Friday 16 July 2010 was a remarkable day, although it largely went unnoticed. For the first time in its short history, a convicted member of the Netherlands-based jihadist Hofstad group, Jason Walters (1985) announced that he from now on accepted the Dutch rule of law. In fact, he even expressed his full trust and confidence in the Court. "I am certain that I will receive a fair trial", he stated at the end of the pre-trial hearing in the High-Security Court in Amsterdam that day.
Walters had every right to express a level of hope in the Dutch judicial system. The reason for this deserves some explanation. In the summer of 2002, the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) identified a group of Muslim youth, who met in and around a specific mosque and rallied around an individual named Redouan al-Issar (also named "Abu Khaled" or "the Shaykh"). The AIVD coined this network the Hofstad group and monitored its members closely. After Mohammed Bouyeri murdered Dutch Islam critic and filmmaker Theo van Gogh on 2 November 2004, the members of the Hofstad group – who were all connected to Bouyeri – were arrested and charged of being part of a terrorist and criminal organisation, engaging in inciting hatred and preparing for terrorist attacks. In 2006, Walters and other accomplices were convicted on the attempt to murder police officers, on the possession of hand grenades and on membership of a terrorist organisation. Walters himself was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. However, in 2008, the Court of Appeal in The Hague acquitted the Hofstad group members on the count of membership of a criminal terrorist organisation. The Court argued that the suspects' organisation was too loosely structured to merit the conviction. In addition, the Court found insufficient evidence for the claim that the suspects were inciting hatred.
These arguments were thrown out in February 2010, when the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the formal definition of a criminal terrorist organisation as used by the Court of Appeal in The Hague was too narrow. The suspects could not simply be acquitted only because their group did not meet the old legal definition of what constitutes an organisation. The Court therefore ordered a retrial and referred the case once again to the Court of Appeals, where the trial will unfold in December of this year.
But circumstances have changed. The defendants have always refused every form of cooperation with the court – arguing that, first of all, the man-made Dutch judicial system is not in line with the divine rule of law and violated hakimiyyat Allah (the sovereignty of God), and that public and political pressure prevented them from getting a fair trial anyway – until now. In the heated and anxious climate of the months following November 2004, this second complaint had some merit. The government was sometimes perceived as waging a ‘war’ against Dutch terrorists, public vigilance campaigns against terrorist attacks were launched, radicalised Muslims were spotted everywhere and revenge-fuelled attacks were committed against mosques and other Muslim sites. But six years have passed since, without any jihadist incident whatsoever in the Netherlands, and an Hofstad group that is no longer in existence. During the pre-trial hearing, only a handful of journalist and academics occupied the public gallery.
The judge made it clear that he would not succumb under the Public Prosecutor’s pressure and that he would seriously consider the charge of inciting hatred, racism and preparing for violent action. Since the evidence for the "speech offences" and the terrorist intent are solely located in radical texts that were found on the Hofstad group members’ computers, it is pivotal to assess whether these texts were in fact disseminated and used to incite hatred and violence? The Court will have to answer that question later this year.
At the same time, six years is a long time span in a young adult’s life. Jason Walters' time in the high-security penitentiary of Vught has obviously taught him how boring prison life can be. It is not clear whether he still embraces his former radical ideas, but he has come to the conclusion that it is time to cooperate with the Court and to hope for a fair trial. This is a huge leap from his former position. Together with the other members of the Hofstad group and Mohammed Bouyeri, he drew inspiration from Salafist principles, such as the principle of al-wala’ wa al-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal) from the neo-Salafist cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, which dictates that true jihadists should isolate themselves from the non-Muslim world and hate those who threaten Islam. In this view, all forms of non-Muslim rule of law should be rejected completely.
It is difficult to pinpoint what prompted Walters to announce his faith in the Dutch democratic system and the rule of law, whether it is tactics or a real ideological conversion. However, we do know that abandonment of extremist behaviour (which he displayed in conforming to the norms in court, wearing ordinary clothes and sporting a modern haircut) signals a strategy of disengagement that is often much more lasting and promising than hammering on the abandonment of violent radical beliefs. In my opinion, Walters is completely entitled to stick to his Salafist beliefs, as long as he does not use them to inflict harm on others, directly or indirectly (e.g. by disseminating texts that incite hatred or discrimination).
This is precisely what defines the rule of law. Law should not dictate our way of thinking, it should not force us to think tolerance, multiculturalism or pluralism. The law orders us only to behave in that way, it prevents and punishes infringements of other people’s liberties and beliefs. The law itself does not adhere to a strict ideology. It protects Salafists as much as Atheists or Christians.
If even terrorists – who by their very nature are bent on undermining the rule of law and on provoking governments to violate their own legal principles – are expressing their faith in this system, albeit after some years of contemplation and public silence, we’d better take our cue from this remarkable confession. Although this is of course only one instance of a terrorist’s public conversion, it provides us with valuable insight: if you let the judges rule, avoid strong public and political pressure and do not surround the court cases with a lot of theatre and spectacle, the terrorists themselves will cease their theatrical acts of provocation and martyrdom as well. They will stand trial as all other criminals, convicted along normal standards (which were completely sufficient to convict Walters to a 15-years sentence for throwing hand grenades and attempting to murder police officers) and will serve their remaining sentence without trying to portray themselves as martyrs, recruit new terrorists or inspire new campaigns.