Dutch police arrested two suspected Islamic militants in The Hague on Wednesday after a 15-hour standoff that escalated the violence engulfing the Netherlands since the assassination of an outspoken filmmaker.
The confrontation in the Dutch city erupted about 2:45 a.m. when anti-terror police raided an apartment house in search of three extremists in a crackdown on Islamic networks that was launched after the slaying last week of filmmaker Theo van Gogh.
The suspects inside responded by hurling at least one hand grenade that wounded four police officers, two seriously, and barricading themselves in the apartment. They shouted at police: “We will decapitate you!”
The two were among more than 100 suspected militants who had been monitored for some time by police in the Netherlands. One of the suspects was a Dutch convert to Islam who had been detained last year and released, according to a law enforcement official.
Police carried out the raid because of signs that the suspects, who are believed to be tangentially linked to a cell accused in the Van Gogh slaying, were planning an attack, the official said.
“They are all connected to the Van Gogh group, but this [raid] was based on threat information,” said the official, who requested anonymity. “An unspecified threat, but there was concern that at least a plot was underway.”
As the standoff dragged on, hundreds of well-armed police flooded the working-class neighborhood, evacuating a street and deploying armored vehicles. The airspace over the city was temporarily closed.
As dusk fell, special-weapons units stormed the building and captured the two suspects after firing shots that wounded the convert in the shoulder. But a careful search continued Wednesday night because police believed another suspect might be inside and were wary of booby traps.
Another suspect related to the investigation was arrested in the city of Utrecht. Four suspects also were arrested in Amsterdam and one in Amersfoort. Police did not release their names.
The standoff underscored the rise of violent extremists bent on waging jihad in Europe, investigators said.
The Netherlands, known for tranquillity and tolerance, has endured one of the most chaotic weeks in recent memory. The Van Gogh slaying set off a series of arrests, angry debate between Muslims and non-Muslims and arson attacks on mosques, Islamic schools and Protestant churches.
“We have to utterly reject this violence, altogether, because we’re being un-Dutch,” Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said during a speech to parliament. “Extremism is reaching the roots of our democracy. We cannot let ourselves be blinded by people who seek to drag us into a spiral of violence.”
Strife apparently was the objective of the Van Gogh slaying. Police in Amsterdam arrested a Moroccan Dutch man, Mohammed Bouyeri, in the killing, and five suspected accomplices who allegedly plotted to kill Dutch political leaders as well.
Investigators believe the alleged Amsterdam cell was following a strategy similar to that of the train bombings in Madrid last spring, a mass-casualty attack intended to affect Spain’s elections.
However, the extremists in the Netherlands apparently hoped to ignite social conflict by targeting the filmmaker, a descendant of the painter Vincent van Gogh and a high-profile figure known for occasionally profane diatribes against Islamic fundamentalists.
Now the Netherlands finds itself grappling with an incendiary clash of cultures that has spurred Muslim militants and far-right thugs into the streets.
Like several people detained in the Van Gogh case, the three suspects who were the target of Wednesday’s raid were known to police. They allegedly had ties to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, whose trail runs through the Van Gogh slaying, the Madrid bombings and suicide attacks that killed 45 people last year in Casablanca, Morocco.
In fact, Spanish police pursuing leads in the Casablanca case tipped off Dutch authorities last summer to the extremists now being held in the Van Gogh slaying, said a top Spanish law enforcement official who requested anonymity.
Police in Barcelona arrested a Moroccan wanted in his homeland in connection with the Casablanca attacks. The suspect, Abdelmajid Akoudad, is believed to be a key figure in a North African network active in France and the Netherlands as well, the official said.
The Spanish investigators found documents containing a list of the Moroccan’s associates in the Netherlands and forwarded the names to the Dutch, the Spanish official said. Dutch authorities soon arrested some of those on the list and confiscated nitrate that could be used in making explosives, the official said.
However, because of legal barriers to using evidence obtained by the Dutch intelligence service -- a recurring problem in Dutch terrorism cases -- prosecutors had to release the suspects, the Spanish official said.
“And it turned out that the man who killed Van Gogh was part of this group that had already been arrested and freed,” the Spanish law enforcement official said. “I don’t think they grasped the dimensions of the threat.”
There is another suspected link between recent plots in Spain and the Netherlands. Spanish police investigating a plot to bomb the High Court in Madrid last month arrested an Algerian who had lived in the Netherlands.
Investigators believe the suspect, Mourad Yala, was an associate of the accused killers of Van Gogh before Dutch police arrested him in a fraudulent document case and deported him about a year ago, authorities said.
The violent reaction of the suspects in Wednesday’s siege reflects the relentlessness of Islamic networks that have police all over Europe on alert, authorities said.
“Right now, there is great danger everywhere in Europe,” a veteran Spanish anti-terror investigator said.
Special correspondent Douglas Heingartner in Amsterdam contributed to this report.