An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Netherlands’ Luck Is Running Out

The terrorist attack in Utrecht may be a sign of what’s to come.

A passenger in a tram looks at flowers displayed near the scene of the fatal shooting in Utrecht, the Netherlands, on March 19. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)
A passenger in a tram looks at flowers displayed near the scene of the fatal shooting in Utrecht, the Netherlands, on March 19. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, police arrested a 37-year-old man born in Turkey, Gokmen Tanis, in the shooting on a busy tram in Utrecht, which killed three and injured five. Dutch authorities have said it may have been terrorism, and if it was, it would be the worst Islamist terror attack the Netherlands has ever suffered.

This may seem surprising, since Holland has been at the center of the debate around Islam and European security. One reason is that highly visible, controversial politicians such as Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders, who have vociferously condemned the religion, have placed it there. Another is that the Netherlands was the site of one of the most notorious Islamist-led attacks in the post-9/11 world. In November 2004, Mohammed Bouyeri, a Moroccan-Dutch man, killed the director Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam for making a film critical of Islam. Bouyeri vowed the same for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a collaborator of Van Gogh’s and, at the time, a Dutch politician.

Yet the Netherlands has seen no catastrophic terror attack like those that rocked London, Madrid, or Paris. Dutch officials point to tight cooperation between law enforcement and intelligence agencies as part of the reason, but they also admit that they do not possess a secret formula. It partly comes down to luck—luck that cannot last forever.

At least five terrorist plots targeted the Netherlands just last year.

And it may run out sooner rather than later. Despite the Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq and Syria, there have been indications that its threat to Holland is growing. For example, the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV) in the Netherlands has described the country’s security situation as “unsettled.” Further, at least five terrorist plots targeted the Netherlands just last year. That is as many as were focused on the United Kingdom and more than on Belgium and Germany—all frequent terrorist marks.

One of these plots even came to fruition when, in August 2018, a 19-year-old Afghan asylum seeker living in Germany traveled to the Netherlands and stabbed two civilians in Amsterdam Central train station. The assailant said he was acting in retaliation for insults to his faith, citing comments made by Wilders.

As far as terrorist attacks go, the August incident was rather small in scale and unsophisticated. Yet there have been grander plans in the works. In September 2018, a major Islamic State-inspired plot by a cell based in the city of Arnhem was thwarted. The suspected terrorists had tried to get hold of AK-47 assault rifles, grenades, and other materials to construct bombs to place in vehicles. Of the seven arrested, three had previously tried to travel to Iraq or Syria to join the Islamic State. The NCTV concluded that most of the suspects were “part of the hard core of the Dutch jihadist movement,” which it assesses to be comprised of over 500 individuals with “several thousand sympathisers.”

This would not be the first time that a major plot linked to the Islamic State had the Netherlands in its crosshairs. Alongside the Islamic State’s coordinated massacres in Paris in November 2015, another cell was apparently supposed to attack Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. The plan was thought to involve Osama Krayem, a Swedish man who is in jail in Belgium and had previously faced trial in France for his role in March 2016 suicide bombings in Brussels. Krayem joined the Islamic State in Syria and returned to Europe in September 2015, where he linked up with Salah Abdeslam (who provided logistical support to the Paris cell). Krayem and an associate traveled from Brussels to Amsterdam on November 13, the day of the Paris attacks, using false names and one-way bus tickets. However, despite having a hotel room booked, Krayem returned to Brussels on the same day for unknown reasons.

After the bombings in Brussels, a Belgian police raid uncovered a laptop listing five targets. Three of them were places the Islamic State already struck in Paris. The other two referred to the “metro” (apparently a further reference to Paris) and Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.

Then, last summer, three individuals across the Netherlands were arrested on suspicion that they had provided the firearms used to kill scores of innocents in the Paris attacks. Their DNA was discovered on the guns and a sports bag recovered from an Islamic State safe house shortly thereafter.

The Netherlands’ future looks no safer. Approximately 300 people left the country to fight alongside the Islamic State in Syria. About 50 were killed in combat and over 100 are still there. Some have managed to make it back to the Netherlands, where security services may monitor their movements or, if available evidence allows, prosecute and jail them.

Wary of the challenge posed by such individuals, in 2017, the country passed a new law enabling the government to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals if they joined a foreign terrorist organization—a previously unthinkable move in a largely liberal country. A different law also increased the government’s surveillance capacity and scope for storing and sharing data that intelligence agencies deem relevant. Meanwhile, the Netherlands has been active in establishing radicalization prevention programs in cities such as Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Utrecht, and the Hague.

Despite these measures, the threat to the Netherlands is likely to endure. After all, the various factors that led individuals down the path to radicalism are still in place. Islamists continue to recruit based on their violent interpretation of faith, attempt to push the narrative of a Western war on Islam, and castigate the Netherlands for its liberal policies on issues such as gay rights. Furthermore, in the wake of the destruction of the Islamic State’s caliphate, Dutch officials have raised concerns that those who were never able to reach it could now lash out at home. Indeed, as the Norwegian scholar Thomas Hegghammer has pointed out, its collapse could even be twisted by jihadists into “caliphate nostalgia,” where, in the years to come, “17-year-olds will look at pictures of the Islamic State and want to fight against the people who destroyed it.”

What particular trigger persuaded Tanis to act is currently unclear. So, too, is the ultimate political fallout from the attack. But just days after the strike, an outsider party whose platform included a tough stance on immigration won a surprise victory in the Utrecht provincial elections. That offers a clue to what might come next. As the Islamic State seeks to strike back at the West following its military reversals—and as political discourse inevitably focuses on the role of Islam in Europe—what happens in the Netherlands could become a warning for all of Europe.

Robin Simcox is a counterterrorism analyst. Twitter: @RobinSimcox