On September 7, 2015, the long-awaited court case against 10 individuals in the so-called ‘Context-case’ started in the high-security court in Osdorp, near Amsterdam, The Netherlands. This is one of the largest terrorism trials ever held in the country. The investigation was launched by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service in April 2013 after several parents filed criminal complaints against a number of individuals they held responsible for recruiting their children for the violent jihad in Syria. They claimed that their children had been radicalised and recruited by some of the main suspects standing in court today.
The court case is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, it is not only one of the largest terrorism court cases in the Netherlands but it is also among the first in Europe specifically dealing with the organisation of the violent jihad in Syria and Iraq. In February 2015, 45 individuals in Belgium were prosecuted for similar charges. The judge ruled there was sufficient evidence to prove that the organisation to which the suspects belonged - Sharia4Belgium - was a terrorist organisation. If the suspects of the Context-case are also convicted for membership of a terrorist organisation – one of the main charges – this will send out a strong signal: It will show that a group can indeed be a terrorist organisation without necessarily having been planning to launch terrorist attacks at home. Systematically recruiting for the violent jihad in Syria combined with incitement by spreading jihadist propaganda (both on- and offline) are also activities that can be linked to a terrorist organisation.
Secondly, the court case raises many questions about the concept of leaderless jihad, a term coined by renowned terrorism scholar Marc Sageman. Rather than being recruited top-down or being directly targeted by an existing terrorist organisation, the process of radicalisation in Sageman’s model starts bottom-up, on the individual level. The first step is “moral outrage in response to perceived suffering by fellow Muslims”. Only later on in the process is the individual incorporated into networks that mobilise him (or her) to take part in the violent jihad. This is in line with social movement theory which argues one has to sympathize first before actually becoming involved.
The Context-case might shed a different light on this idea of a leaderless jihad with regard to the case of Syria and Iraq. The public prosecutors are convinced that organisations and leadership still matter and that one can succesfully fight jihadism by way of arrests and disruption of groups and networks. In April 2013, reacting to the signals of parents that their children were allegedly being recruited, the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) stated that there are “no signs that people are being recruited for the jihad in an organised manner” but that people were often radicalising online, which led to fierce criticism from the parents. Two years later, that view seems to have changed radically, with two suspects being charged for recruiting and three suspects for being the key players in the organisation.
The importance of key figures is not only limited to recruitment. Also when it comes to propaganda and rallies, the Dutch “jihadi-salafi scene”, as it is often called, seems to have been highly dependent on the work of a number of individuals. Since a wave of arrests in the summer of 2014, organised online jihadist propaganda in The Netherlands has largely faded, also as a result of suspending websites such as “De Ware Religie” that was hosted by one of the suspects. Also, public demonstrations that were common in 2013 and 2014 with sympathizers waving Islamic State flags have not been seen anymore.
Despite this decreased public visibility of the jihadi-salafi scene in and around The Hague, there are still signs that some people in the country continue to travel to Syria and Iraq. This shows that removing key players can only be part of a counterterrorism or counterradicalisation strategy that must entail other types of measures as well, such as outlined in the “Actieprogramma Integrale Aanpak Jihadisme” (the action plan to counter jihadism).
Still, removing and prosecuting the key players might turn out to have been more important than many initially thought it would be. The final verdict in the Context-case will be one to remember.