AMSTERDAM — A suspected Islamic extremist of Dutch-Moroccan descent was arraigned on charges of murder and terrorism today, accused of killing a director whose film denounced the mistreatment of women in Islamic communities.
Police were also holding six others who could face terror charges in Tuesday’s slaying of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. The case looks increasingly like the first Islamic terrorist attack in the Netherlands, authorities said.
Investigators have focused on the international connections of the suspects, several of whom were detained briefly last year for possible ties to a Moroccan terror network involved in suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003.
The accused killer, identified only as Mohamed B., wrote a will stating that his attack on Van Gogh was a suicide mission. He also wrote a five-page letter threatening Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch woman legislator who starred in Van Gogh’s film, authorities said. The North African suspects allegedly had plans to kill Ali and possibly other prominent figures, said chief Amsterdam prosecutor Leo de Wit.
“It’s a group of radicals who see us as the enemy, and with whom we’ve actually been drawn in into a war,” said Jozias van Aartsen of the VVD party, to which Ali belongs, in the Het Parool newspaper. “There’s a jihad in the Netherlands. Ayaan Hirsi Ali indicated this danger a year and a half ago, and now we’ve crossed a threshold.”
The assassination of Van Gogh has shocked people, who see it as the second European strike by Islamic fundamentalists this year. In March, train bombings in Madrid killed 191 people. Instead of a mass casualty attack, the Van Gogh killing followed a different strategy: a high-impact assassination of a well-known artist apparently chosen because the plotters felt he had insulted Islam.
“It’s a small version of a terrorist attack,” a law enforcement official said in an interview. “The police are out there working this very hard and looking for people. They are certainly looking at involvement of groups like the” Moroccan Islamic Combat Group, a network whose members were involved in the Casablanca and Madrid bombings.
Van Gogh’s killing had a ritualistic, execution-like quality reminiscent of this year’s videotaped beheadings in Iraq, analysts said. The killer ambushed the filmmaker as he rode on a bicycle, shooting him repeatedly, then slit his throat as he lay wounded and used a second knife to pin the letter to the body.
That document, “An open letter to Ayaan Hirschi Ali,” threatens politicians, anti-Semitic diatribes, calls for global jihad and predicts the downfall of the Netherlands, Europe and the United States.
“What’s disturbing is that the suspect, born and raised in the Netherlands, went through a radicalization process here that brought him to this unimaginable deed,” Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner told reporters.
The letter written by Mohamed B. gives the impression of speaking for a group, Donner said. Investigators said the language reflects the influence of the radical Takfir Wal Hijra movement, an ideology that is widespread among radicalized Muslim criminals in Europe and North Africa.
Takfiris dominated the cell that carried out the Madrid train bombings. At least two fugitives in the Madrid attacks made phone calls to associates in the Netherlands and may have fled here.
As the Times reported Wednesday, investigators have confirmed that Mohamed was known to the Dutch intelligence service for some time.
His associates include Samir Azzouz, 18, who awaits trial on charges of planning a terrorist attack against a nuclear reactor and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Like several of Mohamed’s accused accomplices in the Van Gogh case, Azzouz was first detained in October, 2003, because of suspected ties to the Casablanca suicide bombings.
But they were all released under Dutch laws that are among Europe’s most protective of defendants. Dutch anti-terror investigators have 150 men identified as hard-core jihadis under surveillance because police consider them dangerous, but don’t have grounds to arrest them. Mohamed was not among that group, but he had been investigated, according to the law enforcement official, who asked to remain anonymous.
The Dutch want to know whether the government did enough to protect Van Gogh, who began getting threats after his 11-minute film, “Submission,” aired in August. The short tells the stories of Muslim women who suffer rape, beatings and other abuse, and angered some Muslims with images of a woman with Koranic verses painted on her body.
The extremist threat in the Netherlands has escalated with numerous arrests of accused jihadis and the presence of 1,200 Dutch troops in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
Meanwhile, police were on a heightened alert for fear of anti-Muslim backlash. A small fire damaged a mosque in Utrecht Thursday night, and police were investigating the possibility of arson.
Times staff writer Rotella reported from Paris and special correspondent Heingartner from Amsterdam.