LEIDEN, Netherlands—As Prof. Afshin Ellian arrived at Leiden University law school one day recently, two bodyguards hustled him through the entrance and past the electronically locked doors leading to his office. For the rest of the day, the men stood sentry outside those doors, scanning the hallways for any sign of the people who want him dead.
Ellian is one of a soaring number of Dutch academics, lawmakers and other public figures who have been forced to accept 24-hour protection or go into hiding after receiving death threats from Islamic extremists. In a country with a tradition of robust public debate and an anything-goes culture, the fear of assassination has rattled society and forced people such as Ellian to reassess whether it’s worth it to express opinions that could endanger their lives.
“The extremists are afraid that if Dutch society becomes a safe haven for an intellectual discussion of political Islam, it will be very dangerous for them,” said Ellian, an Iranian-born professor of social cohesion who escaped to the Netherlands two decades ago from Afghanistan after receiving death threats from communists there. “This is normal behavior in the Middle East, but not in Europe. They think it’s their obligation to kill people they consider to be enemies of Islam.”
In late October, police arrested seven young Muslims on suspicion of planning to murder unidentified lawmakers and blow up the headquarters of the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service.
On Nov. 2, the nation marked the one-year anniversary of van Gogh’s slaying. “We must not allow ourselves to be set against each other by people who inscribe their message in blood,” Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said at a memorial service. He quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
But on that day, an unknown gunman opened fire on the office of Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, who has threatened to expel radical Muslim clerics. Windows were shattered, but no one was injured.
Now, many prominent people don’t go out in public alone. In Amsterdam, Mayor Job Cohen, who is Jewish, and a Dutch Moroccan alderman, Ahmed Aboutaleb, have bodyguards after receiving death threats from Islamic extremists. In The Hague, the national seat of government, security has been stepped up.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian-born member of parliament who was a friend and colleague of van Gogh, fled the country and sought refuge on a U.S. military base after van Gogh’s killer wrote that she was next on the hit list. Another legislator, Geert Wilders, has been taken into protective custody since radicals vowed to behead him as “an enemy of Islam.”
Dutch investigators have traced many of the threats to a local network of young Muslim radicals that police and news media have dubbed the Hofstad Group. Authorities estimate that the network has about 30 followers, primarily Dutch-born teenagers and men in their twenties who are of Moroccan descent. Analysts and investigators said the network appears to be a home grown. Many of its members became radicalized in local mosques or by viewing extremist material on the Internet.
Dutch investigators warn against underestimating the group. One of its founders was Mohammed Bouyeri, the 27-year-old who confessed to killing van Gogh and said he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.