Interview with Dutch Terror Expert 'I'm Not All That Worried About Terrorism'

The terror arrests in Germany on Tuesday shocked the country. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with terror expert Edwin Bakker about homegrown terror, what to do about radicalization and why he isn't terribly worried about terror.

Terror expert Edwin Bakker says that radicalization is the main problem in Europe.

Terror expert Edwin Bakker says that radicalization is the main problem in Europe.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you make of the terrorist cell that was recently arrested in Germany?

Edwin Bakker: The Turkish background (of at least one of the suspects) is unusual. In the Netherlands and elsewhere, there are large Turkish communities, but they have not produced quite so many terrorists as have the Pakistani, Moroccan and Algerian communities. In the Netherlands, the worrying trend is that more Turkish youngsters also seem behind this idea of joining the jihad. Now we also see it in Germany. Before everyone believed that the strong Turkish background of secularism and nationalism prevented them from joining jihad.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why do you think that some Turks are becoming radicalized now, six years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States?

Bakker: Since 9/11, the whole debate about Islam in Western Europe has been very intense. In some countries, like the Netherlands, things became very polarized, to put it mildly. The debate, in other words, has been going on for years, but now it is getting even more intense as a result of the (attempted) train bombings in Germany, because of the July 7, 2005 attacks in London, and because when we fly in a plane, we have to use these plastic bags. Terrorism has become more present. Turks feel like people are looking at them differently. In the beginning, immediately after 9/11, it was different.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could it be that this development comes as a direct result of the methods we have used to fight terrorism?

Bakker: In the Netherlands, there have been official reports indicating that the public debate has an impact on radicalization. Radicalization is different than terrorism. But there is a link between public debate, polarization and the growing number of people who are radicalized.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your research, you've pointed out a growing participation of converts in terrorist acts -- so-called homegrown terrorists. Two of the three suspects arrested in Germany on Tuesday are such converts. Where do they enter the equation?

Bakker: In general, whatever their belief, converts are over-achievers; they're overcompensating for the fact that they did not see the light before. So, they tend also to be more susceptible to radical ideas, whether political or religious.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Have you found that there is a trend of people converting directly to Islamism or even jihadism?

Bakker: Yes. If you're not born and raised in a Muslim family where, for instance, your uncle was a scholar or you had contacts with the imam, you only know the basics. You have no critical questions because you don't really have an understanding of Islam. Anyone with a beard and a strong voice and certain symbols can look very convincing. So, with converts and sometimes with people whose parents are not very religions, they are more easily caught by these radical ideas. There's another element, too: a lot of them get their information from the Internet. But if you look at the Islamic literature available on the Internet -- in German or Dutch or Danish -- it's radicals who do all the translation. It's unbelievable.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: This most recent incident involved German converts and residents planning attacks inside the country. Do you think we'll see an increase in such "domestic action" increasing?

Bakker: It's hard to say. But in the ideology of jihadism, it's a global fight and, in general, terrorists pick the targets that are nearest to them. Perhaps they were seeking access to Iraq but couldn't get there and this was an alternative. On the other hand, their targets were US installations in Germany. They may have been thinking: "Why go to Iraq if you can do it at home?"

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You've written that the average age of terrorist cell members in Europe is declining. Why are they getting younger?

Bakker: Before Madrid in 2003, most Islamist radicals were in their late 20s to late 30s. After 2003, you see that most groups have an average age of early 20s. There are two explanations: One is that only the young and unprofessional ones are the ones who get caught and thus land in the statistical data base. The other one -- and this was the case in Great Britain and the Netherlands -- is that radicalization among young Muslims is growing rapidly and this is just simply another logical consequence of that trend.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How can that be prevented?

Bakker: The best way to fight terrorism is with good intelligence services. The Germans did an excellent job in spotting these people in time, following them, and arresting them. It's really textbook stuff. But with radicalization, it's difficult. You can provide alternatives. You can invest in and subsidize groups who publish on the Internet but who have a different voice and can show that there is diversity. And, with radical imams, if they incite hatred, just send them home or arrest them. You have to draw a line somewhere. I have the feeling that Germany is still a bit behind in this regard.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So what does the future hold? Will things get worse before they get better?

Bakker: I don't think it gets any better. I also don't think it's all that bad, in fact. I'm not all that worried about terrorism. We've seen that security services are more capable of spotting people in time, following them, and arresting them. And that's a good sign. We're not doing so bad and that has to be stressed. Radicalization is the bigger problem because it creates rifts in society that will take a long time to be bridged. In the Netherlands, we have about a million Muslims with perhaps 400,000 practicing. They are an essential part of society and we have to live together. Trying to create some solidarity and attaching them to society is very important.

Interview conducted by Yassin Musharbash


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