The Jihad Caravan: a Journey to the Roots of Hatred

By Samar Batrawi:

Jihad caravan1

Montasser AlDe’emeh and Pieter Stockmans, De Jihadkaravaan: Reis naar de Wortels van de Haat [The Jihad Caravan: a Journey to the Roots of Hatred], Tielt, Belgium: Uitgeverij Lannoo, 2015. 19,99 (e-book). Pages: 518. ISBN: 9789401427708

‘I was born and raised in Antwerp. A year and a half ago I left to go to Syria. I have not for a single second regretted burning my bridges in Belgium. You may analyse me, how I have become what I am now. But I am not returning to Belgium. In this area I am the third highest military commander of Jabhat al-Nusra. Today I celebrate the birth of my daughter. I am happy!’ [1]

We will never fully comprehend extremism in Europe and the Middle East without an appreciation of the interplay between the intimate life stories of those involved and the bigger geopolitical picture.[2] This is the main premise behind ‘De Jihadkaravaan’ (The Jihad Caravan), in which the personal stories of Dutch-speaking foreign fighters from the Netherlands and Belgium are combined with accounts of the developments in their European home countries and the countries on which the jihadist struggle often focuses, such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine.

The book engages with the ideas, hopes, and fears of the people involved in the struggles in the Middle East. It is not a strictly academic book, but this is precisely where its value lies as it helps us comprehend the human narratives behind the statistics and the headlines, and therefore helps us make sense of that vague yet incredibly relevant word that we hear so much in relation to radicalisation: ‘identity’. It approaches homegrown radicalisation in the West as a societal problem, and it calls upon everybody to become engaged in the resolution of this issue. The book is largely narrated through the eyes of Montasser AlDe’emeh, a Palestinian-Belgian who decided to travel to Syria to get to know the stories of his fellow countrymen who had decided to leave their old lives behind.

This review is aimed at making the main ideas of this book more accessible for those that do not speak Dutch, as this book not only offers an insight into the Dutch and Belgian foreign fighter issue, but it may also carry important insights for other European countries from which foreign fighters have travelled to Syria and Iraq in the past years.

Narratives of Displacement and Oppression

Belgium has pushed us away with its hypocritical laws. Muslim women could not attend school without removing their headscarf. You decided how we had to live. We chose not to sell out our religion.’[3]

There are currently approximately 200-250 Dutch and 440 Belgian foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Belgian nationals form the largest per capita number of foreign fighters from Western Europe (of the 11.2 million total population) and the Netherlands comes in sixth (with a total population of 16.8 million).[4] To put these numbers in perspective: with a population of 64.1 million, the United Kingdom has around 500-600 foreign fighters in the region, putting it three places below the Netherlands per capita.

Though the Netherlands and Belgium are societies that differ on a number of levels, the linguistic connection between the Dutch-speaking foreign fighters from both countries has fostered an intimate connection between them. For example, the group Sharia4Holland – a radical Salafist group that was active in the Netherlands from 2010 onwards and from which several members have travelled to Syria[5] – is in fact an offshoot of the Belgian Sharia4Belgium. Belgian fighters that travelled to Syria in 2012 and 2013 have been linked to this group.[6]

Some of the Dutch and Belgian people Montasser meets in Syria are former members of these networks.[7] Those following the Dutch and Belgian fighters are familiar with this alleged connection, though it should be made clear that it is ideological rather than organisational in nature. It is doubtful that Sharia4Holland and Sharia4Belgium have played an active role in the recruitment and the arrangement of travelling to Syria.[8]

As Montasser explains, Sharia4Belgium’s and Sharia4Holland’s aim and success has been creating an awareness of a certain notion of Muslim identity among their followers.[9] This, in turn, has proven to be fertile soil for further radicalisation and incentives to action. This complicates the attempts of government and security agencies to tackle the flow of foreign fighters from their countries to Syria and Iraq, as the more straightforward method of targeting active recruiters would be an insufficient – if not largely misguided – policy in this case.

Radicalisation processes and the choice to become a foreign fighter may more often than not occur at a closed-off individual level, perhaps (but not necessarily) preceded by direct contact with an organisation such as Sharia4Holland or Sharia4Belgium. And as more and more stories have emerged of Dutch and Belgian fighters in Syria and Iraq, it has become clear that often the most evident connection to ‘networks’ in their home country and Syria is either through ideological sympathy or through friend or family connections. What seems to be key in understanding the foreign fighter contingent may therefore not be these official networks, but rather some notion of identity and belonging.

The centrality of identity is obviously manifested in the ideological and political aims of European jihadists abroad, but this book gives us a valuable insight into another component of the identity of Dutch and Belgian fighters: their intimate connection through their shared Dutch language, which they speak amongst each other. Interestingly, even though they have made it to the land that they believe will allow them to escape European oppression and free their equally oppressed Middle Eastern brothers, they speak in the language of their home countries of Belgium and the Netherlands. They refer to their world in Syria as a ‘mini Europe’.[10] The identity of these people is not merely a religious one, but it is also one of having felt out of place in – yet inevitably having been shaped by – a European context. The stories of these people may teach us more than we think about the societies from which they emerge, as they are not purely a product of Islam but also of their Dutch and Belgian experiences.


The Jihad Caravan concludes with a number of recommendations for us all – not merely for the policy world – as the authors view the issue of foreign fighters as a global issue which can only be addressed with everybody’s involvement. They make two particularly important recommendations:[11]

First, they make a call for people to support the Arab Spring, and to pierce through the false choice between peace and security in the Middle East. This entails recognising that the old model of international support for local dictators in the name of stability has failed, as it was part of the reason why a new form of global terror (Salafi-jihadism) has emerged. Though this implies that the Arab Spring is a uniform movement rather than – what I would argue – more of a chain of interlinked yet distinct popular uprisings, what the authors mean by their call for ‘support of the Arab Spring’ is in fact an international backing of genuine change as demanded by the people in the Middle East, unhindered by an obsession with security and stability in the region.

The observation that Salafi-jihadism emerged because of internationally backed local dictators is the subject of many studies, and questionable simply because the rise of secular Arab dictators happened in conjunction with a number of different historical developments which may have triggered the rise of Salafi-jihadism. It is therefore difficult to strictly isolate the chain of events that led to this form of global terror, but it is true that Salafi-jihadism is new in the sense that it is a phenomenon of the past few decades, though its ideological influences date back to the early days of Islam.

Moreover, and in my opinion incredibly important, is the call to stop focusing solely on Islamic State horror stories in reports about the developments in Syria and Iraq, but to also focus on the terror that largely feeds Islamic State support: that of the Assad regime which has killed around 50 civilians for each one that the Islamic State has killed to date. The Islamic State is a terrifying entity, but death and suffering at the hands of non-jihadists must not be forgotten.

The second recommendation made in the book is to create a better foundation for European Islam to flourish. The underlying thought is that homegrown Muslim extremism in Europe cannot be solved without giving new life to a European Islam. Muslim communities in Europe have suffered immensely from the radicalising and polarising effects that the rise of the Islamic State has had in the global debate on Islam, which has compounded much of the exclusion and discrimination they were already feeling. This essentially brings us back to questions of displacement and oppression – precisely those issues that are at the heart of the foreign fighter issue.

Though this book ends on a political tone, which not everybody will appreciate, the least we can take from this account is what it tells us about the deeply human nature of what we so distantly call – as I do above – ‘the foreign fighter issue’. It also reminds us of the substantial human grievances that inspire these low-level recruits, as well as the undeniable human suffering that they cause on their path to fulfilment.

Samar Batrawi is a doctoral candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. She has worked for the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling in Palestine, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation in London, and the Clingendael Institute for International Relations in The Hague. Follow her at @SamarBatrawi


[1] Quote from a Belgian foreign fighter interviewed in AlDe’emeh, M. & Stockmans, P. (2015), De Jihadkaravaan: Reis naar de Wortels van de Haat (The Jihad Caravan: a Journey to the Roots of Hatred), Tielt: Uitgeverij Lannoo, p. 159

[2] AlDe’emeh, M. & Stockmans, P. (2015), De Jihadkaravaan: Reis naar de Wortels van de Haat (The Jihad Caravan: a Journey to the Roots of Hatred), Tielt: Uitgeverij Lannoo, p. 12

[3] Quote from a Belgian woman in Syria interviewed in AlDe’emeh, M. & Stockmans, P. (2015), De Jihadkaravaan: Reis naar de Wortels van de Haat (The Jihad Caravan: a Journey to the Roots of Hatred), Tielt: Uitgeverij Lannoo, p. 161

[4] Neumann, P.R. (January 2015), Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s, ICSR Insight (

[5] De Volkskrant (23 May 2013), ‘Nederlander Vast in Marokko om Ronselen voor Syrie’ (

[6] De Volkskrant (24 April 2013), Sharia4Holland Speelt Rol bij Jihad-reizen (

[7] AlDe’emeh, M. & Stockmans, P. (2015), De Jihadkaravaan: Reis naar de Wortels van de Haat (The Jihad Caravan: a Journey to the Roots of Hatred), Tielt: Uitgeverij Lannoo, p. 128

[8] Ibid. p. 143

[9] Ibid. pp. 136-141

[10] Ibid. p. 129

[11] Ibid. pp. 461-503

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