From Civic Activist To Alleged Terrorist

Muslim Suspect in Dutch Director’s Killing Was Caught Between Cultures

AMSTERDAM — “Hello, dear readers,” wrote the cheerful new contributor in the March 2002 issue of a local newsletter. He introduced himself as a volunteer staff member of a community center in a western suburb of Amsterdam dominated by working-class Moroccan immigrants.

His name was Mohammed Bouyeri. He was 24, and his photo showed a young man wearing wire-rimmed glasses, a knitted cap and a quizzical half-smile. His special interest, he wrote, was working with young people in the neighborhood.

Two and a half years later, Dutch police say, the same man gunned down Theo van Gogh on a street in Amsterdam, stood over the Dutch filmmaker’s body and calmly slit his throat with a black-handled butcher knife. The killer then impaled a five-page letter to the victim’s chest that pledged that Islam would “drive evil back to its dark hole using the sword.”

Bouyeri’s move from community organizer to alleged terrorist was swift and shocking to friends, teachers and co-workers. They describe him as a friendly person and good student who, like many of his generation, found himself perched uneasily between the traditional values and culture of his Moroccan immigrant family and those of modern Dutch society.


At first, Bouyeri worked passionately to channel the frustrations of young Muslims like himself into positive programs. But he increasingly turned to a radical brand of Islam, lashing out against perceived enemies and critics and becoming part of a small circle of believers under the influence of a Syrian-born militant known as Abu Khatib, according to Dutch intelligence officials.

The ritual slaughter of van Gogh, who had recently directed a provocative short film highly critical of Islam’s treatment of women, has deeply shaken this European nation of 16 million, which has long prided itself on its tolerance and decency. The killing on Nov. 2 has led to 20 apparent reprisal attacks on mosques, churches and schools and raised new doubts as to whether and how Islam and liberal democracy can coexist here.

The alleged killer made no effort that morning to escape; Bouyeri was captured with a suicide note in his pocket after being wounded in a shootout with police. Dutch investigators are convinced that he did not act alone, but rather was part of a larger conspiracy of young extremists who also wanted to kill at least two members of parliament who had been outspoken in their criticism of Islam. Since van Gogh’s killing, police have arrested a dozen members of the group, which they believe had links to other radicals in Europe.

“It’s a Dutch plot, homegrown terrorism,” said Vincent van Steen, a spokesman for the AIVD, the country’s intelligence and security service. “But at the same time, there are, of course, international influences. For instance, the Syrian person who plays a part in their radicalization, the anti-Western feelings they have, stimulated by Osama bin Laden and by the war in Iraq — all these things play a part in the process of radicalization.”

Farid Zaari, spokesman for El Tawheed, a mosque that Bouyeri attended for a brief period and one of Amsterdam’s most fundamentalist, said that young people like Bouyeri are vulnerable to recruitment by radicals. “He is not accepted by society, and he is not accepted at home, either,” said Zaari, who also was born in Morocco. “Everyone is pushing him, and no one understands him. And he becomes an easy target for the extremist who uses religion as bait.”

A ‘Very Gentle’ Student

The precise path of Bouyeri’s radicalization is difficult to trace. His family refused to be interviewed, and many of his closest friends were arrested in a security sweep after van Gogh’s death. But his writings offer a window on how his views hardened. The young man who in early 2002 preached mutual tolerance and respect was by this fall comparing Dutch police to the Nazis. He was using sexual insults to refer to American troops in Iraq and saying they deserved to be beheaded.

Bouyeri grew up in a small apartment with his parents and three sisters in Slotervaart, a suburb on the western edge of Amsterdam, in a scruffy five-story building of gray concrete. Locals call the neighborhood Satellite City because alongside laundry flapping in the breeze, virtually every balcony has a satellite dish to receive Moroccan television and the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera.

His parents were part of the influx of immigrants from Morocco and Turkey who arrived in the 1960s and ’70s to work in the flourishing Netherlands. All his siblings were born here. There are now nearly a million Muslims in the Netherlands, and their birthrate is double that of the native Dutch.

Mohammed Adordour, chairman of the Islamic Social and Cultural Center, a modest white-brick mosque two blocks from the Bouyeri home, recalled that Mohammed attended with his father while growing up. “I know the father, I’ve talked to the neighbors,” Adordour said. “Everybody says he was a good boy.”

From the age of 12 to 17, Bouyeri attended Mondriaan College, one of the area’s best secondary schools, located around the corner from his apartment. After van Gogh’s killing, Cor Meijer, spokesman for the Esprit school district, said he pulled Bouyeri’s school file and spoke with his teachers. “He was a B-level student,” Meijer said. “He did well and passed in five years and went on to a polytechnic. This was a very gentle and cooperative guy. When we talked to our teachers, the big question we asked is, did we miss something? And the answer is no.”

Teachers reported problems within the Bouyeri family, Meijer said. One of the sisters rebelled against the strict rules of her parents. This is not unusual, he added. The education that Moroccan youngsters receive in Dutch schools often does not fit comfortably with what they learn at home.

Meijer said political leaders have failed to provide jobs and social programs to help the second generation of Muslims find a place in Dutch society. “The word everyone uses is integration, but if you don’t put any money into it, it’s only a word,” he said. “No one’s really dealing with the problem.”

Religious Beliefs Deepen

While studying accounting at a polytechnic, Bouyeri spent a lot of time hanging out on the streets of Slotervaart. At some point, friends told the NRC-Handelsblad newspaper, he was arrested and imprisoned for seven months for a crime related to violence. The Dutch Justice Department is searching for a record of the conviction, which may have been expunged under the Netherlands’ strict privacy rules, a spokesman said.

Some friends say they believe Bouyeri began to become more devout during his time in prison. Others say the death of his mother from breast cancer played a role. He returned to the neighborhood, reenrolled in school to study social work and started doing volunteer work at the Eigenwijks community center.

Ietje de Wilde, a community worker at Eigenwijks, recalled Bouyeri organizing a political meeting at which local politicians addressed 60 to 70 young people in February 2002. Many youths said they felt isolated from people outside the Moroccan community. Bouyeri later expressed pride over how the session had gone. “It became obvious that young people do have something to say about politics, especially when it involves their own neighborhood,” he wrote in “Over the Field,” the center’s monthly newsletter.

Later, Bouyeri organized a neighborhood cleanup campaign and a soccer tournament in which youths played against police officers. He also devised an ambitious plan for a new youth center. He visited parliament and the Amsterdam city council to petition for funding, but with little success.

At the same time, his religious beliefs were deepening. He stopped wearing jeans and sneakers and started dressing in a flowing jelabiya and skullcap. He objected when the community center served beer at functions, and he discouraged women from attending the events he organized.

These demands were unacceptable to the community center’s staff. Eventually, Bouyeri stopped going there. Soon after, he moved out of the neighborhood and into central Amsterdam. “We parted by mutual consent,” Dick Glastra van Loon, the center’s director, recalled in a statement posted on its Web site.

Bouyeri’s writings for “Over the Field” reflected his evolution. The first articles advocated tolerance and mutual respect. “Treat another as you would be treated yourself,” he said.

But by April 2003, his writing had become far more abstract and stilted. In a piece titled “Islam and Integration,” he wrote that devotion to Islam was the ultimate ideal — “more important than all old racial, political, national, ideological and material matters.”

Contacts With a Militant

When Bouyeri left the neighborhood, he lost touch with many of his old friends. He dropped out of school and started collecting unemployment benefits. He also began hanging out with a handful of fellow young Muslims, Dutch officials say, holding prayer meetings at his apartment under the tutelage of the Syrian militant Abu Khatib, whose real name is Redouan Issar.

Dutch intelligence began watching the dozen or so young men who clustered around the Syrian about two years ago, and eventually dubbed them the “Hofstad network,” according to van Steen, the intelligence spokesman. Abu Khatib, who is in his forties, has since disappeared, and Dutch police have issued an international warrant for his arrest.

Bouyeri was picked up and questioned last year when police first cracked down on the Hofstad network, but he was considered a peripheral figure and released.

“Up until the attack on van Gogh, the intelligence services had no information” that indicated that Bouyeri was preparing a violent action, the Dutch interior and justice ministries said in a joint letter to parliament.

Still, as time went on, his role appeared to grow. Dutch officials have confirmed that a Volkswagen Golf registered in Bouyeri’s name was used by three militants who traveled to Portugal last June during the European championship soccer tournament. They were deported back to the Netherlands by Portuguese police as part of a security crackdown surrounding the games.

Van Steen emphasized that while all the leads and foreign connections were intriguing, they need further examination. In any event, he said, whatever the international links, it is clear that the plot against van Gogh, a little-known figure outside the Netherlands, originated here.

In the three days before the slaying, Bouyeri dispatched about 100 messages to a Dutch-Moroccan Internet site defending Islam and blasting the American campaign in Iraq, according to Dutch Radio 1 News. In a message he sent early on Tuesday morning, Nov. 2, he called the interim Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, “a fat pig” and contrasted the “men of courage” fighting alongside the Iraqi insurgents to the U.S.-led forces.

Eight hours later came the van Gogh killing.

“Something must have snapped,” said Ietje de Wilde. “We were shocked. This was not the person we knew.”

“This is then my final word,” Bouyeri wrote in a note he carried in his pocket. “Shredded by bullets, soaked in blood . . . just as I had hoped.”

Special correspondents Juliette Vasterman and Misja Pekel contributed to this report.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The Washington Post, USA
Nov. 28, 2004
Glenn Frankel, Washington Post Foreign Service
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