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Nov 16, 2004 | 00:06 GMT

5 mins read

The Van Gogh Murder: Cracking the Dutch Case

Minutes after the Nov. 2 assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, law enforcement authorities in the Netherlands arrested alleged triggerman Mohammed Bouyeri. Within two days, eight other young Muslims of North African descent were in custody, and by Nov. 13, less than two weeks after the killing, authorities had detained a total of 13 suspects on terrorism charges in connection with the case.

Dutch authorities say Bouyeri and his associates form part of a group called the Hofstad Network, led by Syrian spiritual leader Redouan al-Issar. Authorities acknowledge they had been investigating Bouyeri, but called off their surveillance of him some two weeks before van Gogh's murder. In fact, Bouyeri was detained in October 2003, but was released after police determined that, despite jihadist material found in his home, he was not an immediate threat. The short time span between the suspension of surveillance and the attack against van Gogh suggests Bouyeri could have been aware he was being watched — and simply waited for the opportune moment to attack.

Shortly after the arrests, authorities further revealed that Bouyeri also was linked to 18-year-old Samir Azzouz, who was arrested during the summer for plotting militant attacks throughout the Netherlands. Furthermore, the Dutch Interior Ministry reported that several members of the group had traveled to Pakistan for training and that its members were under the influence of the 43-year-old al-Issar for many years. Al-Issar, also known as Abu Kaled, has disappeared.

The rapid response by Dutch law enforcement in the aftermath of the killing suggests that police and intelligence agencies had been observing suspected members of the Hofstad Network other than Bouyeri. If so, this is not the first time authorities of a government have "sat" on a group of suspects until a crime is committed — and it likely will not be the last.

In the aftermath of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agents quickly linked the bomb to Mohammed Salameh, and authorities moved in to arrest the bomber and his associates. The speed of the arrests was due in no small part to the fact that intelligence agents had penetrated the cell, and that its members and associates had been under observation for some time.

More recently, Saudi security forces killed chief al Qaeda leader Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin on June 18, the same day al-Muqrin oversaw the killing of U.S. citizen Paul M. Johnson. The next day, some 10 of al-Muqrin's associates were arrested in connection with the slaying. Sources close to Saudi security told STRATFOR that authorities were well aware of al-Muqrin's whereabouts for some time, but were hoping to gain Johnson's release before launching a counterterrorism raid.

There are a number of potential reasons for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to observe suspected militants and militant groups rather than rush in for quick arrests. For instance, authorities might be concerned that apprehending suspects too soon will scuttle efforts to gather further intelligence. Once an arrest is made, that particular source of intelligence dries up. Several arrests at once would set the investigation back even further, as these can tip off the wider group, if there is one, to law enforcement presence. STRATFOR considers this the most likely explanation for the Dutch authorities' reluctance to break up the Hofstad Network cell. The arrest months earlier of accused cell member Azzouz suggests that, had it wanted to, Dutch intelligence could have gone after Bouyeri and his associates at that time — or shortly thereafter. In other cases, political constraints might prevent police and counterterrorism authorities from making a pre-emptive strike against suspected militants. In the al-Muqrin case, for example, the Saudi regime was attempting to balance popular support for al Qaeda's cause in the kingdom with a need to root out militants within their country. Johnson's execution, however, ended any hope for diplomacy and forced the hand of the security services. Perhaps the most obvious reason for delaying action in situations such as these is the simple matter of the law — authorities must wait until a crime is actually committed before they can make an arrest. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are limited to observing suspects and suspected groups — and in most cases can move in only after the deed is done. However, this assassination has led authorities to action against another group. Dutch forces raided a training camp reportedly used by Kurdish militant group the Kurdistan Workers Party in the southern part of the Netherlands on Nov. 12. It seems clear that counterterrorism authorities were aware of this group before Nov. 2 — and that the crackdown on militants in the wake of this killing goes beyond the Hofstad Network cell. Meanwhile, the wave of violence sparked by the van Gogh murder and the subsequent arrests continues in the Netherlands. In the latest incident, a mosque in southeast Holland was burned down Nov. 13, bringing the number of fires or incidents of vandalism at Muslim sites to more than 20 since the killing. Several Christian churches also have been attacked.

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