There was clearly something out of the ordinary going on the day I flew last month from Istanbul to Amsterdam.
You could tell even at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, where, after going through the routine passport check at immigration and then, again, at security, passengers were asked randomly to show their passports again while waiting at the gate. Another check came as our boarding cards were collected, and yet again, seconds later, before being allowed on board the flight. And even when we’d landed, as we disembarked, officials stood at the airplane doorway, checking once again.
What we learned the following day was that three “radicalized Muslim” men – all of them Dutch natives — had been arrested in Rotterdam on suspicion of planning “to take part in international jihad” – namely, to travel to Syria via Istanbul to join in waging violent jihad there.
The three were among the growing number of European Muslims setting out to join the cause of terrorist groups in countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan and Egypt, the newest trend in the radicalization of European Muslim youth. (See report of the Dutch Coordinator for Terrorism and Security [in Dutch] .)
At first glance, this might seem a problem mostly for the countries to which these young men are traveling. But Western officials are concerned that the training these youth receive will come home with them, to be used on Western targets; and another case in the news – also in the Netherlands – points to additional risks: The targeting of American and European military and diplomatic personnel abroad.
The Dutch, it seems, have been particularly good at this, as the latest cases demonstrate. In 2010, American officials charged Dutch-Pakistani Sabir Khan with plotting a suicide bombing on an American military base in Afghanistan, and of ties to Al Qaeda. Khan – also known as Younis the Dutch – was arrested at the time in Pakistan, where he spent eight months in prison before being flown back to the Netherlands to await possible extradition to the US.
Now the Dutch Supreme Court has agreed to send Khan to be tried in an American court, where he faces a 25-year sentence under what his lawyers argue will be “inhumane” conditions. Indeed, Khan – along with other European terror suspects who were also imprisoned in Pakistan – claims that he was already tortured in Pakistani jail under orders of the US government, whom, he says, paid the Pakistani jailers to do America’s dirty work.
At least, this is the story told by two other such suspects, who have offered their story to Dutch news syndicate ANP, and who maintain that Khan experienced the same torture and abuse in Pakistan that they did, also on orders from the US.
“I heard two American voices once,” one of them told the ANP, by way of offering evidence. “Definitely American – they had heavy accents.”
But he never saw them. “Whenever the Americans came,” he said, “they put curtains over our cells.”
Still, others in the prison had told him this was true: “They saw it with their own eyes,” he explained – a feat indeed, given that the cells were curtained off – by his own admission – specifically to prevent this from happening.
But such tales tend to go far in the Dutch courts, which leaves open to question what, exactly, will happen either to Khan or to the three who were arrested in Rotterdam in November.
In the most famous example, Wesam al-Delaema, a Dutch-Iraqi hairdresser and amateur filmmaker, was also arrested in 2005 in connection with a film he’d made two years prior, showing himself in his native Fallujah setting off IEDs and promising the death of anyone who might happen to survive them. As the Washington Post described it:
Delaema, who grew up in Iraq and became a Dutch citizen in 2001, admitted traveling to Iraq in 2003 to be a member of an insurgent group in Fallujah. He was videotaped with other insurgents planting roadside bombs designed to kill Americans. In one video, a hooded Delaema could be seen brushing dirt away from an explosive device and then helping to rebury it. In another clip, he could be heard saying, "We have executed several operations, and most of them were successful. . . . The casualties have gone beyond your imagination."
Holland extradited al Delaema to the U.S. for trial, where he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. In keeping with the extradition agreement, America then returned the hairdresser to the Netherlands to serve out his sentence.
But it didn’t quite turn out that way. Once back on Dutch soil, al-Delaema complained in a Rotterdam courtroom that he had been treated inhumanely, subjected to hellish conditions in American prison. Yes, he admitted that he’d had a bit of a fight with the guards, that’s true, but they didn’t give him enough blankets. They spit in his food.
They even, he claimed, brought him into the cell of a fellow prisoner who had hung himself and told him to do the same. Yes, in Washington, D.C. No, he had no witnesses. And as for the video – he said he was forced to confess through torture. He had only been pretending, acting, in the film. He wasn’t really planting explosives.
Despite the fact that an independent Dutch investigation, headed by Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin, determined that al-Delaema had experienced no harsh treatment, the Dutch judges bought his story. Having served only five of his 25 years, al-Delaema walked out of the court a free man – far more than anyone can say of the men and women, American and Iraqi, who were maimed, blinded or killed by the bombs he “pretended” to place in their paths.
[ad] Now Khan’s lawyers have warned the same “maltreatment” will befall their client if he is extradited to the US; but this time, the Dutch, having been heavily criticized for their actions in the al-Delaema case, have been less easily persuaded; Khan’s extradition was approved for the second time (following an earlier appeal) on December 21.
One could almost pity the Dutch – in the most patronizing way – for their naiveté, for the ease with which they are gamed by the blatant falsehoods of men (and occasionally, women) with demonstrated terrorist ties and clear plans to kill in the name of their idea of god.
One could, anyway, if only their gullibility (do we dare call it “enabling”?) weren’t so horrific in its potential consequences. Already, it seems, the ease with which al-Delaema was let off the hook has encouraged any number of Dutch Muslim 20-somethings to follow his murderous example. If Khan succeeds in pulling a similar stunt, the outcome can only spell disaster.
But perhaps the killings in Benghazi in September have brought the lesson finally home. Perhaps Europe is beginning to understand just how global the threat of radical Islam has become, even to our own. Perhaps this time, this terrorist wannabe – and the growing swarm of others like him – will serve the sentence he deserves, so that the rest of us may continue to live free.
Abigail R. Esman, an award-winning writer based in New York and the Netherlands, is the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West.