Dutch intel agency paints grim picture of multiple threats

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ZOETERMEER, Netherlands — The Dutch national intelligence agency painted a grim picture Monday of a growing number of internal and external threats to the rule of law in the Netherlands compounded by Russia’s war in Ukraine, international cyberattacks and espionage.

In its annual report, the General Intelligence and Security Service called China “the biggest threat to the Netherlands’ economic security.”

The agency’s director-general, Erik Akerboom, said that China is targeting the Netherlands as an innovative country that develops new technology.

“We see that every day they try to steal that from the Netherlands,” he told The Associated Press.

“The Chinese use cyber as a weapon, cyber as a way to commit espionage, but they also send people to us — students, but also scientific persons of all kind to especially steal knowledge from very vulnerable places,” he said.

The Netherlands earlier this year announced plans to impose additional restrictions on the export of machines that make advanced processor chips. The Dutch joined a U.S. push that aims to limit China’s access to materials used to make such chips, amid fears they could be used in weapons, to commit rights abuses or to improve the speed and accuracy of military logistics.

China has criticized the moves as violations of market principles in international trade.

Akerboom highlighted overlapping threats ranging from terrorism, extremism, cyberattacks, espionage, covert influence and sabotage, to organized crime undermining the rule of law.

The war that erupted when Russia invaded Ukraine last year exacerbated the situation. Sanctions on Russian energy imports led to a gas shortage, feeding into soaring inflation. That in turn led to an uptick in conspiracy theories, among other threats.

“As a result, extremist boosters in the Netherlands were once again given the opportunity to spread conspiracy theories about an ‘evil elite’ after the corona crisis. Sometimes countries like Russia use the unrest in the West to secretly stir up contradictions in society,” the report said.

Russia also has long been actively trying to steal secrets from the Netherlands and other European and NATO allies, the agency said. The report highlighted the agency’s involvement last year in the expulsion of 17 Russian diplomats from the Netherlands who were suspected of espionage, and the unmasking of a Russian agent who tried to infiltrate the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

The agency pointed to a massive cyberattack targeting NATO member Albania last year as an example of “the massive threat that now emanates from countries with cyberattack programs, such as China, Russia and Iran.”

Albania cut diplomatic ties with Iran last year over a July 15 cyberattack that temporarily shut down numerous Albanian government digital services and websites. Tirana called the disruption an act of “state aggression.”

The service also noted that “hatred, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories spread in the Netherlands” and said it “prevented concrete threats within the Netherlands from becoming reality.”

The threats came, it said, from “jihadists, right-wing terrorists and people who are extremely hostile to the government.”

The Taliban’s takeover of power in Afghanistan also has ramped up the existing threat of jihadi extremists, the report warned. It said that the Islamic State group now operating in Afghanistan was “steering” networks elsewhere.

Reacting to the recent leak in the United States of highly classified military documents, Akerboom said the disclosures underscored potential weaknesses in intelligence agencies.

“We cannot exclude that something like that might happen” in the Netherlands, he said. “You cannot guarantee that, but we do everything to prevent this because I think in the end this is a real risk that we should face. I think it might hurt indeed the plans, the strategies that you have. That makes us weaker.”

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