False alarm of Rotterdam ‘terror attack’ did no one any favours

The worst part about the incident is that the media were the ones sowing fear and confusion

Police investigate a van with Spanish number plates after a concert was cancelled because of a “terrorist threat”, in Rotterdam, earlier this week.  Photograph: Arie Kievit/EPA

Police investigate a van with Spanish number plates after a concert was cancelled because of a “terrorist threat”, in Rotterdam, earlier this week. Photograph: Arie Kievit/EPA

 

After the carnage of Barcelona, it was good news on Wednesday evening that what was rapidly conflated into an imminent terror attack by the same network in the Dutch city of Rotterdam turned out to be a false alarm.

Except that “false alarm” doesn’t quite cover it: it implies that there may have been a planned attack of some sort – and that by dint of good intelligence, police alertness, and not a little good fortune, that attack was prevented or the attackers were put off.

That’s not what actually happened, though.

Of course, media flashed around the world in seconds the news that a concert in Rotterdam by a Californian band, Allah-Las, had been cancelled because of concerns it might be a terrorist target. But that was really as far as the facts ever brought the story.

Everything else was speculation – and all of it, as it turned out, was downright wrong.

The narrative that followed was largely a result of the fact that in the ultra-competitive world of 24-hour news, the websites of traditional media – reputable newspapers, TV and radio stations – now see themselves as competing with social media to get updates online.

‘Fake news’

What makes Rotterdam a particularly interesting case in point is that from the point of the cancellation onwards, the “updates” were pretty much without any basis, not so much in fact as in reality – a distinction worth making in the era of “fake news”.

Yes, there was a white van with Spanish number plates in the vicinity of the concert venue. It had been seen moving around the streets a bit. Those were facts.

The reality, however, is that Spanish plates are not unusual in the Netherlands, and in this case the driver, a fitter by trade, was allegedly drunk and not sure where he was going.

Yes, there were two gas canisters in the back of his van. That too was a fact. The reality, however, was that he was bringing them home for innocent domestic use.

As speculation went into overdrive, with talk of a whole new dimension to the Barcelona investigation and of uncovering previously hidden terrorist links between Spain and the Netherlands, the only voice of media sanity was totally ignored.

A reputable Dutch journalist, with security service and police contacts stretching back decades, tweeted that he had been reliably informed that the cannisters in the Spanish van were “not rigged as bombs, ie no detonators attached”. He was absolutely right.

Terrorist story line

No sooner did it start becoming clear from “police sources” that the explosive Spanish van angle was going nowhere than another terrorist story line emerged – this time a raid by police on a house in the south of the country and the arrest of a 22-year-old man.

Here at last was the terrorist link, surely? Instead, even more of the bottom fell out of the terrorism narrative.

The arrest was a fact. But the reality, it emerged on Thursday, was that here was the man who had caused the cancellation of the Allah-Las concert: a college student sitting at his laptop allegedly trying to cause trouble by posting a warning on the social media site Telegram.

So there was nothing to the Spanish van or van driver, and nothing terrorist-related even to the concert cancellation itself. Talk of a tip-off from the Spanish police quietly melted away too.

The saddest thing about Rotterdam this week is that a key aim of terrorists, apart from violence, is to sow fear and confusion. In this case, they didn’t even have to try. “We” did it for them.

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