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    shadow of light shining on a jail cell door

    The Born-Again Terrorist

    An encounter with Schindler’s List changes a violent radical

    Abigail R. Esman

    March 4, 2021
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    Jason Walters waits on a bench outside the Hotel des Indes in The Hague. We have agreed to meet here for drinks, Jason and I. Ten years ago, he was a Muslim extremist, one of the most dangerous men in the Netherlands. I am a Jew and an American. Ten years ago, I wrote about Jason Walters. Ten years ago, he would have wanted to kill me, and he would have been proud to do it.

    I have deliberately not reread what I wrote of Jason before we meet, about his involvement with the Hofstadgroep, the terror cell that included Mohammed Bouyeri, Theo van Gogh’s assassin. I have not read the media reports of his arrest, after a fourteen-hour standoff with police, though I remember watching it on national TV. He made a hand grenade and then threw it at police officers during the standoff in The Hague in the hours before his arrest – a grenade he learned to build while training for jihad in Pakistan. “Come and get me,” he called out to them as they surrounded his home. “I’ve been waiting for you for years!”

    This is a different Jason. He has repudiated not just Islamist extremism but Islam and religion altogether. After nine years in prison he emerged with a college degree in philosophy and now works as a counterterrorism expert for the Dutch government and others. Who he was is part of who he is, but I don’t want to know who he is or was from anybody else’s words.

    I want Jason to tell his story to me himself.

    Everything.

    He is larger than I expect. He wears a woolen cap, the old-fashioned kind, which I decide is the color his hair would be, if the cap didn’t cover it so completely.

    Over tea, Vedett, and Sauvignon blanc, we talk of pain and harm and fury. We talk of the idea that killing people is for God and so it is okay. We talk of people becoming objects, obstacles to Allah and a better life, not living beings with people to love, with blood that beats and gardens that they tend. You kill them because it makes you a better person. You kill them for the reward. They don’t matter. I tell him about living with abuse and explain to him about it eventually not seeming as bad and he says yes, it’s the same about watching beheading videos.

    We lock eyes across the table.

    In prison everything was so close, he says. Your eyes never had a chance to focus far away. Now he wears glasses. When he first got out he could not estimate distances, how far away a car was, for instance, and whether it was safe to cross the street. He was in prison for nine years. He’d had no idea Bouyeri had killed or would kill Van Gogh. He watched the news and with his friends wondered who it could have been. Only late in the day did they put together the fact that Bouyeri, who never left his house but had not been at home when they went to visit him that morning, had, on this one occasion, left his house to kill.

    “We made an impact on the history of the jihad movement,” he says now. It occurs to me that there is a tinge of pride in his voice. For all his rebirth and reinvention, Jason still has a need to matter. Did they, really? “We were the first to go after someone for blasphemy,” he says. The Muslim cartoons followed, and Charlie Hebdo. I think they would have happened anyway, but what do I know? He followed the trends from a different side of the line. Where I stand, no one noticed; few people outside the Netherlands remember unless you actively remind them. But perhaps jihadists do. Perhaps it changed the dialogue.

    I know that fear. Will it change her? Will it make her understand? Or will it only add to her hatred and her fury?

    He gets threats but will not get a bodyguard. “I think there would be an outcry,” he says. I don’t think so. I think people are grateful for his reinvention, for his coming to our side, and would be happy to protect him, but I get it. He was part of a conspiracy to kill, not just Theo van Gogh but all of us. I sit across from him, a Jewish girl from New York, and he talks about the magnitude of 9/11. “It was the defining moment for my generation,” he says. He is stunned when I tell him I was in New York that day, that I had almost even been at what we now call Ground Zero.

    As we leave the Hotel des Indes he receives a message from a woman he knows who is still in Syria. “They are bombing,” she says. A woman was just shot and killed on the spot, right next to her, right now. More are dying all around her. They are running. She is so afraid. This is a jihadist, a woman who chose to go to Syria to kill. And still my heart breaks as she runs, fearing for her life. I know that fear. Will it change her? Will it make her understand? Or will it only add to her hatred and her fury?

    If she survives.

    JailCellEmbed

    Photograph by Pham Yen

    I first learned of Jason’s transformation through an interview he gave after his release. He had specifically chosen to speak with Esther Voet, the former director of the Centrum Informatie en Documentatie Israel, Holland’s main Jewish rights organization, who had become the editor of the country’s Jewish newspaper, Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad. In prison, he told Voet, he’d begun trying to “assimilate science with belief, with the beginning premise that all modern scientific insights could also be found in the Quran. That,” he had decided, “would be a great way to win hearts and minds. If you could find Einstein’s relativity theory in the Quran, that would be a strong argument that it was given by God.”

    It didn’t work. “The whole thing collided into itself,” he recalled to Voet. “But then came a kind of emptiness.” If he couldn’t prove God after all, what did anything really mean? He decided to study instead, receiving a BA in cultural studies while still serving his sentence. His coursework focused on “literature, cultural history, philosophy, and art, with emphasis on the early modern era to the Enlightenment.” He discovered philosophy, the area of study he continues to pursue now at Leiden University, working, coincidentally, with the same professors who once mentored Ayaan Hirsi Ali – his onetime sworn enemy, whom he had, in his radical days, conspired with his fellow members of the Hofstadgroep to assassinate.

    “Plato, Nietzsche, and Heidegger became crucial to the process for where I finally landed,” he told Voet. “What I had sought for so long, I found in philosophy. And so then the whole world had to be rediscovered, as if I’d been born again. I’m still doing that.”

    Along the way something happened. In 2008, while still in prison, Jason watched the film Schindler’s List when it aired on Dutch TV. “At the end of the film,” he recalled, “something in me broke.… I was so shaken by that song [at the end of the film] that I burst into tears.”

    By the end of the evening, Jason Walters, the ex-Muslim ex-terrorist, and I, the Jewish girl from New York’s Upper East Side, are friends. I have learned much more of who he is and he, I think, more about the life of someone he once would have violently reviled. I learn, too, about his brother, Jermaine, also radicalized and a member of the Hofstadgroep, whom Jason had tried to reform but couldn’t; Jermaine died a fighter on the battlefields of the Islamic State in 2015, leaving behind a pregnant wife and three small children. “I will never forgive him,” Jason says to me.

    What I learn, in part, is this: their father, a Black American soldier in the US Air Force, left his mother when Jason was ten years old and Jermaine eight. His father, he says, became involved in drugs and drinking after the marriage fell apart. While Jason insists to me that there was no violence in his childhood home, there are also reports that his mother feared him enough to seek refuge, with his two younger sisters, in a battered women’s shelter. He denies that he was bullied as a child, but people who knew him in those years have said he often was. What he does say is that his childhood was often frustrating. “It’s not easy being smarter than your parents,” he says. He often found himself having to explain things to them, a position of power further cemented, most likely, when he became the “man of the house” after his parents separated.

    Jason’s father had raised his boys taking them to church on Sundays, but when he moved to a new village, living among Moroccan families, the boys discovered Islam from their new friends in the neighborhood. Jason converted at age twelve, Jermaine some years later. And then came 9/11 – “the defining moment” for his generation.

    For Jason and Jermaine Walters, the attacks of 9/11 took on a different import than they did for their Dutch-Moroccan Muslim friends; the brothers, after all, were half American. Their father’s homeland had been attacked. While his friends rallied around bin Laden and al Qaeda, Jason, then sixteen, struggled to make sense of it all, to understand what had really happened on that day, and why.

    “It just hit me, and the world never really was the same afterward. All hatred basically just melted away.”

    Originally, he explains, it had been the aesthetics that drew him to Islam – the rituals, the submission to God. After 9/11 it became more an intellectual conviction. He was looking for answers, and Islam, he says, became “the paradigm, the entire reality.”

    “Nine-eleven was a catalyst,” he recalls. “It is the kind of event which requires immediate interpretation. It requires meaning. You have to attribute meaning to it, and take a stance. And that’s when I started going into the books and following the conversations of extremists, and I quickly became convinced that the extremists had a stronger story, because they have the source texts on their side. Others were cherry-picking their sources all the time. So it was kind of the main step, that the al Qaeda narrative was the right one.”

    “The narrative.” If it was the “narrative” of al Qaeda that radicalized Jason Walters, it was equally the narrative of Schindler’s List that redeemed him.

    When I ask him about his Schindler’s List epiphany, he pauses.

    In prison, Jason told me, he almost never cried. “I thought it made me too weak,” he said – not manly, not masculine enough. When the film, as he says, “broke” him, it also broke down his inhumanity. Compassion found its way in.

    “It was a very profound, emotional moment,” he says slowly. “It just hit me, and I can remember – the world never really was the same afterward. It just changed me. All hatred basically just melted away.”


    Adapted from Rage: Narcissim, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism (University of Nebraska Press, Potomac Books, 2020).

    Contributed By

    Abigail R. Esman is an award-winning essayist, journalist, columnist and author based in New York and The Netherlands. Her most recent book is Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy and the Culture of Terrorism (Potomac, 2020).

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