Dr. Pieter Van Ostaeyen. DR.
Mohsen Abdelmoumen: In your book « Staat van terror, De jihadistische revolutie » you mention among others the Arab Spring and the genesis of the conflict in Syria with the emergence of different terrorist groups. In your opinion, why those who took advantage of the chaos that prevailed after the Arab Spring are the terrorist groups?
Dr. Pieter Van Ostaeyen: In countries that came out of the Arab revolutions in utter chaos (Libya, Syria) jihadi groups profited from the complete lack of control by a central government and used the anarchy and chaos to build up a support network. In Syria one cannot deny the fact that long-time, well-known, jihadists were released from al-Assad’s prisons. Remember that Assad always said he was fighting terrorists, not rebels. These jihadi’s soon took the lead over the rebellion with the current situation as a result.
You have co-authored « The role of Belgian fighters in the jihadification of the Syrian war from plotting early in 2011 to the Paris and Brussels attacks« . Why Belgian jihadists played such an important role in the Syrian conflict?
Because there are so many of them. Some of them left for Lebanon and/or Syria even before the protests started in Syria. Other men played crucial roles in recruitment via social media for example. Then we have the majority of the network behind the Paris and Brussels attacks which consisted out of Belgian fighters.
Since the attacks in Brussels and Paris, have the intelligence services taken preventive measures to counter other terrorist acts or can we say that zero risk does not exist?
Measures were taken but zero risk indeed doesn’t exist I’m afraid.
What about the cooperation of the intelligence services of the European countries with each other and their cooperation with the intelligence services outside Europe such as Russia, Syria, Algeria, etc.?
The inter-European cooperation is more or less ok. The cooperation with the Syrian government is inexistent to my knowledge and I have no idea how we cooperate with the Russians.
You are one of the best European experts in the field of terrorism whose you have studied the phenomenon, in your opinion, how to solve the problem of returnees? Should terrorists from Western countries be tried in the countries where they committed their crimes, or do they have to be repatriated to be tried?
This is a bit of a dilemma. From a humanitarian point of view we should repatriate them and try them as European citizens. On the other hand however, if they are tried in Syria or Iraq, we are rid of them as basically everyone prefers.
The mass media do not talk much about female jihadists or child soldiers of Daesh. Do not you think that these two categories are time bombs, especially those who are present on European soil?
Yes they indeed are. As is every returned fighter.
Sources mention the massive redeployment of Daesh troops to Libya. In your opinion, is there not a risk of conflagration and a shifting of terrorist acts in the short or medium term throughout the Sahel?
Not only the Sahel will remain the theater for jihadi groups, it is very likely that the remains of ISIS will return to the deserts of Iraq and Syria and will shift back to terrorist insurgency tactics.
Have Western countries learned the lessons of the anti-terrorist struggle that was waged by the Algerian people in the 1990s and more recently by the Iraqi and Syrian peoples?
Clearly not. The war in Syria could have been stopped years ago and we could have avoided the rise of ISIS. The Iraqi example isn’t the best showcase by the way, due to the suppression of the Sunni minorities by the Shi’a government; the rise of ISIS was facilitated.
How do you see the use with complete impunity of encrypted networks like Telegram or social networks like Twitter and Facebook by terrorist groups like Daesh? Are not social networks guilty of giving communication spaces to terrorist groups?
In a way yes, however I do believe it is best that we actually do know what is going on.
If there is a need to fight Daesh and terrorist groups militarily, is not the fight primarily ideological? How do you see the fact that jihadist textbooks circulate freely in European countries?
It should be ideological in nature, however if the ISIS ideology isn’t understood what is the point in countering it? Propaganda, like jihadist textbooks, will always be around. I don’t think we can do anything to stop that.
In your opinion, is it not necessary to attack the financial sources of terrorism in general and Daesh in particular knowing that their spoil of war, according to some sources, is currently in Europe?
What do you mean by their spoil of war being in Europe? ISIS already drastically lost financial resources due to the loss of land and influence.
What do you think is the most effective way to dismantle dormant cells that are scattered among other things on European soil, especially knowing that the method of infiltration is difficult to set up with toughened up and well structured terrorist groups?
Afraid I have no idea how we can find, trace and take down dormant cells. See for example what happened in Barcelona last summer, only due to the fact they blew up their own safehouse something much bigger was prevented from happening.
Do mainstream mass media play their part in the fight against terrorism or are there deficiencies and above all a difficulty in dealing with terrorism-related issues?
Mainstream media is only interested in the fight against terrorism if disasters happen (like big attacks). The situation on the ground in the MENA-region stays hopelessly underreported.
Those who followed the birth of Daesh have noticed that they have had a very large membership with thousands of terrorists from several nationalities. How is it that since the offensives of the international coalition or the Russians, we have no figures of the terrorists shot down and that these thousands of terrorists have disappeared as if by magic? Where is Daesh’s workforce according to you? Are they all in Libya?
Excellent question; I guess the international coalition doesn’t really know either. A lot have been killed, some imprisoned. But indeed what happened with the rest of them? Did they return? Did they go Libya or the Sinai? Nobody knows.
You link the phenomenon of terrorism with the failure of integration policies in Europe. We note that in the attacks in Brussels as in Paris, the terrorists are from Molenbeek, a known district of Brussels. How do you explain that?
It is not only linked to failed integration. The Molenbeek case is especially interesting since the network behind the Paris and Brussels attacks came largely from the network behind Zerkani, in a way that network could be described a a network of gangster-jihadi’s. It surely isn’t just their economical or social status that played a role.
Should Europe not reconsider its policy towards Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are both the backers and spawners of terrorism?
Again, difficult situation as we still have huge economic interests in these countries.
What do you think are the most important steps urgently needed by European governments to counter terrorism?
Investments in research and intelligence capabilities and an attempt to ameliorate the integration of newcomers in our societies.
Some sources speak of a new terrorist organization whose the name is Khorasan. In your opinion, with the loss of territory, is Daesh is restructuring itself by turning into a clandestine terrorist organization with dormant networks, another type of communication and groups scattered around the world, as we see with Al Qaeda?
As answered above, yes indeed. They will return to their old tactics.
You are a member of the International Counter Terrorism Center in The Hague and of the European Policy Center. Can we know the exact missions of these organizations and are your expert reports taken into account by the different European governments?
That would be a question you’ld better ask the organizations themselves I’m afraid.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Pieter van Ostaeyen?
Dr. Pieter Van Ostaeyen is a Belgian historian who studied Medieval History with a specialization in the history of the Crusades (KULeuven 1999), and Arabic and Islamic Studies, focusing on the history of Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi and the Assassins (KULeuven 2003). P. Van Ostaeyen has been analyzing the conflict in Syria since the outset in 2011. In 2012 he began reporting on foreign fighters and extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar as-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa and The Islamic State. Since September 1st 2016 he is a PhD applicant at the University of Leuven researching the usage of social media in the ideological strife between al-Qaeda and The Islamic State. In 2015 he published his first book “Van Kruistochten tot Kalifaat” (From the Crusades to the Caliphate) with Pelckmans and “Staat van Terreur: De Jihadistische revolutie” (State of terror: the jihadist revolution) with Polis in 2018. Pieter Van Ostaeyen is expert at the ICCT (International Center for Counterterrorism) in The Hague and at the European Foundation for Democracy.
Published in American Herald Tribune on February 15. 2018: https://ahtribune.com/world/north-africa-south-west-asia/syria-crisis/2137-pieter-van-ostaeyen.html
In Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.160218.htm