Terror alert leaves a country on edge


The cities of the Netherlands have never been attacked by terrorists, but intelligence from Pakistan this week suggested The Hague could be a target for a Mumbai-style atrocity

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING, and if the decision by the Dutch government to scramble two F-16 fighters this week in response to a passenger jet entering Netherlands airspace without radio contact seemed a mite overprotective, there was good reason: the security services know there have been warnings that terrorists are planning an attack.

As it happened, Wednesday’s alert was a false alarm. The pilot of the Airbus A320, with more than 180 holidaymakers on board, failed to make radio contact with Schiphol airport’s control tower, and “security protocols were activated”. In other words, the authorities believed they had a possible hijacking on their hands.

There had been fears of “a calamity”, the office of the national co-ordinator for counterterrorism said; after a negotiator had spoken to the captain, the jet had been given the all-clear, and the passengers, unaware of the fears on the ground, had long since dispersed.

The hijack alert obliterated another story the same day. It received just a brief mention in newspapers and on radio but provided crucial context: intelligence from Pakistan had revealed that two young Somali students had allegedly been recruited by al-Qaeda in Karachi to carry out a suicide attack on The Hague.

The cities of the Netherlands have never been attacked by terrorists. Although the right wing has gained some popular ground as a result of controversy about immigration, it is a liberal country. The Dutch don’t expect to be attacked. But it doesn’t always work like that.

The Hague, known as the City of Peace and Justice, is the second city of the United Nations, home to institutions such as the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and to scores of nongovermental organisations. Despite that, it’s a low-profile place compared with Amsterdam, and could be regarded as a relatively soft target.

The blueprint for an attack on The Hague came to light recently in a Pakistani newspaper, the Friday Times. The Dutch embassy in Karachi says it is working “closely with our Pakistani counterparts to eliminate these threats”.

The Pakistani security service, the ISI, is one of the most feared and effective in the world. There have been repeated claims it is infiltrated by extremists, however, including al-Qaeda. In 2000, for example, the US Secret Service tried to dissuade then president Bill Clinton from travelling to Pakistan because they believed his top-secret itinerary would be leaked by sympathisers within the ISI.

Although the Dutch security service, AIVD, has refused to comment, it says it set up a taskforce last year to assess and deal with the alleged threat. However, that has never led to an increase in the official terror alert level in the Netherlands.

Sources have been able to provide the Pakistani newspaper with detail. The two young Somalis are also Dutch nationals. They are believed to have received weapons and explosives training in the remote Pakistani province of Balochistan, on the border with Afghanistan, in the aftermath of a series of co-ordinated attacks carried out by Islamists in Mumbai on November 26th, 2008, that killed 164 people.

That training was allegedly provided by a group called Jandullah, also known as the People’s Resistance Movement of Iran, which was originally formed to fight for the rights of Sunni Muslims in Iran and is widely regarded as linked to al-Qaeda.

The two men are Muslim but are presenting themselves as Christian and travelling on stolen passports. A source told the Pakistani newspaper the men were to be sent to The Hague to carry out 26/11-type attacks.

The terrorism threat level in the Netherlands remains “limited”. According to the office of the national counterterrorism co-ordinator, “the chance of a terrorist attack is currently slight but cannot be ruled out – due in part to the risk posed by ‘lone wolves’.”

The existing threat to the country remains “primarily Jihadist” in nature, it says. “Jihadists in the Netherlands are more focused on fighting in existing conflict zones than in engaging in violent struggle in the Netherlands.

“However, it cannot be ruled out that individuals in the Netherlands will become radicalised to the point where they are prepared to commit violence in this country. In a relatively new trend, contact between jihadist and radical Islamist groups has blurred the boundary between the two. All things considered, the internal threat is becoming more diffuse.”

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