On December 16, 2015, a conference was held on the SS Rotterdam, the legendary former flagship of the Holland America Line, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Dutch ‘all source threat assessment’, also known as Dreigingsbeeld Terrorisme Nederland (DTN). Dutch and foreign experts were invited to reflect on this assessment that constitutes the basis of Dutch counter terrorism policy making. The DTN is a quarterly report of the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV) that uses input from several partners in the intelligence and security domain. The DTN does not only entail a detailed description of the threat but it also links the threat to a specific threat level: ‘minimal’, ‘limited’, ‘substantial’ and ‘critical’.
For this conference, we conducted a study into how the DTN has evolved, investigating the forty DTN’s that have been produced so far. Amongst others, we compared the content of these reports. We noticed several differences, but also much continuity in the reports. Back in June 2005, for instance, terrorism ranked high on political agendas. This was one year after the Madrid Bombings and the murder of Theo van Gogh. In those days, the threat of home-grown and foreign “islamist-terrorist” networks and the connection between local and foreign battle zones, were among the main worries. Today, the general picture is surprisingly similar, only the wordings used by the NCTV seem to have changed a little and the battle fields are somewhat different – Syria instead of Iraq.
After a number of changes of the threat level – two times a decrease of the threat level to ‘limited’ – today, it is back at ‘substantial’. It was raised to this second-highest level in March 2013, partly in relation to the phenomenon of Dutch Muslims going to Syria to fight with jihadist groups. The ‘substantial’ of today, however, seems rather different from the ‘substantial’ back in 2005. Against the backdrop of the 2015 Paris attacks, there is much discussion whether or not the current threat level suffices to describe the current terrorist threat.
In the study we point at the possibility to add the threat level ‘severe’, as is used in the United Kingdom. At the same time, we argue that adding an additional level still leaves the questions of how a threat level is determined and what it exactly means largely unanswered. Perhaps it makes no sense to connect a description of the threat – as described in detail in each DTN – to a particular threat level, as it is not possible to accurately describe the complexity of a threat in just one word? Other countries, such as the United States, have changed the system of threat assessments and threat levels by basically giving up on the idea to inform the public about terrorism using a single word or colour. We suggest that the tenth anniversary of the DTN is a good moment to rethink the utility and necessity of a link between the DTN and the current system of four threat levels.
The full report can be read here.