May 23, 1977: Terrorists take hundreds of hostages in the Netherlands

Starting on May 23, 1977 a terrorist group known as the South Moluccans initiated two hostage taking incidents in the Netherlands.

BOVENSMILDE AND GLIMMEN, NETHERLANDS – If you want to up your chances of success as a terrorist carry out two attacks at once.

Does anyone ever think about the challenges of doing counter terrorism? It is both a fascinating and challenging job with one primary goal in mind: stop shit from blowing up. No one wants to see a terrorist attack succeed – well no one except the terrorists themselves I suppose – and those paid and expected to prevent mass casualty attacks are not cut a lot of slack when things go wrong. As I have always said in this industry: we are only as good as our last failure (curiously, no one seems to care when we get it right; contrarily we are often accused of overbearing behaviour or exaggerating the threat).

The level of threat monitored at any given time depends: it ebbs and flows. Sometimes you are crazy busy and at others you are less so. There are few occasions on which there is ‘nothing’ to do however.

I’d tell you what I am looking into but then I’d have to kill you! (Photo: Emile Krijgsman on flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

When we look at some agencies, however, ‘crazy busy’ doesn’t quite cut it. During my time in counter terrorism at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) our counterparts in the UK (MI5 – the British Security Service) told us they were concerned about 23,000 people who held extremist ideologies (mostly jihadi) and THIRTY concurrent plausible ‘threat to life’ plots. 30!! How they managed is anyone’s guess. NB by comparison we had a few hundred ongoing investigations at any given time and NEVER more than one ‘threat to life’ plot at a time.

So what if you had to respond to TWO concurrent actual attacks? Ask the Dutch.

Starting on this day in 1977

A terrorist group known as the South Moluccans, whose aim was the independence of their own state in Indonesia (the Dutch were the former colonial power there), hijacked a train near Glimmen in the northeastern part of the Netherlands, taking 50 passengers hostage. More or less simultaneously, four South Moluccans took 105 children and their five teachers hostage at a primary school in Bovensmilde. Both crises unfolded over 20 days and ended with Dutch military intervention: two hostages and six of the nine train hijackers were killed whereas there were no casualties in the school seizure.

Patience is the watchword but we are prepared to use controlled violence if necessary.

Dutch Prime Minister Joop den Uyl

I cannot imagine the frenzied atmosphere as Dutch counter terrorism professionals decided what to do, always with the safety of the hostages in mind. I am simply happy never to have been placed in a similar situation.

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By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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