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Unique insight into origin of Hofstad group

The Hofstad group is known mainly because of Mohammed B., the murderer of Theo van Gogh. PhD candidate Bart Schuurman examined this Dutch jihadist group based on interviews and confidential police files. How and why did the group come about? What drove some of the group members to commit terrorist acts? PhD defence 26 January.

The media often paints a picture of members of such groups deranged or disadvantaged people who are easy prey to extremism and are therefore willing to resort to violence. Bart Schuurman, a researcher at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs (ISGA), noticed that assumptions about the motives of the Hofstad group, a 'home-grown' European jihadism in the broadest sense, were often based on indirect sources, such as newspaper articles. He therefore decided to conduct (the first ever) research on the basis of confidential police files and interviews with members of the Hofstad group.  He discovered that the explanations for joining the group and the motives behind terrorist acts were sometimes very mundane.

Real motives

The reasons that members joined the Hofstad group varied from friendship and religious affiliations to anger about the fate of fellow believers in conflict zones such as Afghanistan. Many participants were seeking their identity as Muslims. Schuurman discovered that it was individual members who decided to use terrorist violence. 'Committing violent terrorist acts was not the biggest motivation for all the participants,' Schuurman explained.'There were no leaders who set a clear operational or ideological line. All this is at odds with the image that the media paints of these and similar groups: they tend to over-emphasise "radicalisation" and the role of extremist ideology.'

Chance

Several people whom Schuurman spoke to came into contact with the Hofstad group by chance, either because they were at school with another member or because they grew up in the same neighbourhood as a member, who introduced them to the group. Schuurman: ‘Chance or fate are not very satisfactory explanations for why people are attracted to extremism and terrorism, but they do seem to be a crucial aspect of how and why the Hofstad group came about.' 

Sources

Schuurman's approach to this research is unique.  Terrorists are by no means easy to find and it can be dangerous for researchers to approach these kinds of organisations. This makes research methods such as interviews, participative observation, clinical research or questionnaires extremely difficult and sometimes ethically unjustified. Moreover, police and security service files containing relevant information are not generally accessible for outsiders.  Earlier research in this field relied strongly on newspaper articles as their primary source. Schuurman went about it differently. He spoke with former members of the Hofstad group, and was given access to research files held by the Dutch police. His study focused on some forty individuals.

Using these primary sources gave Schuurman's research new insights on jihadistic terrorism in the Netherlands and adds to the academic knowledge on many similar kinds of groups that have sprung up in Europe since 2004.  

Bart Schuurman's PhD defence takes place on 26 January 2017.  The title of his dissertation is: ‘Becoming a European homegrown jihadist: A multilevel analysis of involvement in the Dutch Hofstadgroup, 2002-2005’. He is a researcher at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University in The Hague. His research has been supervised by Edwin Bakker and Quirine Eijkman.

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