(AP) AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – Dutch authorities have confirmed that 13 young Muslims arrested on terrorism charges in the Netherlands after the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh are members of a radical Islamic group with international links and a Syrian-born spiritual leader.
Dutch intelligence calls the group the “Hofstad Netwerk,” and a Justice Ministry official says 43-year-old Syrian Redouan al-Issar, the alleged spiritual leader, has disappeared without a trace.
Van Gogh was ritually slaughtered on an Amsterdam street Nov. 2, apparently for criticizing Islam. His killing set off a wave of reprisals_ attacks on more than 20 Islamic sites in the Netherlands, including a mosque which was gutted by fire early Saturday.
Van Gogh’s alleged killer, 26-year-old Mohammed Bouyeri, of Amsterdam, was arrested in a shootout with police minutes after the filmmaker died of gunshot wounds and a slit throat. Bouyeri had a will in his pocket saying he was prepared to die for Islamic jihad, or holy war.
In the days that followed, the government has come under pressure to release details about Islamic radicals and terrorist recruiting in the Netherlands.
In a letter and notes sent to parliament Thursday, Interior Minister Johan Remkes, who oversees the secret service, gave the clearest picture yet of the Dutch cell allegedly behind Van Gogh’s murder.
Remkes said the Hofstad Network, composed mostly of young Dutch Muslims of North African ancestry, has links to networks in Spain and Belgium; that several members of the group have traveled to Pakistan for training; and that its members were under the influence of al-Issar for many years.
“The number of persons and networks in the Netherlands that thinks and acts in terms of actual violence is, in our opinion, limited,” he wrote. “But the feeding ground from which they spring, is broader … it’s better to think in terms of thousands than hundreds,” he said.
Al-Issar went by several names, including “Abu Kaled,” the Justice Ministry official said. The same name is used by al-Qaida fugitive Muhammad Bahaiah, a courier between Osama bin Laden (news – web sites) and European cells.
Al-Issar had sought asylum in Germany beginning in 1995, but has not been seen there since May 2004, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.
Remkes said the Dutch secret service realized in the Spring of 2003 that al-Issar was “a leading figure” who preached at fundamentalist gatherings at Bouyeri’s Amsterdam home.
Al-Issar “radiates charisma and exercises great influence on youth from this network,” Remkes wrote. “Participants strengthened their radical Islamic ideas, and the subject of violent jihad is often discussed.”
Dick Leurdijk, an expert on Islamic fundamentalism at the Netherlands Institute of Foreign Relations Clingendael, said he had worried there would be an attack like the one that killed Van Gogh.
“We cannot exclude these things happening in the Netherlands,” he said. “We are certainly part of (the target of) this Jihad.”
Leurdijk said the Dutch cell has special links to Islamic groups in Spain, as well as a “common ideology” with al-Qaida.
Three Dutch members of the Hofstad group traveled to Portugal in June 2004 during the European soccer championship and were arrested and deported because authorities there feared they would carry out an attack, Remkes said in the letter.
The Dutch secret service has been shadowing as many as 200 potential terrorists since the Sept. 11 attacks, but Bouyeri wasn’t among them.
The Dutch cell began showing “conspiratorial behavior” in 2003 and a number of members traveled to Pakistan, probably for training, Remkes said.
The Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad identified one as 19-year-old Jason W. — one of two terrorism suspects arrested in The Hague (news – web sites) Wednesday after a standoff with police — as having twice gone to Pakistan for training. The newspaper cited a document leaked by the Dutch secret service.
Remkes said members also received orders from “Abdeladim Akoudad, who was suspected by the Moroccan government of involvement in the attacks on Casablanca.”
Akoudad was arrested near Barcelona in October 2003 at Morocco’s request for the Casablanca suicide bombings that killed 32 in May 2003. Spanish officials confirm links between him and at least one of the six suspects held in the Netherlands in Van Gogh’s killing.
Akoudad’s arrest prompted the arrest of five suspects in the Netherlands on Oct. 19, 2003, including 18-year-old Samir Azzouz, identified as a key member of the Dutch cell. The group “was planning a violent attack in the Netherlands or Europe,” Remkes said.
Azzouz was found with bomb making materials but released for lack of evidence. He was arrested again in June 2004 and is now awaiting trial on terrorism charges in Rotterdam. Investigators found plans of a Dutch airport and nuclear reactor at his home.
Azzouz is also being charged for attempted robbery with Ismail. B, who Dutch media said received bomb making training in Pakistan.