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From Civic Activist To Alleged Terrorist

Muslim Suspect in Dutch Director's Killing Was Caught Between Cultures

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page A18

AMSTERDAM -- "Hello, dear readers," wrote the cheerful new contributor in the March 2002 issue of a local newsletter. He introduced himself as a volunteer staff member of a community center in a western suburb of Amsterdam dominated by working-class Moroccan immigrants.

His name was Mohammed Bouyeri. He was 24, and his photo showed a young man wearing wire-rimmed glasses, a knitted cap and a quizzical half-smile. His special interest, he wrote, was working with young people in the neighborhood.


A mourner cries while attending a demonstration this month in Amsterdam in honor of van Gogh, who made a film critical of Islam's treatment of women. (Fred Ernst -- AP)

Two and a half years later, Dutch police say, the same man gunned down Theo van Gogh on a street in Amsterdam, stood over the Dutch filmmaker's body and calmly slit his throat with a black-handled butcher knife. The killer then impaled a five-page letter to the victim's chest that pledged that Islam would "drive evil back to its dark hole using the sword."

Bouyeri's move from community organizer to alleged terrorist was swift and shocking to friends, teachers and co-workers. They describe him as a friendly person and good student who, like many of his generation, found himself perched uneasily between the traditional values and culture of his Moroccan immigrant family and those of modern Dutch society.

At first, Bouyeri worked passionately to channel the frustrations of young Muslims like himself into positive programs. But he increasingly turned to a radical brand of Islam, lashing out against perceived enemies and critics and becoming part of a small circle of believers under the influence of a Syrian-born militant known as Abu Khatib, according to Dutch intelligence officials.

The ritual slaughter of van Gogh, who had recently directed a provocative short film highly critical of Islam's treatment of women, has deeply shaken this European nation of 16 million, which has long prided itself on its tolerance and decency. The killing on Nov. 2 has led to 20 apparent reprisal attacks on mosques, churches and schools and raised new doubts as to whether and how Islam and liberal democracy can coexist here.

The alleged killer made no effort that morning to escape; Bouyeri was captured with a suicide note in his pocket after being wounded in a shootout with police. Dutch investigators are convinced that he did not act alone, but rather was part of a larger conspiracy of young extremists who also wanted to kill at least two members of parliament who had been outspoken in their criticism of Islam. Since van Gogh's killing, police have arrested a dozen members of the group, which they believe had links to other radicals in Europe.

"It's a Dutch plot, homegrown terrorism," said Vincent van Steen, a spokesman for the AIVD, the country's intelligence and security service. "But at the same time, there are, of course, international influences. For instance, the Syrian person who plays a part in their radicalization, the anti-Western feelings they have, stimulated by Osama bin Laden and by the war in Iraq -- all these things play a part in the process of radicalization."

Farid Zaari, spokesman for El Tawheed, a mosque that Bouyeri attended for a brief period and one of Amsterdam's most fundamentalist, said that young people like Bouyeri are vulnerable to recruitment by radicals. "He is not accepted by society, and he is not accepted at home, either," said Zaari, who also was born in Morocco. "Everyone is pushing him, and no one understands him. And he becomes an easy target for the extremist who uses religion as bait."

A 'Very Gentle' Student

The precise path of Bouyeri's radicalization is difficult to trace. His family refused to be interviewed, and many of his closest friends were arrested in a security sweep after van Gogh's death. But his writings offer a window on how his views hardened. The young man who in early 2002 preached mutual tolerance and respect was by this fall comparing Dutch police to the Nazis. He was using sexual insults to refer to American troops in Iraq and saying they deserved to be beheaded.

Bouyeri grew up in a small apartment with his parents and three sisters in Slotervaart, a suburb on the western edge of Amsterdam, in a scruffy five-story building of gray concrete. Locals call the neighborhood Satellite City because alongside laundry flapping in the breeze, virtually every balcony has a satellite dish to receive Moroccan television and the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera.

His parents were part of the influx of immigrants from Morocco and Turkey who arrived in the 1960s and '70s to work in the flourishing Netherlands. All his siblings were born here. There are now nearly a million Muslims in the Netherlands, and their birthrate is double that of the native Dutch.

Mohammed Adordour, chairman of the Islamic Social and Cultural Center, a modest white-brick mosque two blocks from the Bouyeri home, recalled that Mohammed attended with his father while growing up. "I know the father, I've talked to the neighbors," Adordour said. "Everybody says he was a good boy."

From the age of 12 to 17, Bouyeri attended Mondriaan College, one of the area's best secondary schools, located around the corner from his apartment. After van Gogh's killing, Cor Meijer, spokesman for the Esprit school district, said he pulled Bouyeri's school file and spoke with his teachers. "He was a B-level student," Meijer said. "He did well and passed in five years and went on to a polytechnic. This was a very gentle and cooperative guy. When we talked to our teachers, the big question we asked is, did we miss something? And the answer is no."


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