When "Driss M" left his home in the Netherlands to join the fight in Syria, he was, he said later, heading there to fight against ISIS, not with them, alongside the Free Syrian Army. He returned in 2017, expecting a hero's welcome. He was arrested, instead, charged with supporting the Jabhat al-Shamiya terrorist group, and sentenced to three years in Holland's high-security prison exclusively for terrorists.
Now it seems the government that convicted him may be guilty of the same crimes.
Extensive investigative reporting by Dutch newspaper Trouw and news program Nieuwsuur revealed that the government had sent support to 22 armed groups in Syria – including Jabhat al-Shamiya – to the tune of €25 million (almost $30 million).
The goal of the Dutch program, which began in 2015, was to provide "non-lethal support" to the Free Syrian Army – of which Jabhat al-Shamiya is a part. That support has included sending pickup-trucks, cameras, satellite telephones, food, uniforms, medical supplies, and even laptop computers, to rebel groups. The shipments, indeed much of the program, has been conducted "in the deepest secret," Trouw reports.
But Jabhat al-Shamiya, or the Levant Front, is not just part of the Free Syrian Army: it is a partner of Ahrar al Sham, an Islamist militant group founded by a former al-Qaida member, which has committed attacks with al-Qaida in Aleppo and elsewhere. More significantly, even as the Dutch government was sending millions of euros in aid, the country's federal prosecutor had already declared the group a terror organization.
More worrisome is the fact that alarms had been sounded previously. In 2017, online news site Novini reported cautions by Foreign Affairs Minister Bert Koenders that such aid could land in the hands of ISIS and related terror groups. Other warnings had come from aid groups like Human Rights Watch, and from the United States, where Hawaiian U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard proposed the "Stop Arming Terrorists Act," fearing that U.S. aid could also land in the wrong hands.
In subsequent reporting, Nieuwsuur revealed that "from 2016 to early 2018, Holland supported the Sultan Murad Brigade with pickup trucks and uniforms, all while during the same time period, this brigade, according to human rights organizations, was guilty of war crimes.
"The brigade used child soldiers for its battles, and was involved in the attack on a Kurdish neighborhood, Sheik Maqsoud, where 83 civilians, including 30 children, were killed."
Notably, the journalists behind the Trouw and Nieuwsuur report found it nearly impossible to learn exactly which "moderate" rebel groups the government was supporting, or what the criteria were for determining "moderate" as opposed to "radical." In many cases, an official said they were based on assurances by group leaders that they would stand by democratic principles.
But Justice Ferry van Veghel, who handles Syrian jihadist returnees, had a different view: "I think it's always good to judge organizations by their deeds, and not so much on their words," he told Trouw.
Van Veghel is, in fact, far more cautious than the Dutch cabinet in making these distinctions. "A good part of the fighting groups that work with the Free Syrian Army can be called terrorist," he said.
That fact points to an ongoing challenge for Western governments that have tried supporting anti-Assad forces. Like the Levant Front, many associate themselves both with terror groups and with non-terrorist rebel armies. Knowing who stands in which camp has continued to confound throughout the Syrian war. Most recently, for instance, anti-Assad groups joined together to fight ISIS under the banner of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham; now, some fear that same organization will replace ISIS in a struggle to found an Islamic caliphate in the region.
Government leaders in the Netherlands responded quickly to the report, immediately stopping further payments and shipments. Meanwhile, several parliament members are demanding answers and calling for a further investigation. They want to know the exact criteria for providing support, and the names of those groups who received it.
Others are pointing to another, equally disturbing outcome of the revelations: If the Dutch government (and potentially other Western governments) has been lending support to terror groups, efforts to try to convict jihadists returning home from Syria could arguably be called illegitimate, and so prove futile. It is a dilemma that endangers not just the Dutch state, but the security of the world.
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Follow her at @radicalstates.