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Dutch Somalis fear for their reputation

Recent bogus terrorism arrests concern Somali refugees in the Netherlands.

Dutch Somali Children
Zeynab Mustafa (second left) and Anab Mohamud (second right), Somalis who attend the elementary school De Krulder in Katwijk, Netherlands, fill their backpacks with bottles of water on March 24, 2010, for an event marking World Water Day. (Marcel Antonisse/AFP/Getty Images)

EINDHOVEN, Netherlands — The news that Dutch police had arrested 12 Somali men suspected of plotting an imminent terrorist attack made global headlines.

But within days of the December arrests, all of the accused were freed without being charged. Now some are planning to sue the police after what appears to have been a false, and perhaps malicious, tip-off to the intelligence services.

Of course the men’s release attracted less media attention than their arrest, which Somalis living in the Netherlands fear damaged their reputation.

"Somalis already had the label of being pirates, now overnight we are being associated with terrorism as well," complained community representative Mohamed Elmi.

He also fears the arrests may increase resentment among young Somalis and fuel support for Islamic radicals with genuine terrorist intentions.

"The incident makes things worse. The radicals can point to this incident and make use of it. This is the best propaganda for those sorts of people," said Elmi, who is administrative secretary of the Federation of Somali Associations of the Netherlands.

There are about 27,000 Somalis living in the Netherlands, a country of 17 million. Most came as refugees, taking advantage of liberal Dutch asylum laws to flee from the civil war that has raged in their homeland since 1991.

Their presence is less visible than other immigrant groups. This southern city and the surrounding province are home to almost 4,000 Somalis. In the neighborhood where many of them live and attend mosque, the market square is surrounded by Turkish, Chinese, Polish and Moroccan businesses that bear witness to the area’s multicultural makeup. But the only sign of the Somali community is the handful of men lining up inside a money transfer office to send money home.

December’s arrests turned the spotlight on the Netherlands' Somalis with media reports asking if the community had become a breeding ground for terrorists.

Already in 2009, the Dutch Interior Ministry had commissioned a report into the level of radicalization among Somali youth.

“We did not find strong signs of radicalization at the community level,” said Hans Moors, one of the report’s authors. “But among a few Somali young people we do see a tendency to fundamentalism and religious orthodoxy.”

Moors, a senior researcher at the Institute for Social Policy Research of Tilburg University, added that many Somalis have struggled to integrate into Dutch society.

They fare worse in education and the labor market than other recently arrived immigrant groups. Dutch authorities are concerned that youths disenchanted with their poor prospects can fall under the influence of radicals linked to Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-allied insurgent group that is fighting Somalia’s Western-backed government.

Elmi, a law student in his late 20s, says Somali youths often also feel torn between the strict Islamic culture of their homeland and the more liberal Dutch society.

“For some Somali youngsters there is a problem growing up with two cultures,” he explained. “They have a split personality, with the Somali culture at home and the Dutch culture everywhere else."