Question: What do Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway have in common? Answer: They are all the sites of current or recent trial proceedings involving Islamic terrorists and extremists. The common denominator in all these court cases and trials is that most of those who stand trial vehemently deny they have anything to do with terrorism. Instead, they either present themselves as harmless individuals, or they simply try to lay the blame on others. The same applies to those terrorist suspects who are the subject of pre-trial investigations.
A recent example is Abdelmajid Bouchar. A Moroccan citizen implicated in the terrorist bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004, he was arrested in July 2005, in Serbia, and subsequently expelled to Spain. DNA from Bouchar was found both in the house where the Madrid bombs were made and in another house where seven of the March 11 terrorists blew themselves up. Still, despite the evidence against him, Bouchar strongly denied that he had ever been in those two places during the pre-trial investigation.
Evidence suggests that Bouchar and his brethren are following Al-Qaeda guidelines and instructions on what to do after you have been arrested. According to one such Al Qaeda manual, “you should deny all information (accusations) by the prosecution representative, you should claim that the interrogation apparatus has fabricated those accusations and should deny your connection to anything obtained against you.”
That seems to be the approach of the group of 14 Muslim extremists, called the “Hofstadgroup,” currently on trial in the Netherlands. Most of them are first or second generation Moroccan immigrants. Although they sympathize with Osama bin Laden, they are not part of Al-Qaeda (compared to Al-Qaeda these militants are mere amateurs). Nonetheless, some of them did possess a manual entitled, “What to do after being arrested by intelligence services.” The manual presents an overview of interrogation techniques and offers lessons in the strategy of denial.
To see the strategy at work, one need only consider the case of Jason James Walters. One of the key suspects in the Hofstadgroup trial, Walters, the son of an American father living in Holland, is a Dutch convert to Islam. Walters joined the Hofstadgroup in 2003, quickly becoming radicalized. In the summer of 2004, he and his Dutch Moroccan friend Ismail Akhnikh visited a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. In conversations with a friend, Walters dropped hints of his connection to “the emir Maulana Masood Azhar,” the founder and leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistani terrorist network linked to Al-Qaeda. In conversations with another friend, Walters described the kind of training he had received in Pakistan.
But once in court, Walters simply denied he had ever been to such a camp. “I was just boasting, it was all imagination to impress others,” he said of his conversations. Far from taking part in a terrorist training camp, Walters now claims, he had only visited a number of madrassas (Islamic schools) and mosques in and near Islamabad. Even that accounting of his past is not as exculpatory as Walters seems to believe. Two of the 7/7 London suicide bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, visited a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in the winter of 2004. The camp was located near Islamabad and was operating under the cover of a madrassa. Unfortunately, Walters has not been pressed about the nature of the madrassas he supposedly toured.
More than these conversations, however, connect Walters to terrorism. On November 2, 2005, Dutch filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh was killed by a Dutch Moroccan named Mohammed Bouyeri, a prominent member of the Hofstadgroup. Secret recordings made by the Dutch Security and Intelligence Service in Walters’s apartment reveal that Walters and his friend Ismail Akhnikh adored Bouyeri and delightedly praised van Gogh’s murder. “Bouyeri is a real man, he is a hero, he wanted to become a martyr,” they are recorded saying. Walters is even more explicit: “He [Mohammed Bouyeri] slaughtered him [Theo van Gogh] like an animal. Praise be to God,” he says. Both Walters and Akhnikh boast that “[w]e are Bouyeri’s friends.”
With obvious delight, Walters even quotes from a letter that Bouyeri had knifed to van Gogh’s lifeless body. According to this “open letter” the Islamists’ next victim would be Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A dissident Muslim, a member of parliament and a close friend of Theo van Gogh, she and van Gogh had made the film "Submission," which challenged the oppression of women in Islamic cultures. This film aroused the ire Muslim extremists in Holland, who denounced it as blasphemous. Besides citing his threatening letter, Walters and Akhnikh also discussed the publication of Bouyeri’s writings in book form.
Most damning of all is Walters’ attempt to murder Dutch police. On the night of November 9, 2004, police tried to arrest Walters and Akhnikh. From the entrance of his apartment Walters threw a grenade, wounding four policemen. “I never felt so happy,” Walters told Akhnikh after he had stopped the police from entering the apartment. He said he hoped the grenade had resulted in the death of one or more policemen. And he made further threats. “We are going to decapitate you,” Walters shouted at the police. “We go to paradise, you go to hell,” Akhnikh added. Laughing, he added, “I’ve waited for twenty years to become a martyr!” More than once, Walters and Akhnikh challenged the police to shoot them dead.
In keeping with al-Qaeda’s instructions—deny, deny, deny—an altogether different Walters has emerged during his trial. Of his assault on police, Walters has claimed that he had been overcome by emotions—it had never been his intention to kill or wound anyone. Indeed, Walters now claims to disavow the legitimacy of murder. In court, Walters has said that it is not right to kill people, though he insists that is allowed in countries under occupation, like Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya.
With respect to the killing of Theo van Gogh—an act expressly praised by Walters in taped conversations in his apartment—he now maintains that he would never have contemplated such measures. “I myself would not have done it, I was not allowed to do it,” he says. “The fact that I was happy about the killing of Theo van Gogh does not mean I condoned it.” Incredibly, he has further claimed that the menacing open letter left by Bouyeri on van Gogh’s body had not been intended as a threat to Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Abiding by the al-Qaeda playbook, Walters has also tried to shift the blame onto others. He has said that the four grenades he had lobbed at Dutch police had been given to him by Saleh Bouali, a former Moroccan friend. On the day after Walters made the allegation, Bouali challenged him. “I want you to repeat this accusation directly in my presence,” he demanded. Walters was defiant: “Why are you lying?” he retorted. “Yes, you did it.” The only conclusion to be drawn from the standoff is that either Walters or Bouali is lying. Walters would appear to be the more suspicious of the two. Leaving the court room after his exchange with Bouali, Walters noticed his friend Ismail Akhnikh. Then he smiled and made a thumbs-up gesture.
Walters is among the more prominent examples of Islamists who hope to beat terrorism charges by actively lying about their past. But he is not the only one. Another example is a Dutch girl of Moroccan ancestry named Soumaya Sahla. Convicted in a separate trial in October 2005, Soumaya was the girlfriend of Nouredine el Fatmi, another prominent member of the Hofstadgroup. Shortly before her arrest, Soumaya had tried (but failed) to find out the private addresses of prominent Dutch politicians, Ayaan Hirsi Ali among them. Soumaya and El Fatmi were finally arrested in Amsterdam in June of 2005. In his bag, El Fatmi carried a machinegun. Before their arrest the talkative Soumaya had mentioned the gun in private telephone conversations. But in court she flatly denied that she had known anything about the gun. The judge was not persuaded, and handed down a nine-month prison sentence.
Prosecutors in the Netherlands, Belgium and France face serious problems when they arrest Moroccans and Algerians on charges of terrorism. It is almost impossible to extract an admission of guilt. Moreover, police sources in the Netherlands say that young Moroccan criminals or Muslim extremists rarely yield under interrogation. Confronted with clear evidence of guilt—like DNA or taped telephone conversations—they flatly deny everything.
In short, the current spate of trials represents a clash between the Western system of criminal justice and al-Qaeda’s code of deceit. And if Jason James Walters’ courtroom tactics are any indication, al-Qaeda may be winning.