Looking back to when Dutchwoman Laura Angela Hansen showed up in Iraqi Kurdish territory in 2016, her story (by now) sounds familiar, not least for the female jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) group. According to Hansen, she had luckily escaped the horrors of the “Caliphate”, a place she described as “hell”. A place, she claims, she never meant – nor wanted – to travel to.
According to Hansen’s version of events she had departed the Netherlands under the impression that she was travelling to Turkey to help refugees, before being taken against her will to Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria by her husband, Ibrahim Ismail.
Since the Islamic State’s last stand at the battle of Baghouz in Syria and the collapse of its self-declared “Caliphate”, such pleas of ignorance and innocence have become commonplace. In a bid for leniency, many have downplayed their own agency in their decision to travel thousands of miles to join the jihadist group then scything through Iraq and Syria. Extremists from the likes of Malmo, Manchester or Munich have claimed manipulation, trickery or grooming as responsible for their journey into jihadism.
When it comes to the women of the Islamic State, these victimhood narratives have often found a receptive domestic audience, at times amplified by media attention and a polarised public debate. Able to play on existing and misleading tropes of the vulnerable, naïve adolescent, brainwashed or groomed over the internet, IS overseas recruits have often sought to portray themselves as more sinned against than in sin.
In the spring of 2021, through the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) I published research entitled “Western Foreign Fighters and the Yazidi Genocide” in the hopes of demonstrating how these parochial domestic discussions and the fabulist claims of returning or captured IS recruits whitewash the many thousands of local victims of the group’s crimes – none more so than Iraq’s Yazidi minority, who suffered genocide and sexual enslavement at the hands of the jihadist group.
As the research aimed to demonstrate, Western IS recruits were often directly involved in crimes against local civilians, whether in the course of the occupation of territory or direct perpetrators of sexual crimes, torture and indoctrination committed against Yazidi women and children. According to CEP research, of a network of 67 Yazidi women surveyed, over half had contact with Western recruits during their time in IS captivity, despite Westerners comprising a minority within the jihadist ranks.Liam Duffy, “Western Foreign Fighters and the Yazidi Genocide” Counter Extremism Project, 16 March 2021 https://www.counterextremism.com/sites/default/files/Western%20Foreign%20Fighters%20and%20the%20Yazidi%20Genocide%20Report%2016%20March%202021.pdf
The research also collected survivor testimony from a network of Yazidi women, some of whom emphasised the role of Western women in their torture, rape and abuse. Despite difficulties in linking individuals to crimes, the testimony of surviving Yazidi women is at stark odds with the accounts provided by those jihadists now returned to their home countries or stranded in Syria and Iraq.
Despite the well documented crimes committed by IS, in certain cases we have witnessed a ‘celebritisation’ of – particularly female – IS recruits. In the case of Laura Hansen, the Dutch woman who claimed to have been tricked into travelling to Syria, we have perhaps the most obvious case of this phenomenon. In the Netherlands, a play was commissioned about her experiences (among other media products and appearances) sparking furious reaction from a number of activists. The Free Yezidi Foundation, a non-profit established to assist Yazidis in need, tweeted:
When Dutch citizens joined the Nazis, they did not have plays or glorification about them after WWII. Why are #Netherlands theater and media outlets giving platform to someone convicted as accomplice for the preparation of terrorist actions with #ISIS #Daesh?Free Yezidi Foundation, Twitter thread, 15 Oct 2020 https://twitter.com/Free_Yezidi/status/1316850300234412032?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1316850300234412032%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_c10&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.kurdistan24.net%2Fen%2Fstory%2F23362-Yezidi-group-infuriated-by-Dutch-play-allegedly-glorifying-ISIS-convict
There is no publicly available evidence linking Hansen specifically to the crimes against Yazidis (although the extent to which those who joined are complicit in the genocide is up for debate), but her version of events is strikingly similar to many of the other Europeans, North Americans and Australians of IS. As author and journalist Brenda Stoter Boscolo put it to Kurdistan24, the Western media seems “fascinated” with how Europeans joined the Islamic State, which sometimes leads to uncritical reporting of their stories and in turn, frustration among Yazidis and other IS victims.Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “Yezidi group infuriated by Dutch play allegedly glorifying ISIS convict,” Kurdistan24, 21 Oct 2020 https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/story/23362-Yezidi-group-infuriated-by-Dutch-play-allegedly-glorifying-ISIS-convict
However, the narratives deployed by Western IS recruits often reveal little about their real trajectories to joining the Islamic State, as they are less an insight into radicalisation than they are claims of innocence and pleas for leniency. It is therefore crucial for these claims to be thoroughly interrogated, and for a more accurate picture of the radicalisation and recruitment of thousands of Europeans into IS to be built. The public has long been fascinated with the criminal or “killer next door” story, but in the case of the Westerners who joined IS, taking and repeating their claims at face value risks diminishing the suffering of local civilians in Iraq and Syria and preventing accountability for those crimes committed.
With the kind help of the YLN this short paper aims to provide a snapshot of the journeys into jihadism and the time spent with the Islamic State of the three hundred strong Dutch foreign fighter contingent. It is essential that a more realistic and complete picture of the radicalisation and activities of Westerners who joined IS is constructed.
All of the information presented in this paper is available open-source and compiled from various reporting and social media sites. It simply aims to compile what is known and has been reported, often thanks to the diligence of journalists and activists, in order to begin building that more complete picture, particularly for an English-speaking audience less exposed to the Dutch foreign fighter contingent.
As with the previous CEP paper on “Western foreign fighters and the Yazidi genocide”, the intention is not to build a case against any individuals, but to encourage a more realistic debate about the actions and potential crimes of Western jihadis, crimes for which so far, there has been little in the way of justice and accountability.