AMSTERDAM — A few weeks ago, the Netherlands received a chilling message from an Islamic extremist group: Pull your troops out of Iraq, it warned, or ”expect a hell that will turn your nights into bloodbaths.” I believed the threat would bring talk of canceling one of my favorite summer events here, a mass concert on one of Amsterdam’s canals. But nobody spoke about scrapping the concert. In fact, I don’t think anyone even reconsidered going. Most surprisingly perhaps, I barely saw any police that evening, despite the presence of thousands upon thousands of spectators.
Three years after Sept. 11, the Netherlands offers an approach to terror prevention that stands in the sharpest possible contrast to the one chosen by Washington.
The Dutch have decided to safeguard civil liberties and the rule of law at almost any cost. They have also opted to protect their way of life and avoid spreading fear among the population.
When terrorists struck in Madrid six months ago, the country demanded to know how the Dutch government intended to prevent a similar attack here. The government promised it would do what it could, but stated that it could not guarantee absolute security. With America’s Patriot Act measures on everyone’s mind, the Dutch Justice Minister told Parliament that he would rather defend the country’s tradition of tolerance and universal protections than implement ”wild” unproven measures.
So far, Holland has not experienced any attacks on its soil, but that does not mean the kinder, gentler approach has been entirely successful.
On July 9 the country adopted a ”Code Orange” alert after finding clear indications of an impending attack. Police raided the home of a Moroccan man and found bomb-making materials, as well as maps detailing potential targets. Just last week, the Justice Ministry revealed that it believes terrorist plans already exist for attacks on the Amsterdam airport, the Dutch Parliament and a local nuclear-power plant. Security, it says, has been increased. But in the streets there is no sense of panic, or even nervousness.
Haven for terrorists?
One of the advantages of the Dutch approach over the American way is that it denies terrorists one of their objectives: creating terror. In addition to the much-discussed infringements on civil liberties, the United States has handed terrorists one of their objectives by creating a sense of fear and vulnerability in the population. Terror threats have caused no visible changes in the Dutch way of life.
On the other hand — and this is no minor detail — experts believe the Netherlands, with its lax laws and vast Muslim population, has become a haven for terrorists. So, by preserving their way of life, the Dutch may just be making it easier for terrorists to disrupt life in other countries, and eventually their own.
The famous shoe-bomber, Richard Reid, did much of his planning while living in Amsterdam. The Dutch believe that there are at least 100 individuals with active links to terrorism living here. And they are fully aware of continuing efforts to recruit more terrorists among young Muslims. The Dutch Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) had long denied charges that the country has become a favorite base of operations for terrorist organizations. But in recent months AIVD has acknowledged that a growing number of terrorist groups have indeed found a safe base of operations in the freedom-loving Netherlands. Even when police find terror suspects, most cases unravel at trial because Dutch law makes it difficult for prosecutors to obtain a conviction.
Three years after Sept. 11 and six months after the Madrid railway attacks, the Dutch have refused to give in to terrorists’ demands that they withdraw from Iraq. They have also refused to cancel any concerts, detain large numbers of Muslims or suspend any civil liberties. The decision not to sacrifice any freedom for the sake of more security will remain a hallmark of Dutch counter-terrorism efforts, and it will remain uncontroversial — as long as terrorists do not strike on Dutch soil.