Some European Muslims are being drawn towards militant Islamism while still in their teens, in a trend which is increasingly worrying security services. Police and intelligence officials say they are concerned about evidence that disaffected young Muslims, born and bred in Europe as children of immigrant families, are easy targets for radicalisation.
Examples include the radical Dutch “Hofstad Group” linked to the accused killer of film maker Theo van Gogh, and a group of young Muslims recruited in France to fight in Iraq.
“Radical Muslims are becoming younger,” said a Dutch security source who said some youths were being drawn into militant circles as early as the age of 14.
“We think these young people are not feeling at home here in this country. They are outsiders in our society, in our culture, and they also do not feel at home with their parents, who are guest workers from the 1960s and 1970s,” he told Reuters.
“Radical Islam gives them a perspective they can be important, they can have a role, and gives them a feeling they can have a stronger identity.”
‘BRAINWASHED AS CANNON FODDER’
In France, intelligence chief Pierre de Bousquet told Le Monde newspaper in an interview this week that alongside experienced militants, there was a new danger from “boys with no combat experience” who were nevertheless radicalised and ready to take part in jihad, or holy war.
He said five young men from a single Paris district had already died in Iraq, one in a suicide attack. A handful were jailed in Iraq or Syria and around 10 others were missing.
“The French jihadist is more unpolished, younger, but more radicalised and committed than a few years ago. The ease with which these young people can be brainwashed to go and serve as cannon fodder is worrying,” de Bousquet said.
Officials and analysts cite schools, mosques, prisons, youth associations and above all Internet sites and chatrooms as forums where militant ideas can be spread.
Max-Peter Ratzel, head of the European Union’s police agency Europol, noted the trend in an interview with Reuters this month and said it reflected the “vulnerability of young people”.
In testimony last month to a US Congressional subcommittee, European security analyst Claude Moniquet said the latest generation of militants was radicalising much faster than its predecessors.
“Where (previously) security services faced terrorist structures mostly made up of experienced jihadists, often with Afghan experience in common, between 25 and 40 years old, more and more we now find very young people, who by definition have no ‘past’ in Islamist circles,” he said.
“What we are now awaiting is the emergence of a new generation of terrorists: kids who were 12 to 15 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, and who have taken a year or two to make the same ideological progress that leads to violence, and which took their elders 10 years or more.”
The need to better understand the climate in which disenchanted youngsters turn towards violence – what a senior British official called “the sea in which the terrorists swim” – is a frequent refrain among security officials.
The murder of Dutch film maker Van Gogh, shot and stabbed as he cycled to work last November, provided a case study of how a young home-grown group can emerge with deadly effect.
Dutch-Moroccan Mohammed Bouyeri, 26, was charged with the killing and 12 other men, aged 18 to 27, have been arrested as suspected members of the militant Islamist “Hofstad Group”.
Another youth with alleged links to the group, 18-year-old Samir Azzouz, was acquitted in April of planning attacks on Schiphol airport, a nuclear reactor and government buildings. But the judge said Azzouz, found with machinegun cartridges, mock explosive devices and electrical circuitry, had “an above-average interest in religious extremist violence”.
With the arrests of the Hofstad group, Dutch authorities believe they have removed an important threat but remain concerned about the wider trend of radicalising Muslim youth. “They seem integrated in our society but still they have the feeling they don’t really belong here … At this age you want to revolt, you want to be radical sometimes,” the Dutch security source said. “They can become dangerous. We see some developments and we do not exactly know where it will end.”