Over the past couple of month the news has been dominated by coverage of the rise of Islamic State (IS). Whereas for a while the news on IS seemed to be “far away”, affecting mostly countries in the Middle East, this no longer is the case. The horrific public decapitation of US news reporter James Foley made it clear that IS was not just verbally targeting Western democracies such as the United States. The recent arrests of three Dutch citizens for allegedly recruiting for jihad and inciting hatred brought the threat of this radical and extremely violent group even closer to home because the arrestees were part of a group that held a pro-IS demonstration earlier this year. This demonstration caused uproar when anti-Semitic slogans were chanted and Mayor Jozias van Aartsen was criticized in Dutch media for not having banned the demonstration. The three people who have been arrested so far, two men and one woman, are said to be key players in a Dutch jihadist network that is actively recruiting young Muslims in the Netherlands to fight in Syria and Iraq. All three arrestees are suspected of abetting with the intent to commit a terrorist crime. On top of this, the two men are also suspected of planning a murder as well as manslaughter with terrorist intent. Dutch authorities estimate that 130 Dutch citizens have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. Around 30 have returned whilst 14 have been killed in the fighting, according to the Dutch intelligence service AIVD.
Action plan against Jihadism
Following the arrests, and in response to the toxic situation in The Hague and the growing fears that Western fighters who join the Islamic State (IS) and other extremist groups in the Middle East will return home to carry out attacks, the Dutch government has announced new legal measures. On behalf of the government, Minister for Security and Justice Ivo Opstelten and Social Affairs Minister Lodewijk Asscher wrote an open letter to the House of Representatives stating that Jihad is a substantial threat to national security and therefore the need exists for a plan that removes all breeding grounds for radicalization. In their joint letter, the Ministers present the cabinet’s action plan entitled “Integral Approach against Jihadism”. Of this plan, two of the several proposed measures stand out: the proposal to take away Dutch citizenship without the necessity of a criminal conviction and the proposal to keep records of the complete population’s travel movement.
Withdrawing Dutch Nationality
The cabinet's plans include cancelling the passports of people suspected of planning to go to Syria and Iraq, stopping their student grants and social security benefits and, ultimately, withdrawing their Dutch nationality. Minister Opstelten has called for measures which will allow the removal of Dutch citizenship from any person found to have joined a terrorist group, participated in a terrorist training camp, or is seeking to return from fighting for a terrorist organisation. Dutch law already states that anyone committing these acts against the Netherlands or an ally can lose their citizenship, but the new law would go beyond that provision by also enabling this in cases when the individual has not been convicted of one of these crimes. If someone voluntarily joins a terrorist group with the intent of fighting for this organisation, according to the current plans it should be possible to take those individual’s citizenship rights away without judicial intervention, based only the information of the intelligence agencies. The plan is vague about the nature and source of this information, leaving the possibility open that such a decision could be made based on an anonymous tip only.
Keeping track of travel data
Although most of the plans were well received by the Member of Parliament, the cabinet’s plans to keep records of the entire population’s travel movement in order to stop radical Muslims going abroad to fight were met with some critique. The plan to structurally collect, analyse and store the entire population’s travel data is not new. Minister of Security and Justice Opstelten already proposed this measure last year. After being heavily disputed on counts of its privacy-sensitiveness, the plans were shelved, awaiting a new window of opportunity in order to be revitalised. The current events around IS and home-grown jihadist seems to have presented Opstelten with such a window: the measures form a central part of the newly presented proposal to counteract radicalisation and jihadism. According to the Minister, people have nothing to worry about. Although the entire population’s travel data is being collected, the intelligence and law enforcement agencies will only look closer into information concerning “dangerous people” who are suspected of terrorism, war crimes or other serious crimes. Those who have nothing to hide, have nothing to fear….Again, the plan is completely unclear as to how such an enormous amount of data will be monitored and analysed, therefore completely leaving the Minister’s “reassuring and soothing” words unfounded.
Although the developments surrounding IS and the jihadist sympathisers in the Netherlands are undeniably concerning, I am of the opinion that the government needs to ensure it keeps a clear head and remains prudent and rational in choosing its response. I am not saying that this entails not responding at all, on the contrary. I feel it is important to keep a close eye on those people who are known to be key players in the jihadist movement within the Netherlands and to hold them accountable for recruiting others and for spreading hateful messages. However, as the recent arrests have proven, the current legislation already seems to be well fit to meet this goal. Therefore it is important to establish the extra necessity of the newly proposed measures, a question that often remains unanswered. Besides this necessity, it remains to be seen whether the new proposals are legitimate in the sense that they are in line with international human rights standards. Another aspect that is not always taken into consideration is the question of effectiveness, or the proposed working mechanism behind the law and – in line with this – the question of broader societal side-effects? Lawyers have already warned that the cabinet's plans could be counter-productive and increase resentment among young Dutch Muslims. In addition, there is a serious risk that people will be wrongly accused of radicalisation.
It is interesting to see what is going to happen with the new plans. The limited evaluations of the Dutch counterterrorism measures that are already in place have clearly shown the importance of being rational rather than emotional when it comes to responding to terrorism. The above mentioned aspects – necessity, legitimacy, effectiveness and broader societal effects – are often overlooked in the urge to quickly reassure the public that this matter is being taken seriously. We do not need more symbolic laws and policies.