The largest terrorism trial ever held in the Netherlands is due to begin next Monday, when 14 alleged members of the so-called ‘Hofstad’ network of radical Muslims will appear before an Amsterdam court in proceedings that are expected to last well into February.
Among the accused is Mohammed Bouyeri, the convicted murderer of Dutch filmmaker and publicist Theo van Gogh. Most of those standing trial are accused of membership of a terrorist organisation; some of actually planning terrorist attacks. All are believed to adhere to one of the most radical interpretations of the Salafist movement within the Sunni branch of Islam; many have stopped visiting official mosques, believing they are too ‘soft’.
The trial is expected to provide more insight into how disenchanted young Muslims, most of them Dutch nationals of Moroccan parentage, came to sympathise with terrorist causes and – as the official charges say – became terrorists themselves. But at the same time, the trial will provide something that could be best defined as a ‘snapshot of the past’. Most of the suspects have been in detention for a year or more. In the meantime, the ‘Hofstad’ network has continued to grow and, some say, has become a greater menace than it was before.
Earlier this autumn, a spokesman for the Dutch AIVD intelligence service defined the members of the Hofstad network as “dangerous amateurs”, whose potential impact should not be underestimated.
“One of the things that will become clear during the trial is to what extent this is or isn’t more or less an amateur organisation,” says Glenn Schoen, a terrorism expert with Ernst&Young in Amsterdam. Many observers also hope it will provide more clarity about the way the different Dutch intelligence and security services have ‘handled’ the group in the past.
Another issue on which the trial may shed more light concerns the group’s international ties. Glenn Schoen comments: “This is the only organisation of this size in Western Europe we’ve seen over the last several years which was not founded or set up with at least one or two ‘professional’ terrorists. It did truly come up from an amateur base.” However, it is known that the group has had contacts with like-minded individuals or groups in Morocco, Algeria, Syria, Spain and Chechnya. The trial may provide more information about the exact nature of those contacts.
Meanwhile, Glenn Schoen points out that the Hofstad network has recently become more professional in a number of ways: in terms of reconnaissance operations, obtaining weapons and selecting targets. According to him, the number of people associated with the network has also grown. There are more women in the group, a lot of them in support roles. Additionally, the number of cells has grown, as has the number of cities in which the network operates. Finally, and in spite of the relatively large number of arrests made so far, the number of group leaders has also increased.
And the future…
For the time being, the Netherlands has been spared the kind of mass-casualty terrorist attacks such as occurred in Madrid or London. In the recent past, the Hofstad group has mainly sought its targets among well-known public figures, government buildings and – also relatively unique from an international perspective – has tried to attack the Dutch secret service as well. But that’s not to say things may not change in the future.
As the Hofstad trial is set to begin, Glenn Schoen points at an issue some observers may overlook: the possible damage to the Netherlands reputation if the terrorist threat is not handled effectively or is allowed to fester: “It’s something we have seen in other countries; we may get a reaction from abroad that could impact and perhaps harm the Dutch economy in the longer term.”