Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch Moroccan who savagely slaughtered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004, has already been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Now a new trial underway in Amsterdam aims to determine whether Bouyeri acted alone.
There is ample reason to doubt that he did. Specifically, the prosecution seeks to determine the extent of Bouyeri's involvement with a group of radical Muslims known as "The Hofstadgroup." The question before them: Did Bouyeri act on his own, or did he conspire with other members of the Hofstadgroup to murder van Gogh?
Rumors abound, but there is no hard evidence. Nor are the proceedings hastened by the fact that the members of the Hofstadgroup are seemingly bound by an oath of silence. Another possibility, suggested by recent courtroom developments, is that they simply fear one another: In the cutthroat code of extremist Islam, betrayal can mean death.
At the center of the trial presently is Jamal Eddin Barkour. Born in 1979, Barkour is a Dutch Moroccan criminal, a frequent offender who spent five years in prison prior to his release in March 2005. In the final months of his prison term, Barkour met a former pizza deliverer named Bilal Lamrani, another Dutch Moroccan.
Lamrani appears to be the more dangerous of the two. In jail for issuing Internet death threats against Geert Wilders, a Dutch member of parliament who is highly critical of radical Islam and Islamists, Lamrani was a close friend of Mohammed Bouyeri.
Prison guards and other prisoners soon noticed that Barkour and Lamrani talked almost every day. What they were discussing remains unclear. But it is doubtful that they were simply making casual conversation, as Lamrani lamely contended in court. Why doubtful? Because Lamrani, like Bouyeri and some other members of the Hofstadgroup, tried to make new converts to radical Islam immediately after arriving in prison. For instance, he told fellow prisoners he wanted to blow himself up in a crowd. Another prisoner heard him say he was prepared to stage a terrorist attack every day. Still others overheard Lamrani musing about killing Geert Wilders.
At present, much of the evidence remains speculative. Questioned about his prison statements by one of the judges in the current trial, Lamrani simply said, "All these allegations are rubbish." Notably, however, he refused to answer questions about allegations that he attempted to recruit others by asking them to join him in jihad against the infildel. What is known about Lamrani is that, just a few days prior to Theo van Gogh's murder, he visited Mohammed Bouyeri. Police investigators do not rule out the possibility that they discussed plans to kill van Gogh.
Barkour, too, seems to have been privy to inside information. In May 2005, Barkour told the police that he had interesting information about the Hofstadgroup. But he wanted money, 500 Euro at least, for the information. When the police pressed him, he froze up. Suddenly, he refused to say anything. Then, on December 16, 2005, he was arrested again. He had threatened his girlfriend and said he would set the house on fire. Knowing he had a history of violence and was drinking a lot, she took the threats seriously.
One day later, Barkour asked for a criminal investigator from the police. He had something on his mind. He told the policeman he was worried about human lives being in danger and wanted to make a statement about his friend Bilal Lamrani. Bart Gietema from the Amsterdam police dutifully recorded everything Jamal Barkour told him.
This time Barkour did not ask for money. Gietema quickly noticed that Barkour was very explicit—he really seemed to know something. There was no reason to believe he was lying. Barkour claimed that Lamrani had told him about plans for a terrorist attack on a discotheque and a bar frequented by gays in the center of Amsterdam. Lamrani only needed three men to carry it. He had asked Barkour to help him.
It was to be a terrible reproduction of the 2002 terrorism strike in Bali—except that the number of deaths should not exceed 3 or 4, and a few people were to be taken hostage. Then the members of the Hofstadtgroup were to make a demand: Set Bouyeri free and they would release the hostages.
About Bouyeri himself there was also interesting information that Barkour wanted to share with the police. In prison Lamrani confided to him that he had supplied both the gun and the bicycle that Bouyeri had used to kill van Gogh. Barkour told police other members of the Hofstadgroup knew about Bouyeri's plan to kill van Gogh.
If what Barkour told the police is true, an Islamist conspiracy was in the works. Officer Gietema did not immediately believe it. "Is everything you told me the truth?" he asked "Yes, it is," Barkour said. "And are you willing to confirm this in the presence of the examining judge?" "Of course," Barkour said.
It took two and a half weeks before prosecutor Koos Plooy, who seeks the conviction of 14 members of the Hofstadgroup currently on trial in Amsterdam, had Gietema's interrogation report on his desk. He immediately realized it as the missing link. Here was a statement to the police recording Barkour's confession that some of the Hofstadgroup members conspired with Bouyeri to kill Theo van Gogh. Plooy demanded that Jamal Barkour and Bilal Lamrani be heard as witnesses in the Hofstad trial. The defense counsels in turn wanted Officer Gietema to appear before the court as a witness.
But on January 13, 2005, a very different Jamal Barkour than the one who gave the critical police statement entered the courtroom. His body language was very different from when the police interrogation took place last December. Now he was extremely nervous; not for one moment did he stop gesticulating. "Did anyone talk to you about the Hofstadgroup?" the court president asked. "No," Barkour said. "Do you know Bilal Lamrani?" "Yes, I know him quite well," Barkour said. "But he never told me anything about plans for a terrorist attack, I made it all up myself, Mr. Judge," Barkour quickly added. There was laughter in the courtroom. "I made my statement to the police because they put me under immense pressure. They bothered me one hundred times with questions about Bilal. I told them one hundred times he didn't tell me anything."
Later, Barkour reduced the number of times he was bothered by the police to 35. Like much of Barkour's new testimony, this claim was at odds with the evidence. Prosecutor Plooy pointed out that the police "bothered" Barkour and his relatives no more than three times with questions about Bilal Lamrani. "That's on record, it certainly wasn't 35 times, so Barkour is lying," said Plooy. And that was just the beginning of Barkour's volte-face.When the judge inquired if he had asked for money in May 2005 in return for information, he dismissed the charge: "Bulls**t!" It was again left to Plooy to point out that Barkour was on record saying precisely the opposite. Barkour next denied any plans to kill patrons of a gay bar and take hostages. Barkour's new version: "Not true! It was made up by myself!" Apropos Lamrani's role in providing Mohammed Bouyeri with a gun and a stolen bicycle: "My own imagination, Mr. Judge." "But what did you discuss with Bilal when you were in prison?" another judge asked. "Well, work, holidays, children, that sort of thing," Barkour replied. As a witness, Barkour was under oath, though, with the exception of Plooy, no one accused him of lying under oath.
Bilal Lamrani also denied ever having discussed terrorist plans and schemes with Jamal Eddin Barkour. "I don't know where he got his information from," he said. "It's imagination." And he claimed to know nothing of Bouyeri's plan to kill Theo van Gogh. Yet, when prosecutor Plooy confronted Lamrani with the fact that Bouyeri had written down his email address in his planner, he pointedly refused to answer.
Present in the courtroom for the Hofstadgroup's strategy of relentless denial was Nouredine el Fatmi. One of the most dangerous fanatics in the group, el-Fatmi has seduced teenage girls in order to recruit them into his "Taqfiri" version of Islam, which essentially permits adherents to kill anyone they dislike. The 24-year-old Moroccan had previously pointed a machinegun at a defenseless and trembling young woman in his apartment in Brussels. She was very much afraid that he would kill her and indeed she still is: So horrified was she in a courtroom appearance last December that she sobbed uncontrollably.
Leaving the courtroom, Jamal Barkour noticed el-Fatmi, looked at him, and said with a smirk, "Sorry boys for the fact they've bothered me." It was as if he had wanted to say, "I've done what you wanted from me." An observer could not help wondering what secrets that two shared.
One thing, however, is clear: The Hofstadgroup is not to be believed. Just a few minutes before his exit, one of the three presiding judges, referring to the other members of the group, asked Barkour, "Are you afraid of the people sitting behind you?" "I am afraid of no one!" Barkour said in an angry tone. "Have you been threatened recently?" the judge repeated "Me? I've never been threatened!" Barkour replied, his voice rising. "There was nobody who told you: "You must retract your statement?" the female judge persisted. "No!!!" Barkour shouted. One could not avoid the impression that the louder his voice grew, the less credible his testimony seemed.