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Denouncing terrorism

October 31, 2010

A key figure in one militant Islamic European network has joined the ranks of a small but important number of jihadists to have a change of heart, calling on their brethren to abandon violence.

Man wearing hood carrying weapon
A number of radical militants have chosen to renounce violenceImage: AP Graphics

The imprisoned Dutch terrorism suspect Jason Walters said in an open letter that he has renounced Islamic radicalism.

"The ideals that I once honored have been lost and I have come to realize that they are morally bankrupt," Walters said in what he called a "review document" written from the maximum-security prison in Vught. It was published recently in the Dutch daily De Volkskrant.

Walters is a leading member of the jihadist Hofstadgroep, made up of Islamists primarily of Moroccan origin. The group was led by Mohammed Bouyeri, who is serving a life sentence for killing controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004.

Observers said Walters' letter offered a window into the mind of a man who had dedicated his life to propagating militant Islam through violence. It helped to understand why some adopt terrorism and what prompts them to reconsider.

Walters' review could also inform the increasingly partisan immigration debate in Germany and other European nations about how to prevent the radicalization of immigrant youth and help them become functioning members of society.

A different denunciation

Walters was accused of plotting to kill controversial Dutch parliamentarians Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. He resisted his arrest in 2004 in a 14-hour siege during which he threw a grenade at police, injuring four policemen. He has now served four years of his 15-year sentence.

Born in the Netherlands to an African-American soldier and a Dutch mother, Walters converted to Islam at age 16 after the divorce of his parents and his father's subsequent conversion. In 2003, he made his way to Pakistan for training with jihadist groups. He boasted on his return to the Netherlands that he could "disassemble a Kalashnikov blindfolded and put it back together again."

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote the script for Van Gogh's film "Submission"Image: AP

Walters' denunciation is more political and philosophical than that of other jihadist ideologues which employed Islamic theology to explain their change of heart, such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) or Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, one of the early associates of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second-in-command. Walters, on the other hand, takes issue in his letter with the basic tenant of his former worldview.

"The image that the world only exists of believers and infidels, in which the latter are motivated only to destroy the former, is a childish and coarse simplification of reality," Walters said. "It ignores the complexity and many nuances of which reality is rich."

Analysts and counter-terrorism authorities say Walters' letter is likely to spark debate in militant Islamist circles and serve as an important tool in efforts to counter jihadists in Europe. In a statement, the Dutch National Coordinator for Counterterrorism (NCTb) described it as "a remarkable document" not seen before in the Netherlands.

Dutch terrorism analyst Edwin Bakker from the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael said the letter would serve as "a good tool in the ideological fight against terrorists and Islamists."

A sincere document

Walters' lawyer, Bart Nooitgedagt, rejected allegations that his client had written the letter in an effort to influence his appeal hearing. An Amsterdam court is set to determine whether the throwing of the grenade was a criminal or a terrorist act and whether the Hofstadgroep was a terrorist organization.

The appeals court had ordered new proceedings in response to objections by the public prosecutor to the initial conviction of Walters and his associates on criminal charges only. Of the seven defendants in the original case, Walters is the only one still incarcerated.

Praying men in a mosque
Walters realized that violence is not the path to take in IslamImage: picture alliance/dpa

Nooitgedagt said Walters had written his letter some time ago, even though he only published it last week.

"Jason anticipated the criticism, but assertions that the letter was inspired by dishonest motives are incorrect," Nooitgedagt said. "The content of the letter is too fundamental for that."

Walters initially signaled his change of heart during the appeals court hearing in July, where he was the only defendant to appear in court in person.

"I was passive and uncooperative in the (lower) court in The Hague," Walters told the court in a reference to his earlier rejection of the Dutch justice system. "But now I will actively defend myself. I have confidence in the competence and the integrity of this court and in the Dutch system."

Read more about Walters' realizations

A warning to youth

Nooitgedagt said Walters' change of heart was sparked by his reading of history books, as well as writings on the theory of evolution and the works of philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Popper. In his letter, he explained his recantation with the fact that those nations who were liberated by Islamists ultimately rejected the Islamist worldview.

Mohammed Bouyeri
Mohammed Bouyeri led the Hofstadgroep and is now serving a life sentenceImage: dpa-Report

"This has forced me to reconsider my views critically, and has led to the realization that they are untenable," Walters said in the letter.

Walters expressed his disappointment with a utopian movement that has fallen short of its ideals.

"I have watched with horror how a once lofty 'struggle for freedom' that should have been the go-ahead signal for a new, just world - especially in Iraq - has turned into a bloody escalation of violence, sectarianism and religious mania," he wrote. "Unheard of cruelty and crimes have been committed in the process."

He said the random killing by Islamists of innocent Muslims had rendered the struggle for Islamic rule "a total failure."

The 25-year-old said he hoped his letter would serve "to warn youth not to be misguided by false promises and ideals." He called on Islamists "to put down their weapons and employ other, productive methods" in order to bring about reforms instead of blaming the United States and the West.

Lessons learned

Dutch commentator and De Volkskrant columnist Pieter Hilhorst noted that Walters, like other recanting Islamists, explained his change of heart in analytical rather than personal terms.

"He doesn't write that he regrets throwing a grenade at the police," Hilhorst said. "He doesn't write that he is ashamed of having glorified the murder of Theo van Gogh. Jason acts as if he was an observer, not a perpetrator."

The lesson from recantations like that of Walters, Hilhorst said, is that appealing to Islamists' compassion in an effort to change their wayward means was meaningless as they "express no empathy with their non-Muslim victims."

"They are only concerned about the nature of the true Muslim and the consequences for Muslims," he said. "This last point is every jihadist's real Achilles Heel. The best way to draw him away from his violent belief is to ask him what he really wants to achieve. That's when facts become more important than divine inclination."

Author: James M. Dorsey
Editor: Sabina Casagrande