skip to Main Content

Terrorist Rehabilitation in the Dutch Prison System

ICSVE Panel Discussion featuring

Yola Wanders, Former Director of the High Security Prison in Vught Netherlands (2009-2020)

Gaby Thijssen, Forensic Psychologist

Anne Speckhard, Director ICSVE

This event was held July 8, 2020, at 11:00 AM EST.

Have you ever wondered what will happen with the thousands of foreign terrorist fighters held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and those also held under terrorism charges in prisons around the world? Will we see them once again unleashed and still lethal or is it possible to rehabilitate and reintegrate a terrorist prisoner? In ICSVE’s first three Zoom events, panelists discussed the ins and outs of repatriating FTFs, rehabilitation and integration, and repatriating children. In this fourth panel, we circled back to the question of whether or not a terrorist can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society by exploring the details and nuances of the Dutch program for imprisoned terrorist offenders. In the Netherlands, there are currently 40 terrorist prisoners serving time and the Dutch approach to attempting to rehabilitate them involves 150 detainees. This event featured Yola Wanders, former director of the Dutch Supermax and terrorism wing, and Gaby Thijssen, forensic psychologist specialized in violent extremism from the Netherlands, speaking about their approaches to successfully turning terrorist prisoners away from terrorism, their methods of evaluation, and also the challenges they have faced where some prisoners are impossible to reach or change.

This event was part of ICSVE’s Zoom panel series on repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS FTFs and their families.

Yola Wanders began her career in 1989 as a guard in the Penitentiary Institution of Hoogeveen. After filling various executive positions, she was appointed as a member of the board at the Prison in Veenhuizen in 2003. She transferred in 2009 to the Penitentiary Institution in Vught, with special attention for the very high security (Supermax) and terrorist departments (TD). Since 2012, she has been connected to the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), serving the first 4 years as chairman of the Prison & Probation (P&P) working group, then as a core member. Within the RAN Prison & Probation working group, Yola exchanged experiences with and between the various EU Member States. Within the Dutch prison system, she is closely involved in the policy of radicalization within prisons and in the development of the renewed day program for the terrorist departments (TD). The TD of Vught has been in operation since 2005. Currently, the TD has a capacity of 46 cells divided into 5 departments. There is a lot of criticism about the concentration of detainees who are suspected or convicted of a terrorist offence. Yola cannot deny that the concentration model has disadvantages, but it also offers advantages which she will discuss. New insights and experience have taught Yola that working within the TD with small-differentiated groups, creates the best results. A holistic approach and a positive living climate are also important conditions for human detention and especially with this target group to create meaningful contact to start a kind of a rehabilitative relationship. Without this basis, any initiative to deradicalization is doomed to fail.

Gaby Thijssen is an experienced Dutch forensic psychologist and researcher (Ph.D. student), specialized in radicalization and terrorism. She is working in the Dutch prison facility of Vught in the very high security (Supermax) and terrorist departments. She has practical experience in psychological assessment, risk assessment and treatment of violent and violent extremist offenders. She is closely involved in the Dutch policy of radicalization and ‘high risk inmates’ in prison facilities. Furthermore, she is the ‘attention-officer’ for radicalization. If there are signs of radicalization in the prison populations, she conducts an assessment and coordinates further interventions. She is also a member in advisory boards of practical projects related to terrorism and exit programs in the Netherlands and is a member in European working groups on terrorism.

Dr. Anne Speckhard, Director of ICSVE has in-depth interviewed 240 ISIS prisoners, returnees and defectors, over half held in SDF territory who may at some point be returned to their home countries, viewed the abysmal conditions under which children of ISIS mothers live, and collected reports of the ISIS enforcers whose brutality continues inside these camps. Dr. Speckhard has worked with European and other countries on issues of repatriation of ISIS men, women and children held in SDF territory discussing, with the detainees’ full permission, their cases with their home justice authorities in order to bring them to face justice at home. Among these in-depth interviews she has interviewed nine Dutch male and female detainees, most who hope to return home at some point, knowing they will likely be prosecuted and imprisoned in the Dutch prison system. In 2006-2007, Dr. Speckhard wrote and designed the psychological portion and oversaw the Islamic Challenge portions of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for the U.S. Department of Defense to be applied to the 23,000 detainees and 800 juveniles held by U.S. forces in Iraq at that time. She has also often consulted with government officials about prevention of and rehabilitation for foreign terrorist fighters. She will moderate the panel discussion addressing questions such as: What is the Dutch perspective on FTFs and repatriation? What is the view of terrorist rehabilitation under the Dutch justice system? How are Dutch people convicted on terrorist charges evaluated for their current levels of radicalization? What does treatment for Dutch people convicted on terrorist charges look like? How is the program in the Dutch terrorist prison evaluated?  What are some examples of successful terrorist treatment in the Dutch prison system? What are some examples of failed terrorist treatment in the Dutch prison system?  If and when Dutch people convicted on terrorist charges are released from prison, what is the process for reintegrating them into their communities? How does the treatment of Dutch people convicted on terrorism charges inform and impact community and law enforcement-based prevention and intervention efforts?  How is COVID-19 complicating all of these issues?

The panel spoke briefly, followed by questions from those on the webinar. Questions were posed using the Zoom chat feature and by Twitter to @ICSVE. live chat will be published after the event.

This is the fourth discussion in this series of panels discussing ISIS foreign fighters. The first panel, Issues of ISIS Prisoners and Repatriations in a Time of COVID has been recorded and can be watched here. The second panel, Can an ISIS Terrorist be Rehabilitated and Repatriated into Society? has been recorded and can be watched here. The third panel, Can We Repatriate the ISIS Children? has been recorded and can be watched here.

Chat Log:

11:00:03 From Bouraoui Ouni (SFCG-Tunisia) : Hello all and thank you so much ICSVE for this Opportunity! I’m Ouni from Search Tunisia

11:00:15 From Gabriel Sjöblom-Fodor : hello :)

11:03:18 From Bernadette Bowyer : Hello from Canada

11:04:10 From mollyellenberg : Our first event: Issues of ISIS Prisoners & Repatriations in a Time of COVID

11:04:16 From mollyellenberg : Our second event: Can an ISIS Terrorist be Rehabilitated and Reintegrated into Society?

11:04:21 From mollyellenberg : Our third event: Can We Repatriate the ISIS Children?

11:05:10 From Emmanuel : Hi everyone!

11:05:21 From mollyellenberg : ICSVE’s YouTube channel, with counter narrative playlists in 27 languages

11:05:36 From HSUZEN : Once again great event! Congrats Speckhard and her team

11:05:43 From mollyellenberg : Counter narrative featuring Dutch Munir Hassan al Kharbashi, “Practicing Islam in the Islamic State Caliphate”: 

11:05:48 From mollyellenberg : Counter narrative featuring Dutch Munir Hassan al Kharbashi, “In Search of a Just Islamic Caliphate

11:05:53 From mollyellenberg : Counter narrative featuring Dutch Umm Mohamed, “The Islamic State that the Prophet Announced

11:05:59 From mollyellenberg : Counter narrative featuring Dutch Umm Mohamed, “Seeking Safety in the Islamic State Caliphate” 

11:06:27 From mollyellenberg : Here’s our most recent Facebook counter narrative paper, #5:

11:06:44 From mollyellenberg : Here is the recent ICSVE report Can We Repatriate the ISIS Children? which is based on our event of the same name 

11:06:58 From Phil : Hello thanks for joining  cheers from Belgium

11:07:37 From mollyellenberg : Please see the article by Dr. Speckhard regarding work in Iraqi Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper: Psycho-social and Islamic Challenge Approaches to in Prison Treatment of Militant Jihadis 

11:07:58 From iPhone : Hello Canada, Team(s), thanks to ICSVE for leading this network!

11:08:19 From Emmanuel : I have written extensively on those issues, on the basis of my experience in international law and refugee law, at

11:11:21 From mollyellenberg : Our report, Can an ISIS Terrorist be Rehabilitated and Reintegrated into Society? which is based on our event of the same name 

11:19:19  From Jocelyn Belanger : An empirical paper on derad. that might be of interest to the group:  Webber, D., Chernikova, M., Kruglanski, A. W., Gelfand, M. J., Hettiarachchi, M., Gunaratna, R., … & Bélanger, J. J. (2018). Deradicalizing detained terrorists. Political Psychology, 39(3), 539-556.    link here:

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Dr. Kruglanski who is on the Advisory Board of ICSVE does excellent research!  Highly recommended reading :)

11:23:55  From harjit.sandhu : When I was investigating war crimes in Balkans and we brought some of them to the Scheveningen prison in The Hague, victims used to call Dutch prisons as Five Star hotels for the war criminals. Any views on that?

Anne Speckhard (after the event): So true Harjit.  Many of those ISIS members held in northeast Syria reference the European prisons as where they wish to be because there they have rights, are treated well and also can have visits with their children and other family members.

11:24:08  From Shane Healey : Why do “WE” keep making the fundamental mistake of “trying” Deradicalizing, WE need/should be focusing on DE Violent Extremism! not understanding this is why programs fail!

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Deradicalization is a poorly defined term Shane.  My view is that any belief that is not serving the individual well and that is dangerous to wider society, in terms of violence and promoting illegal behavior needs to be challenged.  We do this all the time in regular cognitive behavioral therapy.  For terrorist prisoners following militant jihadist ideologies I would not view that as challenging their religion, but challenging beliefs that they often think are supported by their religion that support violent extremism.  So I think we agree, but I would definitely say the least dangerous prisoner to release back into society is one that has been “deradicalized” in terms of forsaking a terrorist ideology that promotes violence against society.

11:25:35  From dansturgis : Harjit – I think the victim perspective is an important one worth discussing, particularly in the counter-narrative sphere. I would like to hear the thoughts from experts on the psychological impact and whether it should be encouraged or avoided.

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Defining oneself and one’s larger group as a victim is definitely an important issue to deal with in rehabilitation. The whole militant jihadist ideology argues that Muslims are victims of the West and all Muslims have an individual obligation to jihad to defend these victims and they justify victimizing others as defensive jihad.  All of this needs to be confronted in good treatment while also acknowledging real grievances.

11:27:03  From Bouraoui Ouni (SFCG-Tunisia) : “not everybody”: so what about those you are excepting? will security measures be sufficient?

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Not sure I understand this question, sorry.

11:27:17  From Orit Adato : What are the classification criteria for housing terror inmates?

Anne Speckhard (after the event):  I believe Yola and Gaby referred to four highly radicalized, still committed and violent prisoners that were kept apart from the others.  Good question on how to classify and important to underline what Gaby said that their recidivism has been with those who did not manage to travel to ISIS versus with returnees.  My guess would be that at least some, if not many, returnees have seen ISIS for what it really was and have little interest to stay committed where those who were trying to go feel frustrated and angry with the state that did not allow them to fulfill their dreams.

11:27:54  From Francesco Bergoglio Errico : How many women have been convicted in the last few years in your country? And, Are there differences between man and women recruitment and radicalisation in prison? 

Anne Speckhard (after the event):  Sorry we did not get to this question although Gaby did address that women had alot of traumatic experiences in marriages and sexual violence.

11:27:54  From Emmanuel : I work with Yazidi victims in Canada. We must start thinking very seriously about how, or even whether, we can have them face their torturers/rapists.

Anne Speckhard (after the event): As was discussed later on in the seminar, some will be hateful to victims and we must prepare victims for that possibility if we arrange such contacts.

11:30:42  From Sigrid Raets : WIth regard to recidivism risk for terror convicts, this recent article by the Belgian researcher Thomas Renard might be relevant to the attendees of this webinar:

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Thank you Sigrid, Thomas Renard is a good researcher!

11:30:48  From Besir Wrayet : Hi Harjit Great Question, bad guys can do evil and wicked things, we can’t because we uphold the law. But as trials go by advanced questioning.

11:31:16  From Phil : How can we be sure that returnees are not playing double game with the experts?

Anne Speckhard (after the event): This is always an issue Phil, but as Elaine Pressman author of the VERA 2 pointed out that assessment and reassessment and coming to a structured professional judgement and as Gaby said having many involved in a holistic approach with many professions involved from imams, psychologist, medical, guards, family members, police etc. allows for many views, good questions and a good assessment over time.  It’s perhaps the best we can do.

11:33:45  From Sara ben abdelouahab : good point phil – there is that question… & others who after their release from prison state/express their continued radicalization Publicly! to the media! & others kind of change « some » things but stick to very radicalized beliefs…

Anne Speckhard (after the event): As Gaby pointed out the police and intelligence do continue to keep those considered dangerous under surveillance upon their release.

11:33:55  From Besir Wrayet : Phil great point and that this has always been my belief. FTF’s and their families have evolved into Uber Nazi’s should go through post WW II. I would not be surprised if a new FTF Sociopath entry will be created.

11:34:35  From Besir Wrayet : Post WW II ReEducation

11:37:13  From Irfanullah Mateen : what will be the fate of their newborn children?

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Please see our paper on Can we Rehabilitate the ISIS Children and seminar on the same topic.

11:37:41  From Sara ben abdelouahab : here is a link… case i read this morning . interested in knowing your inputs!

Anne Speckhard (after the event): I think it’s important to note “Gaya was arrested while unloading three tons of what he thought was ammonium nitrate from a rented truck into a storage facility in Newmarket, Ont.” If this bomb attack had not been thwarted by Mubin Shaik and another undercover it would have been Canada’s 9-11. He has apparently rehabilitated himself, but he may pay the price of being on the no fly list for his lifetime.  It may be just, no?  Incidentally if you like to read I wrote Mubin’s story into the book Undercover Jihadi which is available on Amazon, it’s quite a story.

11:40:19  From Phil : How can we trust a returnee from ISIS (war criminal)?

Anne Speckhard (after the event): We can’t. That’s why we are in favor of prosecuting them and encouraging participation in rehabilitation and reintegration programs and frequent assessments.

11:40:54  From harjit.sandhu : And most of these terrorists have no remorse whatsoever for the brutal killings and rapes of helpless and hapless women including young girls committed by them. 

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Actually many of them have remorse for those I’ve interviewed (n=240) and even suffer PTSD from things in which they have been involved.  Not everyone who does evil walks away from it without loads of emotional pain.

11:41:30  From Sara ben abdelouahab : not all foreign fighters who joined ISIS have taken part in criminal activities… etc… Phil

11:41:43  From Altaf : returnees can be divided into sub categories: 1) Defectors who took 180 degree turn 2) Traumatized returnees who need psychological help due to what they have seen 3) criminals who go back to the life of crime 4) cells (they are often unknown) 5) Returnees who lay low just to join another battlefield later

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Good job with this Altaf!

11:42:15  From Besir Wrayet : I believe in Rehab but can only save limited bunch. After losses everyone is talking about the virtual caliphate and every FTF will serve as a saint or disciple of ISIS. The only function of the De-Radicalization is Mental Registry. I spotted and profile ISIS FTF’s as early 2013. As far as SDF/YPG they are a terrorist group. The de-Radicalization ought to focus on the entire community to prevent giving FTF’s savior status. So CT, Intel andMIL still needs to be involved. We need to be mindful of during the hay days of ISIS Three options were given for those outside Syria 1) Come to Syria, 2) Become a Suicide Bomber in or out of Syria, 3) Become a Spy they will continue to pose a threat.

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Besir on the SDF you reflect the Turkish point of view, but the US considers the SDF a worthy ally in the fight against ISIS and our military officials have told me there is no evidence that the SDF has attacked Turkey from Syria at any point in time.  PKK on the other hand is a designated terrorist group although some argue and it was won in Belgian court that they are an armed resistance group.  So this is a controversial issue.

11:45:28  From harjit.sandhu : Very well said Besir.

11:47:22  From Besir Wrayet : Thanks Harjit, it is a learning experience for all of us.

11:47:55  From harjit.sandhu : Altaf has made good five categories. Categorizing them correctly, however, is a big challenge.

11:49:36  From Tasnime Akunjee : could i ask what has been the cost of a successful rehabilitation in your experience? a range would be sufficient – thank you 

Anne Speckhard (after the event): I’m sorry this question did not get asked Tasnime. It’s a good one and I would imagine the cost is very high.

11:51:41  From Jens : Is it helpful to be female for doing the interviews with the inmates?

Anne Speckhard (after the event): I worried about going into prisons as a Western female to talk to male militant jihadists but found that only in Albania did two refuse to speak with me, and one of these agreed as long as he could face away so he didn’t “sin”.  All others among 700+ welcomed talking to a woman.  Many related to my warmth as a mother and many sobbed in the interviews which I’m not sure they would have with a man.  These are often very lonely men who haven’t talked to a woman in a very long time.  I think the important thing is presence as Gaby said, being really present and willing to treat them as fellow human beings and not judge while listening.  Of course we evaluate, but in a kind way.

11:54:40  From Emmanuel : How do we prepare them to repair (ex monetary damages)  the harm they did to their victims who are now in the same country, as refugees?

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Good question but I would guess that most “pay” by their time in prison.  They would have to be taken to civil courts to win damages.  A good sign of rehabilitation however is wanting to make reparations and restitution when possible. 

11:55:07  From harjit.sandhu : I spoke at length to an international terrorist in Bosnia. He was instrumental in dozens of beheadings, but he had no remorse for what he had done. He refused to talk to my colleagues by saying that he does not talk to ‘qafirs’, however, he agreed to speak to me, seeing my beard. He told me ‘before investigating my actions, first go and investigate the crusades’.

Anne Speckhard (after the event): This is common, a defense. Usually you can move through it if you are patient. 

11:55:10  From Bouraoui Ouni (SFCG-Tunisia) : Madam Gaby, you talked about the four axes you Added to VERAII, can I ask if you have codified thuis work?

Anne Speckhard (after the event): This is good encouragement for Gaby if she has not as it was a very good presentation. 

11:55:17  From MailletteN : In EMDR therapy. Don’t the psychologist need to either tap lightly the knees of the subject or have some contact in order to get the eyes move left to right? How would this be done, if there is a glass wall between the subject and the psychologist?????

Anne Speckhard (after the event): In EMDR you can use an auditory signal or wave the hands to direct eye movement and both can be done through glass.

11:59:15  From Tasnime Akunjee : Besir – so you consider a success deradicalisation only when you remove the person fully from their religion?

12:00:18  From Besir Wrayet : It is not religion but perception and reception of the community.

12:00:37  From Tasnime Akunjee : what is the deliniation between the two Besir?

12:00:39  From Charles : Hi Besir – could you elaborate on that further?

12:01:54  From Besir Wrayet : Basically this is not an individual level but community should be on the watch for sparks.

12:02:14  From dansturgis : VERA – Violent Extremist Risk Assessment?

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Yes:

12:02:40  From Charles : Hi Besir – Could you give an example of a spark? Would that be a “radical” thought?

12:03:02  From Charles : I am very interested in what you have to say. 

12:03:12  From Peta Lowe : yes VERA is Violent Extremist Risk Assessment …now VERA-2R

12:04:44  From Besir Wrayet : Hi Charles, think of it from a public health standpoint, outbreaks transpire but give signal that can become avalanche.

12:09:12  From Altaf : can I add something?

12:14:14  From Figen Murray : My son was killed in a terrorist attack three years ago and I wondered if you ever use restorative justice as part of deradicalization?

12:15:06  From Tasnime Akunjee : so sorry to hear of your loss Figen 

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Thank you so much Figen for your intervention, I think it moved many people today.

12:15:17  From Maji Peterx : To get FTF to completely disengage and dissociate needs an all encompassing process not just an activity. That’s the challenge we are having with programs around Boko Haram. I can share more.

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Maji we were sorry we lost connection with you.

12:16:23  From Besir Wrayet : Muslim community was too late in condemning and combatting ISIS and Boko Haram

12:16:41  From Charles : Hi Besir – when you refer to the Muslim community?

12:16:44  From Charles : Who do you mean?

12:16:56  From Besir Wrayet : I think Figen should get the floor.

12:17:15  From Tasnime Akunjee : Besir – who from the muslim community failed to condemn Isis and Boko Haram?

12:17:30  From Charles : Are you referring to governments or the Islamic community as a whole?

12:18:05  From Beatrice Eriksson – Repatriate the Children Sweden : Figen, so sorry about your loss. Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Maybe there could be a webinar on this topic?

12:18:22  From Besir Wrayet : During the early days there was hardly any discomfort. You want to do Jihad try to raise people’s living standards literacy

12:18:50  From Tasnime Akunjee : Besir – what do you say about the fact that Israel actively supported ISIS ? 

12:19:04  From Besir Wrayet : Science and Technology like in the early history of islam.

12:19:26  From Tasnime Akunjee : Moshe Ya’alon – the israeliu defense minister made the admission in 2015

12:19:40  From Besir Wrayet : ISIS got investors A thru Z everyone was involved.

12:20:14  From Besir Wrayet : It would have been a surprise if the Israeli footprint was Zero.

12:20:25  From Peta Lowe : understanding the motivation behind an individual’s engagement in violent extremism provides a focus for disengagement interventions.

Anne Speckhard (after the event): Yes I think Gaby covered this quite well, that we need to understand the person who is in front of us and every good treatment plan needs to be holistic and individualized.

The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism also thanks the Embassy of Qatar in Washington, D.C. and the European Commission’s Civil Society Empowerment Programme for their generous support of our research and of these online events. This article and the seminar were partially funded by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund — Police.

Back To Top