tumblr, see: