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Can the Netherlands escape terrorism?

The Dutch military guards traffic tunnels during the September 2001 bomb threats

The Netherlands has played a role in the so-called war on terror launched following the 11 September attacks on the US. Despite the fact it is not the most likely attack target, the nation remains at threat.

As Europe tightens its counter-terrorism measures in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings, a lecturer with Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Ko Colyn, said the Netherlands is an open society and easily accessible to terrorists.

“The Netherlands is a very suitable target in the eyes of terrorists. The system is open and it is an easily accessible society with lots of targets,” Colyn said.

He said Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam would be relatively easy to bomb and that the underground tunnels near the nation’s main international airport are easy to get to. Colyn also pointed out that Rotterdam harbour would be a suitable target.

Military expert Michael Richardson also warned earlier this month that large harbours — including Rotterdam — are probably the next target of terrorist network Al Qaeda. He said it would be relatively simple to detonate a bomb containing radioactive material on a ship.

Speaking at a conference in Singapore, he said sooner or later Al Qaeda or another terrorist organisation will get its hands on a nuclear device or conventional bomb that will be smuggled on a ship and detonated.

But Colyn downplayed talk of a “dirty bomb”. He also said despite the fact that ports are an “ideal” target, there have never been “definite” indications that Al Qaeda is planning an attack on Rotterdam. The port has nevertheless sharpened security.

The defence correspondent for weekly Dutch newspaper Vrij Nederland also said a normal explosive device detonated at Rotterdam could have the effect of a small weapon of mass destruction and “cause panic and angst”.

And the Netherlands is by no means anonymous in the war against terror.

*quote1*Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende rebuked Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero earlier this month for his threat after the 11 March bombings in Madrid and the general election to withdraw the 1,300 Spanish troops from Iraq.

Visiting US President George Bush in Washington, Balkenende said the international community “must not turn away from Iraq”; comments which strengthened indications his coalition Cabinet is prepared to extend the Dutch mission to Iraq beyond 1 July.

Without explicitly referring to the 1,300 Dutch troops in southern Iraq, Balkenende said that “yielding to terror” is not the right choice. “The solidarity of the international community with Iraq is important.”

The Dutch government also gave “political, but not military” support to the March invasion of Iraq last year and is closely involved in the stabilisation of Afghanistan.

It deployed 650 troops to the ISAF force in Afghanistan after the Taliban were ousted at the end of 2001. Most of the troops have returned home, but six Apache combat helicopters and 135 personnel are departing for the capital Kabul this week.

But Colyn also said that the risk of terrorism does not depend solely on the level of a nation’s support for the US and despite the fact that it is a firm ally, pointed out the Netherlands is a small country and relatively low key in that support.

Dutch terrorist expert Edwin Bakker — who works for the Netherlands Institute for International Relations, the Clingendael Institute — also claims the Netherlands is relatively low down on the list of countries that faced the “wrath of Islam”.

The Madrid bombings have sparked EU-wide terrorism concerns

He said the Spanish and Dutch involvements in the “war on terror” were not identical and that “Spain’s support for the US is far more overt. Spain was prominent in the build up to the war in Iraq, while the Netherlands was not”.

Furthermore, he said references to the Netherlands were rarely found on websites of Muslim fundamentalist groups.