Dutch policemen pound the beat to counter Islamic State
Old-fashioned police work the reason the Netherlands has not yet seen a major terror attack, say officers
The market square roars with activity as Bart Leget, a 54-year-old Dutch police officer, strides from stall to stall.
He is all smiles, grasping the hands of passers-by and shaking them vigorously. Elderly men pause on their mobility scooters to exchange warm words.
On his belt, the stocky, bearded policeman wears a 9mm pistol, handcuffs and a can of pepper spray.
“We tell them, ‘here is our hand, we can help you’. And if they don't want the hand, they get the fist,” he says.
Officer Leget is on patrol in Schilderswijk, a suburb of The Hague, which the Dutch police force says is a hotbed for homegrown Islamic extremism.
In 2014, jihadists were caught on camera waving Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) flags during a protest in the area, while some of its residents have fled the country to fight for the terrorist group. An estimated 50 residents from Schilderswijk and other impoverished suburbs still hope to join the so-called caliphate, of which 12 have seen their passports invalidated.
Yet unlike France, Germany or the UK, the Netherlands is yet to see a major Isil-inspired terror attack on its soil. The reason for this, Dutch officers claim, is their return to old-fashioned, pavement-pounding police work in districts such as Schilderswijk, which has quickly become a model for forces across Europe.
Several times a week, Officer Leget goes out on foot, checking in with what he describes as “community members and role models”. The approach has led to countless tip-offs, allowing police to keep abreast of the district's most dangerous extremists and identify vulnerable youngsters.
It has also caught the attention of British police, who have long complained that budget cuts and mounting paperwork are keeping them away from the beat. This week, a House of Commons report warned that police forces risked becoming “irrelevant” amid vanishing neighbourhood presences and low investigation and detection rates.
Schilderswijk's 33 mosques play an active role in the police's programme, alerting officers to “lost brothers” who have shown signs of being radicalised.
“You have to be visible. When they see you every day on foot or on a bike, they are happy to talk. It works and it is very important,” says Officer Leget. “It’s about earning trust and it takes time, up to a year, but if you keep your promises they trust you ... my phone is never off — community members, role models, I always call them back.”
The policeman of 18 years points to an apartment block. “We had 10 radical guys living here, all very closely together. It’s a bit scary to know so many jihadists live in such a small area,” he muses.
Earlier this month, he received a tip-off that a Dutch convert to Isil had moved into a flat next to a youth club.
“Some of the guys, we can’t do anything about. They are using apps like Telegram where you can't trace or monitor the messages,” he sighs. “That’s why we have to rely on community members to tell us what they are doing.”
— © Telegraph Media Group Limited