The Lull in Terrorism Masks a Deepening Jihadist Threat
It’s been a relatively quiet year for jihadists in the West. This, combined with the military fall of the Islamic State, has led politicians and pundits alike to declare a victory of sorts: ISIS is defeated, they announce, or they condemn concerns about potential Islamist terrorist attacks as racist “Islamophobia.”
But they are wrong.
A report issued earlier this week by the Dutch National Coordinator of Counterterrorism and Security (NCTV) confirms that Muslim extremism, and particularly Salafism, is on the rise across Europe — as are recruiting efforts to radicalize European Muslims through Salafist schools, mosques, and social groups.
What’s more, ISIS continues to be a threat, largely through the possibility of returnees — Europeans who fought with ISIS and who now are trying to come home, bringing their ideology and training with them. ISIS also continues to recruit through propaganda, most of it online. And despite their losses, the Terror Threat Report Netherlands (known as the DTN report) says that both ISIS and Al-Qaeda are prepared to attack Europe “at any moment.”
The report comes at a crucial time, as European governments struggle with the question of whether to accept returnees, or leave them in former ISIS territory after the United States withdraws most of its troops, as President Trump is planning. In fact, “those foreign fighters that are being captured right now generally belong to the hard core of the jihadi movement,” Jason Walters, of Blue Water Intelligence LINK, a Dutch counter-terrorism organization, said in an email. “There is no known case of anyone belonging to the hard core of the movement having deradicalized through deradicalization programs.”
Walters would know. A former member of the Dutch extremist group Hofstadgroep — whose leader Mohammed Bouyeri murdered writer and filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 — Walters served nine years of a 15-year prison sentence after being convicted of terrorism in 2006. During that time, he later told an interviewer, he read the works of philosophers like Heidegger and Nietzsche, and began asking the questions “what is truth? What is knowledge?” that, as he put it, destroyed his world view. He soon left not just radicalization, but Islam itself.
The same, however, could not be said of his brother Jermaine, also a Hofstadgroep member. Unlike Jason, Jermaine joined the Islamic State; he was killed in battle in Raqqa in June 2015. His brother’s death and involvement with ISIS has made the issue of returnees particularly urgent for Walters.
Hence, Walters echoes the DTN report’s stern warning of the dangers that returning jihadists, especially women, will pose to Western countries — not just in Europe, but in Canada and the United States as well. But the report itself goes further, pointing to developing international networks between returnees and Salafist ISIS fans, both within and outside of Europe.
Moreover, both groups are showing growing interest in using chemical and biological weapons, as demonstrated by efforts last year to produce ricin in Germany and poison the drinking water in Sardinia, Italy. However, such attacks for the most part are too complex to be useful, the report says, and “there are more than enough possibilities to stage a successful attack without chemical or biological weapons.”
Furthermore, Salafism — an extremist, violent version of Islam — is on the rise across the West, and forms a threat far too often overlooked. “Those who promote Salafism carry a theocratic message based on a strict and exclusive belief” in Allah, the report explains, and with it, absolute adherence to Allah’s laws, or Sharia. “The message … works to reject and reverse the institutions of democracy, both as a political system and as a form of society. Within the Salafist movement, political Salafists actively strive for an alternative social structure, which cannot be reconciled with Dutch democratic principles.”
Often, Salafist social groups become meeting places for jihadis and impressionable youth. And the numbers of such youth are growing with the establishment of more Salafist-led schools in Europe, and the increasing number of European Muslim youth attending university in Medina, with the goal of spreading the Salafist message.
All of this is part of an agenda among political Salafists throughout Europe to “organize political resistance and opposition and … found a powerful Salafist column against the immorality of society, against anti-Islam forces, and against oppression,” the report states.
For Walters, it is because of such agendas that it’s high time for the public and the media to pay attention. In that regard, he believes, reports like DTN are crucial, just as they are critical to the success of larger counter-terrorism efforts. “It’s to be hoped that [the report] also is absorbed by the public debate. We can have no public discussion that is not based on knowledge,” he wrote on Twitter.
In an email, he repeated those sentiments, if more cautiously. “Of course, it remains to be seen to what degree this will actually trickle down to the political and public debate,” he wrote. “The NCTV has written some excellent studies in the past, which by and large seem not to have led to a more informed debate in the media and certain academic circles. I truly, genuinely hope this time it will.”
Abigail R. Esman, the author of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Her next book, on domestic abuse and terrorism, will be published by Potomac Books. Follow her at @radicalstates.
A version of this article was originally published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.