Amsterdam Fears

Dutch Coronation Celebrations Clouded After Boston Marathon Bombing

The Boston blasts and Dutch citizens joining jihad have heightened security fears. By Nadette De Visser.

Robin Utrecht/AFP/Getty

Amsterdam is preparing for a spectacular celebration Tuesday, when Queen Beatrix will step down from the throne she’s held for 33 years to make way for her son Willem-Alexander, who will be crowned king. He will be, in fact, the first king of the Netherlands since 1890, when King Willem III died and three generations of impressive queens followed. The ceremony at the Nieuwe Kerk on Dam Square should be a model of stately splendor.

Yet as the festivities begin—the parties, the music, the outdoor markets—there’s also an undercurrent of deep concern. The Boston Marathon bombings reminded the world how quickly a celebration can turn into a conflagration. Amsterdam alone expects between 800,000 and 2 million visitors, and media from everywhere on earth will be in attendance. All that makes the coronation an especially attractive target for fanatics of any stripe, whatever their cause, whatever their level of organization, including individuals or small groups with no agenda but terror and anarchy.

The Dutch government’s office of the National Coordinator for Center of Terrorism and Security (NCTV) is keeping close tabs on all possible developments, says spokesman Edmond Messchaert. “This is a national event, and the NCTV is part of an organizational ‘triangle,’ which consists of the Amsterdam mayor’s office, the district attorney, and the chief of police,” he says.

We have a maximal exchange of information. All current developments, including events happening abroad, are taken into consideration in the ongoing planning.” There will be “visible and invisible measures in place,” he adds. But he also cautions, “If you want to eliminate all the risks, you have to cancel the day.”

Quite apart from the Boston blasts, the Dutch national-security and police forces have plenty of reasons to be wary. The country has been on a high threat alert since an estimated 100 men from the Netherlands joined jihadist struggles in Africa and the Middle East over the last few months.

The problem is not unique to the Netherlands. Young men from France, Germany, and England also are joining jihadist groups in foreign combat zones. And the Dutch NCTV is concerned about possible blowback from Dutch jihadist fighters who’ve returned home.

Recent bomb and terror threats in two major Dutch city colleges, Leiden and Groningen, which turned out to be false alarms, also set nerves on edge.

Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan’s office classifies the danger as “mild” and says Tuesday’s celebrations will strike a balance “between festivity and security.” Van der Laan’s spokesman, Bartho Boer, says that given “the attacks on the Boston Marathon, terror threats in Canada, in the Netherlands the threats on a school in Leiden…we are closely monitoring those events.”

“The events are spread inside and outside the city,” says Boer. “We have some major dance parties and performances, allowing for about 110,000 people in total, that are almost sold out.” The policing, meanwhile, is focused on lone wolves.

Demonstrations are allowed, but only in locations specified by the city council, as one of the biggest concerns is a repeat of the calamitous riots that marked Beatrix’s coronation in 1980. The city turned black with the smoke billowing from burning cars as mobs turned Amsterdam into a virtual war zone.

Boer says that’s not likely this time around, although the Netherlands has not been immune to the economic uncertainties of the euro zone. “Speaking in general, it seems the atmosphere in the city today is completely different from the crowning in 1980,” says Boer. “I wasn’t there personally, but if you hear the stories about that day, you know it was extremely violent. But it was an unleashing of many tensions…and things came to a boiling point. I think you can say that the atmosphere in the city now and then are not comparable. The overall impression is that things are a lot more easygoing now and that most people are looking forward to the occasion.”