AMSTERDAM — Police arrested eight people believed to be Islamic radicals in the 24 hours since they took into custody the man they believe killed a filmmaker whose recent movie denounced the abuse of women in Islamic societies, authorities said today.
Writer-director Theo Van Gogh, a descendant of the artist Vincent Van Gogh, was attacked Tuesday morning as he rode his bicycle through Amsterdam's tree-lined streets toward the offices of his production company. Another cyclist, described as bearded and wearing Islamic-style clothes, pulled up behind him and opened fire.
Van Gogh dropped his bike and stumbled away, and the gunman gave chase, shot him again and stabbed him, police said. Police cornered the suspect in a nearby park and a gunfight ensued. The suspect was wounded in the leg, and an officer was slightly injured, authorities said. The suspect was arrested.
Law enforcement officials said they knew the Moroccan Dutch 26-year-old for his ties to alleged Muslim extremists and that he had a criminal record. Police said they found a document that the killer left attached to a knife he used to stab the victim.
The document is believed to be the killer's will, a sign that he planned to die in the attack, which apparently was driven by religious extremism, a law enforcement official said.
"This suspect was at least known to the authorities. He was known as a Muslim activist," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "He had indirect contacts with people under investigation for Islamic extremism."
Eight other suspected Muslim extremists also were detained, said Dop Krumimel, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office. Although their names were not released, Kruimel said they were previously arrested and released during an investigation in 2003 into terrorism.
"The suspects were detained at a number of residences searched in connection with the Van Gogh investigation," Kruimel told the Associated Press. "They were previously known to us. As of now only one suspect is being held for Van Gogh's murder, but the investigation will determine if others may have been connected."
Thousands gathered Tuesday night for a memorial rally called by Amsterdam's mayor, an event that was accompanied by loud drummers, as the rowdy Van Gogh would have wanted.
For many Dutch, the slaying revived painful memories of the 2002 assassination of maverick political leader Pym Fortuyn, another sensational crime that mixed Islam and Dutch politics.
Some Muslim activists called Van Gogh's film, "Submission," blasphemous. The 10-minute short tells the fictional stories of four women who endure incest, rape, beatings and forced marriages. It features images of women with Koranic verses painted on their bodies under see-through chadors.
A feminist politician who starred in Van Gogh's film accused authorities of failing to prevent a crime foretold.
Congressional deputy Ayaan Hirsi Ali has lived with round-the-clock bodyguards for several years because of threats arising from her campaign against abuse of women in Muslim immigrant communities. Van Gogh had been inundated with threats since the airing of his film in August, said Ali, a former Somali refugee.
"Everyone knew that this could happen," Ali told the NRC Handelsblatt newspaper Tuesday. "He's been threatened almost constantly since the summer. I know how the Arabic culture of revenge works. I've had security around me, so Theo was the easiest target.
"It's incredibly stupid that the local authorities in Amsterdam didn't protect Van Gogh," she added. "It makes me cynical. Apparently in this country, the habit is to wait until someone dies before taking action."
Van Gogh, a chain smoker with a defiant, irascible style, had dismissed the dangers during a radio interview last week.
"If it happens, it happens," he said, then added: "The bullet won't come for me. People think, 'He's the village idiot, so why would I shoot him?'"
Police had looked into the threats against Van Gogh but decided they were not concrete enough to assign him guards, a Dutch prosecutor told journalists Tuesday.
Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende issued a statement asking the public not to jump to conclusions.
"The facts have to be carefully examined," he said. "Let's allow the investigators to do their jobs. Van Gogh was someone who took part in the public debate with outspoken opinions, a champion of free speech. It's unacceptable if expressing a free opinion was the reason behind this brutal murder."
The crime was the latest sign of problems in the Netherlands. It has a low crime rate but is an increasingly troubled society — struggling, for example, to integrate Muslim immigrants.
Fortuyn's slaying forced the Dutch to confront complex issues about free speech, tolerance and discrimination. In fact, Van Gogh was completing work on a documentary about the Fortuyn assassination.
Fortuyn was killed by an animal-rights activist who said he was angry about the populist, openly gay politician's ideas on immigration and Islam. Fortuyn had stirred up passions with his warnings that the Netherlands had to work harder to integrate Muslims, whose culture discriminated against women and gays. Fortuyn's rivals accused him of xenophobia against Muslim immigrants.
Van Gogh's hard-edged rhetoric drew the same kind of criticism. He shared Fortuyn's typically Dutch mix of social liberalism and political conservatism, commentators said. Van Gogh admired President Bush and his self-declared "war on terrorism," said Emerson Vermaat, a Dutch investigative journalist writing a book on Al Qaeda in Europe.
Times wire services contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times