Dutch court convicts would-be Syrian fighters of preparing to commit murder

Rotterdam court sets precedent of legal sanctions to stop Dutch Muslims travelling to Syria

Fighters from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra search residents at a checkpoint in Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr. Photograph: Molhem Barakat/Reuters

Fighters from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra search residents at a checkpoint in Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr. Photograph: Molhem Barakat/Reuters


As European governments struggle to combat the radicalisation of young Muslims by the war in Syria, two Dutch men have become the first would-be jihadists to be convicted of “preparing to commit murder” – in a case which sets a new legal precedent in the Netherlands.

A study by King’s College in London earlier this year showed that some 600 aspiring combatants from 14 different European countries have travelled to Syria since the conflict began in 2011 to join various insurgent groups attempting to topple the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

The survey showed that, based on the size of their populations, the figures for the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland made these the most significant sources of anti-Assad fighters. Conservatively, about 107 have travelled from the Netherlands, of whom six have so far died.

Among those killed in recent months was Choukri Masali – alias “Abu Walae” – a brother of the first “Dutch martyr” in Syria, Mourad Masali, who was shot dead in March, according to the popular pro-jihadist website, DeWareReligie.nl (TheTrueReligion.nl).

Choukri Masali is believed to have died fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate classified as a terrorist organisation by the UN Security Council – and whose leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, was reported killed in the coastal province of Latakia last Friday.

Exposure to violence
It is recruits such as the Masali brothers – with their links, no matter how tenuous, with al-Qaeda – which has led the National Counterterrorism Co-ordinator in the Netherlands to warn of the consequences of long-term exposure to violence for those who manage to return home.

“Although not every person to return from a jihadist conflict zone poses a threat,” says the co-ordinator, “it must be remembered that these people are not only returning with radical ideas – they are also traumatised and have become used to violence and fully prepared to use it.”

In that context, the conviction by a court in Rotterdam last week of two young Dutch men, identified only as 24-year-old “Mohammed G” and 22-year-old “Omar H”, was particularly significant – in that it aims to use legal sanctions to stem the tide of Dutch Muslims, men and women, travelling to Syria.

The court found both men guilty of “preparing to commit murder”, ruling that the only reasonable conclusion that could be drawn from their actions, from buying airline tickets to collecting money for their cause, was that they planned to “fight” and “kill” pro-Assad forces.

The defendants “wanted to go to Syria to fight, and the court came to the conclusion that this amounted to an intention to kill people”, said a spokeswoman for the court, Catelijn van Breevoort, after the ruling had been delivered.

What was particularly interesting was that prosecutors sought the two convictions based on a law which has never been used in the Netherlands but which makes it illegal to “undergo training” in preparation for terrorist crimes.

First of its kind
However, the judges decided that the men intended to fight and kill rather than train – and so they were convicted of “preparing to commit murder” – a new Dutch legal precedent and apparently the first conviction of its kind in western Europe, according to legal experts.

Mohammed G, who has had recurrent psychological problems, was sent to a psychiatric hospital for treatment.

Omar H – who was released from jail pending his trial, but subsequently detained by German security services on a train to Istanbul – was jailed for a year, with four months suspended.

“This is the first time we have seen such a judgment, and it clarifies the fact that it is now illegal to go to Syria to fight,” said prosecution spokesman, Paul van der Zonden. “Jail is now a real prospect for those planning to join the fighting in Syria – and for those coming back.”