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Jihadist networks quick to evolve

The group structure of Jihadist networks changes rapidly, which makes it difficult to monitor them. This is the finding of research by criminologist Jasper de Bie. PhD defence 14 April.

De Bie studied Jihadist networks over a period of four years, examining 14 Dutch Jihadist networks and 209 individuals. 'What strikes me is  that the organisational structure of these networks has changed dramatically in recent years. The underground groups no longer have any fixed character; they adapt to the circumstances.' 

Charismatic recruiter

The early Jihadist networks - between 2000 and 2003 - were organised hierarchically, according to De Bie. 'They were often divided into separate cells, each headed by an international Jihadist leader. Each cell had one charismatic recruiter and a bunch of compliant recruits.' Their primary aim was to liberate Muslim countries from infidel leaders.' 

Home-grown radicals

De Bie believes that this changed in around 2003. Western intervention in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq caused bad blood among Muslims in the Netherlands. You could see that in the Jihadist groups: slowly but surely, home-grown Jihadists started to replace the international leaders. These home-grown radicals were often second-generation immigrants. At the same time, the hierarchy gave way to flatter and more fluid network structures. De Bie: ‘That was at least partly an effect of internet and social media. Contact between individuals and groups became much easier, and consequently less hierarchical.' The constantly changing nature of these network structures makes it difficult for investigation services to get a firm grip of the Jihadists. 

Key figures

De Bie also found many constant factors within the Jihadist groups, factors that, in his opinion, offer some counterweight to the extremist philosophy. ‘Each group has specific key members and brokers who play a role in getting people out of conflict areas like Syria. If the investigation services could track down these key figures, the networks would be more likely to fall apart.'

Not good at compromise

Another constant factor is the presence of motivating and demotivating factors. In principle, ideological discussions tend to have a motivating effect within Jihadist groups, but in practice they often turn into conflicts. De Bie: ‘It  might be possible to actively encourage these conflicts by feeding the groups false information. Disputes tend to escalate rapidly because Jihadists are not good at compromise. That's one of their weak spots.' 

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Risk factors

But we need to bear in mind that not all interventions work out as expected. De Bie's research shows that prison sentences generally raise the status of Jihadists. What was intended as a demotivatiing measure suddenly has the opposite effect. 'We also need to be aware that geopolitical components constantly play an important role,' De Bie commented. 'Dutch participation in the coalition against the ISIS terror movement can be a motivating factor for  people to go off to Jihadist conflict areas.' 

Telephone tapping and interrogations

De Bie's research is unusual in that he was given exceptional access to a lot of information held by the Ministry of Justice and the police. He was able to examine tapped telephone discussions, interrogations of suspects, results of house searches and witness statements. He also interviewed police representatives, imams and lawyers, and attended court hearings.  

Participating observation

De Bie's view of any follow-up research is that it should focus on the reasons why Jihadist groups exist. ‘The history of how Jihadist groups came about is still veiled in secrecy. Participating observation might be a way of finding out exactly how and when these networks started up.' 

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