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Arrest, detention and release of jihadists

People who are arrested on suspicion of preparing an attack are at risk of becoming radicalised either during or after their detention. Whether or not to arrest someone requires careful consideration. At the end of the prison sentence, it is important to provide effective supervision of the reintegration process.

Since the 11 September attacks, laws have been passed around the world, and also in the Netherlands, which make it easier to arrest people who are suspected of preparing an attack. This results in more arrests, but also in a greater risk of the suspects becoming radicalised. 

The perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack and the Toulouse shooter all had a criminal history and were radicalised in prison. How can you prevent the further radicalisation of jihadists or suspected jihadists in prison or after their release?

With this question in mind, the Leiden University terrorism experts Daan Weggemans and Beatrice de Graaf (Utrecht University, formerly of Leiden University) conducted an exploratory study of the process surrounding the arrest, detention and release of jihadists in the Netherlands. Since the heavily guarded terrorism wing of the prison in Vught was opened in 2006, it has held more than 80 prisoners; some for just two weeks, others for a couple of years. For their research, Weggemans and De Graaf spoke with detainees, former detainees, police officers and various professional care workers about their experiences.

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Daan Weggemans en Beatrice de Graaf in talkshow Pauw (video in Dutch)

Difficult judgement

How does a prisoner end up in a terrorism wing? Weggemans: “It happens when you’re accused of a terrorism-related offence. That could be preparing an attack or providing financial support to certain organisations. The problem for the government is that this always involves a difficult judgement about whether someone constitutes a real threat and is actually guilty. In any case, many of those accused are ultimately not convicted because they’re found to be innocent or there’s insufficient evidence.”

More resentment

Whether to arrest someone or not is an important question, because prison can either lead detainees to abandon their extreme views or can actually radicalise them. “Some people develop more resentment precisely because they’ve been arrested, or find confirmation of their ideological views through contact with other detainees. But discussing things with others can also make people give up their extreme ideology. Every case is different, and the professionals and institutions involved will always have to weigh up both sides when developing policy.”

Prison can either lead detainees to abandon their extreme views or can actually radicalise them

Successful reintegration

At the end of the prison sentence, successful reintegration into society is crucial for long-term security. “It’s still too early to draw firm conclusions,” says Weggemans. “But three important recommendations have emerged from the interviews that we conducted. First: encourage former detainees to have contact with (non-radicalised) family and friends, or to make new social contacts, for instance through a sports club. One way to do this is to find them somewhere to live that is close to those social contacts. A second factor: help them with practical matters, such as finding a job. And a third recommendation is to make sure that former detainees have contact with experts who can assess how they’re getting along, or who can help them.”

Stigma

Weggemans and De Graaf see that there are particular measures that make the reintegration process more difficult. “First, the fact that you’ve been arrested creates a stigma that’s very hard to shake off,” begins Weggemans. “And that makes it difficult to find a job, for instance. On top of that, some detainees are put on an international UN terrorist list after their release, whether they were found guilty or not. That has some very serious consequences, including the freezing of your assets. Even if you have a job and earn a salary, you can’t use your bank card. And some former detainees just say they don’t want to integrate. And as a society there’s not much you can do about that, apart from monitor them.”

In addition to the reintegration of jihadists, Weggemans also researches the reintegration process of politically sensitive prisoners, such as serious violent or sexual offenders.

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