Although many European countries have dreaded a terrorist attack for months, it was not less shocking when this dread finally materialized in the form of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent hostage-takings last week in Paris. It goes without saying that the terrorist acts committed can by no means be justified. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the national debate on counterterrorism stirred up by the Paris terror attacks.
In a previous blog, I wrote about the new package of counterterrorism measures that has been in the making since the increase of the violence as expressed by Islamic State and domestic tensions in the city of The Hague mid-2014. Whereas most of the bills resulting from the so-called “Action plan Against Jihadism” are still in their earliest stages, when third parties or Members of Parliament can critically reflect upon a bill and advise the Minister for Security and Justice to rethink parts of it, the recent events in Paris have proved to be a big game-changer. Last Sunday, the Dutch Minister of Security and Justice already proclaimed the necessity to speed up the legislative procedure “under the current circumstances”. His statement was echoed by most of the Members of Parliament as well as the Prime Minister in yesterday’s debates on the Paris attacks.
Having closely studied the political discourse on terrorism and counterterrorism in response to the post-9/11 and the post-Madrid attacks in the 10-year timeframe between 2001 and 2011, this statement sounded very familiar. Back then, no matter how heavily criticized and controversial some of the legislative proposals were, while referring to the “urgency brought about by the current circumstances” many proposals were hastily rushed through the legislative procedure. This repeatedly led to a deviation of the formal legislative procedure by skipping advisory or consultation rounds and therewith disregarding important checks on the overall quality of the proposals.The Committee on the Evaluation of Counterterrorism Measures (also known as the Suyver Committee) firmly concluded with regard to the post-9/11 measures that haste makes waste by stating the importance of an integral and interdisciplinary evaluation of all measures taken. The Committee formulated 21 recommendations which in turn resulted in 10 fairly straightforward research questions with regard to aspects of the Dutch counterterrorism laws that needed to be evaluated, up till today most of these questions remain unanswered.
Seemingly in response to the findings of the Suyver Committee, in 2011 the Ministry of Security and Justice published the report Dutch Counterterrorism Measures in the first decade of the 21st century. Nevertheless, as I have described in more detail elsewhere (see: Van der Woude 2011, in Dutch), this report cannot and should not be seen as an adequate response to the fundamental questions on the necessity, the legitimacy and the effectiveness of the post-9/11 counterterrorism measures. Apart from the fact that the objectivity of most of the outcomes of the 2011 report are questionable since the Ministry of Security and Justice “evaluated” its own measures, the 10 central questions formulated by the Suyver Committee to serve as a starting point for further evaluation are nowhere to be found.
So is it true that we don’t really know anything about the ways in which the post-9/11 Dutch counterterrorism measures have played out in practice? Not entirely. In March 2014, the Research and Documentation Centre of the Dutch Ministry for Security & Justice (WODC) published an evaluation of The Criminal Investigation of Terrorist Crimes Act. After having monitored the Act for five years, the researchers reached the conclusion that it remains questionable whether the legislative changes resulting from this Act were necessary in the light of already existing investigative powers. The researchers also noticed a sense of unease among law enforcement officials to use these new and unknown powers, as a result of which the law has barely been put into practice. Despite the questionable necessity of the post-9/11 investigative powers, the current Minister for Security and Justice is of the opinion that the responsible agencies need to have more powers in order to timely identify risky individuals.
During the Parliamentary discussions about the Criminal Investigation of Terrorist Crimes Act many politicians raised concerns about the extent to which the preventive investigative measures introduced by this act might result in ethnic profiling and the stigmatization of perceived “risky” minority groups in the Netherlands. The extent to which these concerns were justified remains unknown, since this aspect was not included in the 2014 WODC report. Interestingly enough, in their 2008 report the Suyver Committee was clear on the necessity to also look into and evaluate the potential negative side-effects of the counterterrorism legislation. As an example the Committee (p. 80) mentions a growing polarization between groups in society potentially contributing to the process of the radicalization of certain risk groups. With Muslims feeling the necessity to openly condemn the acts of three extremists and right-wing politicians stating that the Netherlands needs to de-Islamise, it becomes clear that polarization is already a reality in the Netherlands.
Although I am by no means stating that the events in Paris or the radicalization of individuals in our own country are the direct result of the post-9/11 counter terrorism measures, I do feel that the government has the responsibility and the obligation – especially in the light of the current events and debates – to not only look into this matter carefully, but to also be very cautious about implementing more and new counterterrorism legislation. I understand that no politician or political party - let alone a country - wants to be seen as being soft on terror, but proposing new measures without sufficiently knowing the impact and effects of the measures already in place to me reeks of political ostrichism and symbolic politics.