Dutch AIVD Director of Intelligence Jack Twiss, 15 February 2017
Today I would like to tell you about a family that went to Syria. A mother and father, inspired by the proclamation of the ISIS caliphate. Perhaps they believe that it would be wonderful to raise their children in an Islamic utopia. They take their two children, close the door behind them, and leave.
After a long and arduous journey the family arrives in Syria. The father is immediately sent off to a training camp where he is trained in the use of weapons and combat.
After his training he is regularly sent to the front lines to fight. The mother and the two young children quickly find out that daily life with ISIS is tough. They find it hard to adjust to the bombing raids, to sharing a house with other families, to only a few hours of electricity a day. The mother finds herself pregnant and soon discovers that prenatal care is abominable. She wants to return to the Netherlands and she manages to convince her husband that they ought to flee. So, shortly before the father is sent to the front again they make their escape, cross the border into Turkey and eventually return to the Netherlands.
Upon their arrival the father and mother are arrested on suspicion of membership of a terrorist organization. The children are taken to live with relatives. The father and mother are interrogated separately and they categorically deny having been members of ISIS. After a month the public prosecution service decides to release them for lack of evidence.
The family returns to their old neighbourhood.
This is one example of some of the stories that I deal with as director of intelligence with the General intelligence and security service – the AIVD. At this point in our story the AIVD faces a dilemma: the mother and father are disillusioned, yes, but have they also renounced their jihadist beliefs? Or will they continue to support the jihad in Syria but now from the Netherlands?
These are the questions that one of the teams of my service sets out to answer. As an intelligence and security service we are able to, and allowed to do a lot. We have a range of investigatory powers at our disposal, such as observation, house searches, wire taps, all under strict conditions.
But we are no mind readers. People who have something to hide are often highly security-conscious, and they try to deceive us. For example, what is it exactly that two returnees are talking about when one of them asks the other: “when does the game start?” Does this mean they are going to a football match together, or is it an attack plot they are discussing? We hear remarks such as these every day, and for every remark we have to assess if it constitutes a threat or not.
Similarly, for the family of four I described just now we have to take great care to see if they constitute a risk. Then we decide if it is necessary to keep a close watch on these persons, or whether they can reintegrate into our society.
In our publication ‘Focus on Returnees’, published today, we describe the threat. All returnees are reviewed by the AIVD to assess their potential threat. One of the criteria we look at is the length of stay in the conflict zone. Nearly all returnees coming back now have spent at least a year in the conflict zone. Many of them have gained combat experience and are deeply integrated into jihadist networks. Which means that they pose potentially a greater threat than the earlier returnees that spent less time in the conflict zone.
The reason why someone decides to return to the Netherlands also plays a role. This is not always clear: medical problems, homesickness or pressure from relatives, but also a sense of disillusion with life in the caliphate could be important. Being disillusioned, however, does not mean that radical ideas and violence have been renounced. For the most part disappointment with life in the conflict zone does not mean that people turn their backs on jihadist ideology.
Where there is no information on why someone returned, or there are indications that the returnees have been allowed to leave by ISIS, the AIVD will take into account these returnees may have been sent back to Europe with a specific assignment.
While the experiences of life in the caliphate are certainly part of the assessment of
the potential threat of returnees, even more important are our up-to-date knowledge
of and insight into their behaviour, beliefs and intentions.
Let’s go back to our recently returned family of four. They were in the conflict zone only a couple of months. Their main motivation for returning was the dire quality of life in the caliphate. But what does that imply in terms of their jihadist intentions? The mother has turned her back on ISIS, but the father still appears to be radicalised and to support the jihad, only now he is in the Netherlands.
It is not necessary, nor feasible for us to monitor each and every returnee twentyfour- seven. Fortunately the AIVD partners with a whole chain of organizations that play a part where returnees are concerned.
We strive to share our information on foreign fighters with the public prosecution service so that they can start their criminal investigation at an early stage. Returnees will initially be arrested and where possible prosecuted.
Returnees that are released are taken on by the social services of the local authorities in their place of residence. Signals coming from these municipal agencies and organizations are of great value to the AIVD in assessing whether someone is still harbouring radical ideas. Because, as I mentioned before, we cannot monitor each and every returnee day and night. The police also keep a watchful eye: local police officers know the local situation, know who is friendly with whom and who the jihadist instigators are.
They are in a perfect position to pick up signals at a local level and if necessary inform us. The AIVD then has the difficult task to assess in time if someone presents an actual danger or not.
The AIVD expects the number of returning jihadist to increase little by little in the future. Together they constitute a group that requires the close attention of all of us, because they are ideologically hardened, because they have combat experience and because they have become a part of a jihadist network. The AIVD does not expect all Dutch foreign fighters to return to our country. Some of them will remain in the region, and some will be killed in action. We should take care not to focus too much on returnees alone. If we look at the most recent attacks in Berlin and Nice the perpetrators weren’t returnees that had been trained in Syria or Iraq. There are homegrown jihadists that pursue the fight in their own country, often inspired by ISIS’ propaganda. Some individuals are actively, incited and facilitated by ISIS to spring into action. So we have several different scenarios to deal with.
Today’s publication discusses the threat posed by returnees. Unfortunately it does not offer any ready-made answers. The case of the family of returnees I used as an example today, shows that what is needed is the long-term investment of different agencies and organizations. Hopefully our publication offers you help, insight and suggestions. In addition to this publication I would like to leave you with these three points.
(1) Returnees are not all alike. Threat assessment has been and always will be ‘made-to-measure’. (2) We should work together to remain alert regarding the group of future returnees. Only by cooperating can we resist the potential threat they pose.
(3) The jihadist threat is a complicated matter. Homegrown jihadists are inspired or incited on by ISIS, and the risk they pose is as great as that of returnees.