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."
The wave of political violence began in May 2002, when Pim Fortuyn, an anti-immigration populist and biting social critic, was assassinated by an animal rights activist. While the crime shocked the Dutch, many people dismissed it as a freak occurrence, not a sign of overheating in the passionate rhetoric and vigorous debate that the country has always cherished.
But those illusions disappeared with the van Gogh slaying. Afterward, Dutch intelligence and police agencies were criticized for not taking death threats seriously and doing more to protect controversial public figures.
Frank Bovenkerk, a criminologist at Utrecht University, released a study last month suggesting that the number of violent threats received by politicians and journalists had been skyrocketing for years, well before van Gogh's killing. He said Dutch police asked him to examine the issue because they had been swamped by reports from people who had received threatening e-mails and phone calls, and even bullets in the mail. His research showed that neighboring countries had not experienced a similar increase in threats. "There is something special going on in Holland that cannot simply be explained," he said.
Dutch investigators have traced many of the threats to a local network of young Muslim radicals that police and news media have dubbed the Hofstad Group. Authorities estimate that the network has about 30 followers, primarily Dutch-born teenagers and men in their twenties who are of Moroccan descent. Analysts and investigators said the network appears to be a home grown. Many of its members became radicalized in local mosques or by viewing extremist material on the Internet.
The most famous member is 19-year-old Samir Azzouz of Amsterdam, who was arrested last year after police said they found plans on his home computer to attack a nuclear installation. Azzouz was released after a judge ruled that there was not enough evidence to convict him. He was rearrested last month, along with six other suspects in three cities, as part of a continuing investigation.
Edwin Bakker, a senior policy analyst at the Netherlands Institute for International Relations in The Hague, said members of the Hofstad Group lacked the sophistication of other terrorist networks and had little or no experience as fighters in Afghanistan, Chechnya or Iraq. But he said they were still dangerous.
"Samir Azzouz is not a professional, but he is a threat," Bakker said. "In this way, these kids with the Hofstad group are very much a product of the Netherlands. I think about half of them are in it for the thrill."
Dutch investigators warn against underestimating the group. One of its founders was Mohammed Bouyeri, the 27-year-old who confessed to killing van Gogh and said he wouldn't hesitate to do it again.
When Bouyeri was sentenced in July, he waved a copy of the Koran in the courtroom and told the judge: "The law compels me to chop off the head of anyone who insults Allah and the prophet."
Dutch counterterrorism officials have said 10 to 15 other less-publicized networks of Islamic militants are active in the country.