Extremist Threats Put Netherlands in Turmoil

Times Staff Writer

Geert Wilders is on the run.

He can’t go home. He doesn’t show his face in public. Six police officers track his every step.

Wilders is not a fugitive, but a prominent Dutch legislator. The threat of assassination by Islamic extremists has forced him and several other politicians into hiding, while about 150 men identified by police as hard-core militants remain free.

“I have stayed in five different safe houses,” Wilders said in a recent interview. “It’s a life you don’t wish on your worst enemy. Meanwhile, they are still walking the streets of the Netherlands because the police can’t arrest them -- there is not enough evidence. I say that those who choose to kill our democracy with radical, fascistic Islamic ideas don’t deserve the rights of our democracy. Once again we will have to wait until something else terrible happens before we do anything.”


The Nov. 2 killing of director Theo van Gogh, whose latest film had denounced mistreatment of women in Muslim communities, set off a wave of arson attacks against mosques and churches. Police rounded up an accused terrorist cell whose youthful members trained in Pakistan and planned to kill Dutch leaders, including Wilders and feminist legislator Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the writer of Van Gogh’s film.

In a society built on consensus, permissiveness and generous social policy, the turmoil has been “un-Dutch,” in the words of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. And as Europe struggles with change driven by immigration, Islam and demographics, it’s a hint of potential strife ahead.

The attack and its aftermath have fed a widespread sentiment that the Dutch have been too soft for too long. But Muslim advocates blame rising radicalism on reluctance to accept them -- especially young men of Moroccan descent -- as true Dutch citizens.

“It’s amazing that these kinds of things escalated as they have,” said Ayham Tonca, 40, a Turkish immigrant leader. “There is a great fear of Islam in Holland. But on the other side, the Muslim community is also afraid. You have two groups who are afraid and who don’t speak to each other. And that’s not good for the society.”

Police in other countries worry about a spillover effect. The Van Gogh plotters allegedly had ties to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, an Al Qaeda-linked movement trying to unleash jihad in Europe while sending fighters to Iraq. The slaying connects to suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, last year; train bombings that killed 191 people in Madrid in March; and a plot to attack Spain’s anti- terrorist court that was foiled last month, investigators say.

The youth and ferocity of the Dutch-born suspects stunned this tranquil society. During a daylong standoff Nov. 10 that shut down a neighborhood in The Hague, Ismail Akhnikh and Jason Walters allegedly barricaded themselves in an apartment and hurled a grenade that wounded three police officers. A SWAT team captured them after shooting Walters in the shoulder.

Walters is 19. His brother Jermaine, who also was jailed, is 17. Born to an African American military man from South Carolina and his Dutch wife, they grew up here and converted to Islam. Jason Walters and Akhnikh trained to be terrorists last year at a secret camp in Pakistan, investigators say, positing that the existence of the camp shows that Islamic networks are recovering from the loss of Al Qaeda camps that drew thousands of recruits to Afghanistan.

The radicalized teenagers combine primitive fundamentalism with a kind of street-gang swagger that makes them especially volatile, investigators say.

“There’s no age limit,” an investigator said. “If they feel the need to go for jihad, they go. We know there are camps in Pakistan and people are going to them.”

The raw recruits were allegedly molded into a cell by an experienced militant named Redouan Issar, 43, now a fugitive. Issar is a military veteran and a Syrian -- like many clerics who have influenced the Moroccan network.

Police detained Issar, Jason Walters and two others in October 2003 after Spanish police found their names during a raid in Barcelona, Spain. Although one 18-year-old had bomb-making materials and the Spanish warned of a plot in the works, Dutch prosecutors released them for lack of evidence, Spanish investigators say.

This summer, the Dutch, for lack of evidence, also were unable to hold suspects from Issar’s group who were suspected of plotting an attack on the European soccer championships in Portugal.

Police wiretaps in Europe have recorded terrorist suspects scoffing that the laws here are lax, according to investigators and court documents. Critics say Islamic networks grew here as other countries got tougher after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. Dutch anti-terrorist prosecutions, however, have foundered because judges threw out evidence collected by intelligence agents.

The government has been criticized for failing to anticipate the actions of Van Gogh’s accused assassin, Mohammed Bouyeri, who became known to authorities about two years ago. The 26-year-old of Moroccan descent was born here, got good grades in school and even wrote an article in a community publication extolling interfaith brotherhood in 2002. But he allegedly slid into criminal and extremist circles.

Although the cell reportedly met frequently at Bouyeri’s apartment, investigators did not add him to the 150 extremists under intense surveillance -- a list that included many of his friends.

“They knew about the planning and radical meetings at his house,” said Wilders, the lawmaker who has been threatened. “The intelligence service knew he was radicalizing very fast. He should have been on the list of the top 10.”

Critics say the government has shied away from confronting Islamic fundamentalism, which collides with libertarian attitudes permitting gay marriage, prostitution and drug use. Dutch policy sees multiculturalism as the road to integrating the country’s 1 million Muslims, in contrast to a sterner French model that presses immigrants to adopt the host culture.

Resentment seethes among aging Dutch patrons at the Cafe T-Span, a tavern with a wood-paneled bar decorated with posters of the Ajax soccer team. The bar has a view of the spot on Linnaeusstraat where the assassin rode up on a bike and shot Van Gogh as he cycled to the offices of his production company, then sliced his throat with a knife.

“I saw that guy lying there, the police all around,” said a retired airport worker who would give only his first name, Carmine. “The terrorist shot him, stabbed him, cut his throat. Like an animal. Many people agreed with Van Gogh. There are too many mosques. There’s too much crime.”

Carmine, 66, is an immigrant himself; he arrived 30 years ago from Naples. He chased espresso with amaretto on a rainy Saturday afternoon and stared out at passing groups of Dutch Arab youths wearing a mix of hip-hop styles and traditional djellabas, or long gowns, with skullcaps.

“These Moroccans and Turks are ruining everything,” he said. “The government gives them [$900 to $1,000] a month in unemployment. You see them in the cafes all day. Playing cards, plotting their plots against us. The police are scared of them.”

Bouyeri left a knife in the body attached to a letter declaring that jihad would bring down Europe and America.

Like the Salman Rushdie case in Britain, the slaying cast an ominous shadow in a country with a tradition of pugnacious debate. Like Pim Fortuyn, a populist leader killed by an animal rights activist in 2002, Van Gogh, 47, cultivated an outrageous persona. The pudgy chain-smoker’s diatribes against political correctness, immigration and Islam entertained some as much as they offended others.

Van Gogh and Fortuyn “both did anything to tease and irritate the establishment,” said Maarten Van Rossem, a friend of the filmmaker and professor of history at the University of Utrecht. “It’s a frank, rhetorical Dutch style. It’s a tradition in polemics: You go over the top to try to amuse people. Theo said: ‘I perform pyrotechnics. You shouldn’t take everything I say too seriously.’ ”

But Van Gogh’s coarse language -- he routinely used an epithet suggesting that radical Muslims engage in bestiality -- stirred outrage. He also had a gentler, thoughtful side reflected in his television series, “Najib and Julia,” about a romance between a Dutch woman and a Moroccan man, Van Rossem said.

Spurred by the backlash, the government has proposed initiatives to beef up anti-terrorist laws, ban foreign imams and deport extremists. Wilders, who in September left a mainstream center-right party to form his own movement, says his Internet site has received 15,000 supportive e-mails and 200,000 hits -- compared with 34,000 hits before the assassination. He intends to keep calling for tougher policies on immigration and Islamic fundamentalism.

“It’s the end of democracy,” he said, “if the answer to argument is bullets and knives.”