Mention the Netherlands, and most people think of brightly-colored tulips, gently-flowing canals, legal marijuana, and Rembrandt.
But there is an underside.
The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning Sept. 28, cautioning tourists about a potential terrorist threat in the country. The announcement came largely in response to an August attack at Amsterdam's Central Station, in which two Americans were stabbed by a German Muslim extremist.
True, the Amsterdam attacker was not Dutch. But Europe's permeable borders mean that nationality rarely matters; several of those involved in the November, 2015 Paris attacks, for instance, were Belgian.
Moreover, the country's intelligence officials have been warning of an impending incident for some time, noting the sizable number of extremists throughout the country, along with 55 returnees from the Islamic State.
Indeed, just prior to the U.S. warning, Dutch police arrested seven men suspected of planning a large-scale attack. In the wake of those arrests, Dutch authorities further revealed they had their eyes on as many as 160 radicalized Muslims – 59 in Amsterdam alone. If that number seems small in the context of Holland's overall Muslim population of just over 1 million (.016 percent), consider that it is equivalent to the number of Americans diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year – a danger no one simply waves away. And unlike cancer, radicalism is contagious.
That contagion has had intelligence and law enforcement agents throughout Europe concerned for more than a decade. And yet despite numerous warnings and efforts at containing the threat, radical Islamic ideologies like Salafism are spreading, also in the Netherlands, according to a 2015 report from the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD. This is in part thanks to the missionary zeal and crafty methods of Salafist leaders. "The movement is professional in its communication activities," the report states. "A large proportion of the information about Islam available to the Dutch public, especially online, reflects a Salafist world view. This helps to explain the popularity of Salafi ideas among young Dutch Muslims and converts, in particular."
What's more, "radical" is a relative term. The 160 people targeted by law enforcement in the Netherlands are those suspected of having violent intent. They do not include those with anti-Western ideas. Nor do they include people like Moroccan-Dutch Yasmina Haifi, who, while employed by the Ministry of Justice in 2014, tweeted that ISIS had nothing to do with Islam. Rather, she said, it is "a plan created by Zionists deliberately to make Islam look bad."
In a recent interview with Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, Haifi refused to apologize for that statement, insisting that her words were misunderstood. She said she didn't mean Jews created ISIS, but that those who support Israel did.
These days, Haifi volunteers for the pro-Islam party, DENK, while overseeing the organization she founded in 2017, the Dutch Moroccans United network, which seeks the "empowerment" and "emancipation" of Dutch-Moroccans, according to its Facebook page.
What is meant by "emancipation" is anybody's guess. Moroccans are not enslaved in the Netherlands, nor are Dutch-Moroccan women forced to wear burqas, or other oppressive garments.
Haifi continues to claim that ISIS "is directed and financed by the US, among others, as an ally of Israel." Others who have peddled that notion include Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei and the pro-Russian "Centre for Research on Globalization," an organization that has promoted the Clinton pedophile ring hoax, and claims the U.S. plans to implant "RFID chips ...in all people diagnosed with autism and dementia."
The State Department warnings had nothing to do with Yasmine Haifi, however. She broke no laws, and she certainly did not engage in violence. But it is the continual stirring of anti-Western, anti-Jewish, and anti-American sentiment by Muslims who, like Haifi, have a strong public platform, that helps to push so many Dutch and other European Muslims into the hands of Salafist missionaries – and from there, to jihadist recruiters and jihadists. It is all food for the beast.
None of this is new. Although Americans traveling to Europe have steered clear of cities like Paris and Brussels in recent years, concerned about the number of terrorist attacks there, few have expressed concern about Amsterdam and other Dutch cities. To the contrary, American tourism to the Netherlands has increased by 22 percent since 2006.
Yet the Dutch have been dealing with a radicalizing Muslim population since shortly after 9/11. In 2004, writer and filmmaker Theo van Gogh was shot and stabbed by Muslim extremist, Mohammed Bouyeri, as he bicycled to work. Bouyeri, who happens to be Dutch-Moroccan, was a leader of the Hofstadgroep, a terror group based in The Hague, which was also planning several larger-scale attacks at the time.
Several ex-Muslims, including the Iranian-born writer and scholar Afshin Ellian, have been forced for years to live with full-time bodyguards because of various allegedly anti-Islam statements they have made, or positions they have taken on religion.
On a larger scale, numerous Dutch mosques are financed by foreign governments– Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and by the Muslim Brotherhood. In April, the NRC published a "secret list" of the sponsors of Dutch mosques. Held as a government secret since at least 2010, according to the NRC, the list tracks millions of euros that have poured from the Gulf states to Dutch Muslim communities. And it only seems to be growing: the NRC points out that in four years, the number of Salafist mosques has more than doubled – from 13 to 27 – while the number of Salafist preachers has risen from 50 to 110.
This has not been without consequences. In addition to the Amsterdam Central Station attack, in May a Muslim man attacked passersby with a knife near a train station in The Hague. As Dutch commentators noted at the time, such attacks are "the new normal."
Still, the networks in Holland are not quite as radical as those in France, Belgium and England, said Carel Brendel, a Dutch journalist who specializes in terrorism. But Holland has also been "lucky." "The AIVD does good work," he wrote in an e-mail, "But I think the Netherlands are likely to experience something soon as well."
The jihadist scene is actually getting stronger in the Netherlands, Leiden University professor of terrorism and counterterrorism Edwin Bakker, agreed in an e-mail. "The awareness of the threat is now higher than a couple of months ago, 'thanks' to the attacks in Amsterdam and The Hague, and the recent arrests of the seven jihadists."
But that awareness, and even the "good work" of the AIVD, Bakker said, are no reasons to sit back and relax. "Personally I am worried about the size of the jihadist scene, the fact that it is better connected to the international scene, aware of the fact that it is closely monitored, that it includes persons who might be very frustrated and angry after returning from prison (the prison returnees), and possibly simply waiting for 'better times' when we lower our guard or when a new conflict in the Middle East offers them new possibilities to join the violent jihad abroad," he cautioned. "Add to that the fact that it includes many women and children, making this a threat that is here to stay for quite a while."
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Follow her at @radicalstates.