Terrorists have had it with the Netherlands

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From now on, the threat of a terrorist attack on Dutch soil is only "limited". Over the past two years the threat was "substantial", but Muslim extremists prefer to seek refuge across the border, an analysis of the Netherlands' National Anti-Terrorism Co-ordinator published on Tuesday has revealed.

Politicians in The Hague and other potential targets can breathe a sigh of relief. According to the Dutch intelligence agency (AIVD) local networks of radical Muslims such as the notorious Hofstad group were weakened over the past year by internal divisions and a lack of leadership.

The Netherlands is rarely being mentioned in video threats issued by jihadist groups, despite the rise of anti-Islam opposition politician Geert Wilders. His controversial film Fitna caused a lot of commotion last year, but it seems to have gone off the jihadist radar since.

Other conflict zones
The judgment that the Netherlands is no longer a "preferred target" does not imply that the threat as a whole has got smaller, AIVD's Director of Internal Security Wil van Gemert warns. If anything, the threat has moved elsewhere.

"There are still plenty of radical youths and people who warmly sympathise with the struggle. But we also see that they are more focused on conflict areas abroad. I'm referring to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia. People are talking about travelling to those areas, or are actually there to receive training."
Earlier this year four men from the Netherlands were arrested and sent back, because they were allegedly on their way to a jihadist training camp in Somalia.

Symbolic moments
The rest of Europe is also no safer, stresses the AIVD and the Netherlands' National Anti-Terrorism Co-ordinator. There have been terrorist threats in Germany and Denmark in the past year.

In Germany, the threats were connected with the elections, and the debate over the German mission in Afghanistan. “Extremists are particularly sensitive to such symbolic moments,” says terrorism expert Jeffrey Murer from the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

In the Netherlands 2009 has been a relatively quiet year, and Mr Murer stresses that the increasingly robust debate here over immigration and integration has played a positive role:

"One of the things that are becoming increasingly obvious - whether it be to French security services, to the German security services, the Danish, the Swedish or even the British - is that the terrorist threat that exists within an immigrant community is largely born of relationships and politics in the domestic sphere. And the fact that the Dutch government has been, let's say, active in having a conversation about migration and the role of the state, it doesn't surprise me that the perception would be that the threat may be less."

No easing of measures
But the threat could easily increase again next year, as in 2010 a definite decision will be taken on Dutch involvement in Afghanistan. The much-talked-about trial of politician Geert Wilders as a result of his anti-Islamic statements begins in January, and the report of the enquiry into the Dutch role in the Iraq war will also be published next year.

These developments could, as in Germany, lead up to a new escalation, asserts Jeffrey Murer. Thereby the jihadists, who are being trained in camps abroad, could well establish a Dutch base. The Netherlands' National Anti-Terrorism Co-ordinator also does not rule out the possibility of the threat level rapidly increasing again.

The lowering to ‘limited’ also doesn’t mean that the existing security levels will be downgraded, assured Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst and Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin in a letter to the lower house of parliament.

'Boy who cried wolf'
Many Dutch people will soon become accustomed to an orange terrorism indicator. According to the latest opinion polls, only one percent of the population are at the moment afraid of being the victim of an attack. That’s the problem with such threat indications, warns Mr Murer:

"Frankly I have found that for public consumption, this kind of assessment of threat level is unhelpful. It can have the potential of sounding like boys who cry wolf. It's not particularly helpful to try to have these varied degrees when in point of fact it only moves from yellow to orange - slightly - and it's not clear to the public why even those small moves have occurred."

Mr Murer believes that these constant changes in threat levels, while in practice very little has changed, will make many people less attentive. The terrorism expert says that weighs a bit more heavily than the difference between a 'substantial' and a 'limited' threat.

(RNW translation: rk/as)

Lead photo: Flickr/alsay