Summary of report 'Transformation of jihadism in the Netherlands'

Summary of the publication by the AIVD from june 2014: The transformation of jihadism in the Netherlands; swarm dynamics and new strength.

At the end of the first decade of this century, jihadism in the Netherlands appeared to be in decline. After the conviction of several so called ‘Hofstad Group' members, Dutch homegrown jihadism had become a quiet affair. In the years thereafter Dutch jihadism consisted of small, isolated networks, mostly invisible and only partly active. Some networks disintegrated. Hardly any new members joined them.

Although in theory these networks were still entertaining thoughts of jihadistic activity in the Netherlands or abroad, there was, however, little achievement in practise. Furthermore, the Dutch networks were hardly connected to international jihadist networks. There were several cases of Dutch jihadists aspiring to travel abroad for the sake of jihad, but only a few succeeded in realising these ambitions. Most attempts to reach jihadist zones of conflict failed, either by incompetence on the part of the would-be jihadi, or because of intervention by authorities in the Netherlands or abroad. In short, there was no such thing as a wave of jihadist travellers.

This situation changed completely at the beginning of 2013, when within months more than 100 individuals travelled to Syria to join the fighting under the banner of violent jihad. This sudden tide of jihadist travellers surprised many; apparently jihadism in the Netherlands was more vibrant than generally assumed. A significant number of jihadists had been successfully mobilised to actually partake in violent jihad. An even larger number of individuals turned out to not only sympathise with their cause, but giving active support as well.

At present, it is estimated that Jihadism in the Netherlands has a few hundred potential participants and several thousand sympathisers. A small number has the intention to leave the Netherlands to participate in violent jihad (more than 130 individuals have already done so). A much larger group is actively involved in both online and offline transmitting of jihadist propaganda.

At a first glance the outbreak of the civil war in Syria may seem to have been the trigger for this sudden and rapid rise of jihadism in the Netherlands. Syria is easy to reach, and ideologically attractive to prospected jihadists. The conflict in Syria has become a focal point for the Dutch jihadist movement. But, however relevant the struggle for Syria has proven to be, it is only part of the story. The AIVD distinguishes four other developments that have played a role in the transformation of the jihadist movement in the Netherlands.

Changes within the movement

The first development took place behind the scenes, and was hardly visible because of its covert nature. The existing ‘older' jihadist networks managed to become more successful in achieving their goals. After a long period of unsuccessful attempts to join international jihadists fighting in countries like Somalia and Pakistan, these Dutch networks learned from their previous mistakes, becoming more professional in their modus operandi and learning how to avoid unwanted attention from Dutch and other authorities. They also managed to gain access to facilitating networks and jihadists in various conflict zones.

The second development is the new and provocative way in which Dutch jihadists expressed their opinions. Inspired by British and Belgian examples, such as Islam4UK and Shariah4Belgium, they took their ideology to the streets, by means of provocative manifestations and demonstrations. These gatherings enabled them to organise themselves, spread their message, and mobilise others to join their ranks.

The third development lies in the extent to which the Dutch jihadist movement has embraced the use of social media and the internet to spread their message. The effective use of social media has played a crucial role in the dissemination of jihadist propaganda. It has enabled jihadists to improve the effectiveness and speed of their communication within the Netherlands and abroad and fundamentally changed the characteristics of communication and interaction within the jihadist movement. In the past, it was mainly a vertical process, with the messages intermittently emanating from one sender to multiple recipients (one to many). At present, it has become a much more horizontal movement, with multiple senders to multiple receivers (many to many) - on a 24/7 basis, a permanent flow of Twitter, Facebook, and other messages, images, and reactions.

The fourth development is partly instigated by the above-mentioned use of social media by the Dutch jihadists. The AIVD considers the jihadist movement to have transformed significantly; it now has a very different structure than that of the old networks. The new dynamics have a swarmlike nature. Swarm dynamics is a term also used in sociology and military theory. Here, it is used to reflect the new characteristics of the contemporary jihadist movement: it is a strongly decentralised network, moving fast and being very flexible. Social media and the Internet enable both real-time communication and a constant affirmation of the shared ideology. The different members of the network act autonomously, and do not follow a central, hierarchical command. Yet they share a common ideology and have common goals. Although unpredictable in its actions, the new movement has a clear understanding of where it wants to go.

There is a number of influential individuals, but they do not operate in a traditional command structure. Members of the network are strongly and horizontally influenced by their peers. They constantly interact with trusted members, friends, and family, and influence each other, both online and offline. This movement of ‘collective authority' is dynamic and in constant flux, yet manages to move forward as a whole.

The swarm characteristics of the jihadist movement enable the mobilisation of large numbers of individuals in a very short timeframe. This is an important explanation for the relatively rapid growth of the number of jihadists who have travelled to Syria. It also explains the mechanism behind further radicalisation of individuals towards extreme behaviour, after returning from jihad in Syria.

These swarm characteristics have also strengthened the jihadist movement in the Netherlands, because it has become more flexible, more agile, and less vulnerable to attacks from the outside. Interventions aimed at individual members, in order to diminish their influence, may temporarily hamper the movement, but will have no lasting effect on the structure of the network as a whole.

Other developments

Dutch jihadism is not driven by internal developments only. It has been strongly influenced by trends and developments in the Netherlands and abroad. The war in Syria has become a new focal point for Dutch jihadists. The religious and ideological context of this conflict is important for several reasons: Syria (al Sham) is deemed to be the birthplace of the new Caliphate, and jihadists believe they can actually help to build the ideal Islamic state under sharia law. Also, the old divide between Sunni and Shi'i muslims has come to the surface in this conflict. The framing of this division as a necessary and violent struggle is an important element in the currently used ideology. Next to the conflict in Syria, however, other jihadist target areas may emerge in the Middle East and North Africa region - as has already happened in Iraq - and may also attract Dutch jihadist fighters.

Within the Netherlands, the recent growth of the Salafist movement also provided a new breeding ground for the jihadist networks. To begin with, it is important to mention the difference between dawa-Salafism and jihadi-Salafism. Dawa-Salafists refute the necessity of violent jihad as promoted by the jihadi-Salafists, although to a large extent they both hold the same intolerant and anti-democratic views.

In the first few years of the last decade, established dawa-Salafist institutions in the Netherlands formed a relative buffer against jihadism. This buffer developed after those institutions chose to moderate their discourse and improve relationships with Dutch authorities. There are several examples of dawa-Salafist preachers who refused jihadists to enter the premises of their institutions. Recently, dawa-Salafists spoke out against the travel of Dutch individuals to Syria for the purpose of violent jihad. However, they have been ambivalent in their statements about fighting in Syria as such, and the legitimacy of certain fighting groups in the region. Also, dawa-Salafists have come under pressure by the rise of new, young and upcoming Salafi preachers, who work independently and outside the sphere of the established Salafi institutes. Their message is a much more radical one, and has proven to be very attractive to those youngsters susceptible to the jihadist ideology. This development has weakened the ability of the established dawa-Salafi institutes to provide a buffer against jihadism.

The decrease of visible radicalisation in the second half of the last decade has led Dutch governmental organisations to refocus their efforts on other subjects. This has resulted in a decrease in capacity and expertise on the issue of radicalisation, weakening the resilience against this problem.

Dutch jihadists have successfully exploited the boundaries of the Dutch legal framework. They have tested the limits of civil rights, such as the freedom of speech. Although there have been several successful courtroom cases against jihadist actions, the increased professionalism of Dutch jihadists has raised the level of difficulty for effective intervention by the authorities. Dutch society as a whole, including Muslim communities, has not yet found a successful response to these developments of rapid radicalisation.


What are the risks posed by the recent growth of the jihadist movement? More than 130 Dutch individuals have left their homes to partake in violent jihad in Syria and, more recently, Iraq. Most of them have joined groups related to, or inspired by, al Qaeda. For many of these fighting groups, the ultimate and common enemy is Western society as a whole. Many Dutch individuals fighting in Syria are involved in acts of extreme violence. That is why the AIVD considers those fighters to pose a serious security threat to Dutch society when they return to the Netherlands. Formed by war traumas, or driven by ideological motives, maybe tasked by al-Qaeda related or inspired groups, they may initiate or execute violent actions in or against the Netherlands. Those actions may be directed towards Dutch society as a whole, or against specific groups, such as Jews, Shi'i Muslims, or moderate Muslims who denounce the jihadist ideology.

Apart from security risks related to jihadi travellers towards and coming from Syria, the AIVD is also concerned about the influence the jihadist movement has in the Netherlands. Reasons for concern are not only the acceptance of the use of violence as a legitimate course of action, but also the intolerance towards other citizens and rejection of the democratic legal order. The jihadist movement rejects the democratic system, because its members are unwilling to accept any authority except a ‘divine' one, based on extreme visions of shariah.

Also, polarisation towards perceived ‘apostates' and ‘unbelievers', is increasingly seen in the Netherlands. A worrying example is the recent intimidation of several moderate Muslims who spoke out against violent jihad. The AIVD considers such developments to be a serious threat to Dutch national security.

This analysis of the transformation of the jihadist movement in the Netherlands is based on AIVD research, as carried out within the legal framework of the Law on Intelligence and Security Services (Wet op de Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdiensten). Within this framework, the AIVD will continue to enable Dutch authorities to develop effective policies and countermeasures against these threats. Therefore, the AIVD will follow the developments in this field with the utmost priority and will work together with its partners on the national and international level.