Correction to This Article
A Nov. 11 article on terrorist threats in the Netherlands reported that an unknown gunman opened fire on the office of immigration minister Rita Verdonk on Nov. 2, shattering a window. Dutch officials reached that conclusion initially, but police later ruled out gunfire as the cause of the broken window and no longer suspect that an attack took place.

For Public Figures in Netherlands, Terror Becomes a Personal Concern

Police stand guard near the Dutch parliament after a recent anti-terrorism operation netted arrests in three cities. In general, security has tightened in The Hague.
Police stand guard near the Dutch parliament after a recent anti-terrorism operation netted arrests in three cities. In general, security has tightened in The Hague. (By Bas Czerwinski -- Associated Press)

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 11, 2005

LEIDEN, Netherlands -- As Prof. Afshin Ellian arrived at Leiden University law school one day recently, two bodyguards hustled him through the entrance and past the electronically locked doors leading to his office. For the rest of the day, the men stood sentry outside those doors, scanning the hallways for any sign of the people who want him dead.

Ellian is one of a soaring number of Dutch academics, lawmakers and other public figures who have been forced to accept 24-hour protection or go into hiding after receiving death threats from Islamic extremists. In a country with a tradition of robust public debate and an anything-goes culture, the fear of assassination has rattled society and forced people such as Ellian to reassess whether it's worth it to express opinions that could endanger their lives.

"The extremists are afraid that if Dutch society becomes a safe haven for an intellectual discussion of political Islam, it will be very dangerous for them," said Ellian, an Iranian-born professor of social cohesion who escaped to the Netherlands two decades ago from Afghanistan after receiving death threats from communists there. "This is normal behavior in the Middle East, but not in Europe. They think it's their obligation to kill people they consider to be enemies of Islam."

In other European countries and in the United States, Islamic extremists have generally sought to spread terror with indiscriminate attacks -- bombing trains and hijacking airliners. In the Netherlands, however, radicals have embraced a different strategy: singling out individuals for assassination.

The fear in the Netherlands erupted one year ago when Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker and renowned social provocateur, was fatally shot and slashed around the throat while walking on a busy street in Amsterdam. His assailant, a Dutch man of Moroccan descent, pinned a five-page note to the body with a knife explaining that van Gogh -- as well as a number of Dutch politicians and other "unbelievers" -- deserved to die for insulting Islam.

Since then, the Dutch security services have reported uncovering several bombing and assassination attempts organized by Islamic extremists, fueling the public sense of alarm.

In late October, police arrested seven young Muslims on suspicion of planning to murder unidentified lawmakers and blow up the headquarters of the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service.

On Nov. 2, the nation marked the one-year anniversary of van Gogh's slaying. "We must not allow ourselves to be set against each other by people who inscribe their message in blood," Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said at a memorial service. He quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

But on that day, an unknown gunman opened fire on the office of Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, who has threatened to expel radical Muslim clerics. Windows were shattered, but no one was injured.

Now, many prominent people don't go out in public alone. In Amsterdam, Mayor Job Cohen, who is Jewish, and a Dutch Moroccan alderman, Ahmed Aboutaleb, have bodyguards after receiving death threats from Islamic extremists. In The Hague, the national seat of government, security has been stepped up.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian-born member of parliament who was a friend and colleague of van Gogh, fled the country and sought refuge on a U.S. military base after van Gogh's killer wrote that she was next on the hit list. Another legislator, Geert Wilders, has been taken into protective custody since radicals vowed to behead him as "an enemy of Islam."

Dutch authorities acknowledged that they don't yet understand the roots of the problem. "This is a very fundamental question, and we don't have a very good answer," said Vincent van Steen, a spokesman for the Dutch intelligence agency, known by the abbreviation AIVD. "We haven't seen this in the Netherlands since the 17th century, where a politician was murdered."


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