A Turkish suspect wanted for killing three people in Utrecht, in the Netherlands on Monday morning has been arrested. The Dutch national coordinator for counterterrorism called it a "terrorist attack".
Police held a news conference on Monday evening, confirming three shooting deaths and five injured, three of which are in a serious condition.
At the news conference, Dutch police officers were taken by surprise by news of the arrest of 37-year-old Gökmen Tanis, which came as the media briefing was ending. Justice minister Ferd Grapperhaus confirmed that Tanis had been “known to the police” but refused to give further details about the circumstances of the arrest or the motive of the shooter. The attacker has a criminal history and recently appeared in court on rape charges.
“This was an attack on people on a tram, and that is unprecedented in the Netherlands,” he said.
The national coordinator for counterterrorism and security, the NCTV, however increased the threat level in the province of Utrecht to 5, the highest threat level in the Netherlands. According to the NCTV spokesman Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, the incident in Utrecht has all the characteristics of a terrorist attack.
All mosques in the city were reportedly closed. The Ulu Mosque closed after close consultation with police, a spokesperson for the religious center told De Telegraaf.
Meanwhile, security was increased at sites across The Netherlands, as NCTV kept the threat level at 4 countrywide. Additional security measures were seen at Schiphol, the public broadcast center in Hilversum, as well as Parliament.
The attack took place on and outside a tram on Monday morning in the Kanaleneiland area of the city.
Eyewitnesses of the shooting said that the gunman appeared to target a woman and then turned his gun on several people who were trying to drag her to safety. One man, Jimmy de Koster, told RTV Utrecht that he saw a young woman lying on the floor. “I heard three shots and four people ran towards her and tried to drag her away. Then I heard more shots and the people let her go. It was chaotic.”
Another, Danny Molenaar, who was sitting at the front of the tram told broadcaster NOS that the tram stopped suddenly on a bend. He said he looked outside and saw a woman lying on the ground. He saw a man with a gun approaching the group that had formed around the woman and heard shots.
Utrecht mayor Jan van Zaanen said a lock down on the city had been ordered because of earlier reports that shootings had taken place at various locations in the city. It was lifted later in the afternoon.
The Red Cross also launched a website for Utrecht residents to let their loved ones know that they are safe.
PVV leader Geert Wilders said the motivation of the shooter was irrelevant: “Whether the motivation for the suspect Turk is relationship-related or terrorism, how can someone with a criminal record full of crimes from manslaughter to theft, destruction and rape roam free and shoot innocent people with a weapon in a tram?” He added that the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte should explain himself.
Gökmen has a lengthy criminal record. People who know the suspect also describe him as a man with “mental problems”. Wilders blamed the uncritical acceptance of a multicultural society for the shootings.
According to the BBC report, the Turkish-born Gökmen was still young when he left for the former Soviet Union republic of Chechnya to participate in the “holy war”, the Second Chechen war that raged from 1999 to 2009. Chechnya is a well-known location for jihadist training camps.
The police were able to report last night that the main suspect was arrested in a house on Oudenoord. “The investigation has so far revealed no relationship between the main suspect and the victims,” the police said. According to Wilders, it is the clearest indication that it was a terrorist attack, since Tanis did not know his victims.
A Turkish businessman residing in Utrecht told BBC Türkçe that the shooter Tanis had “fought in Chechnya“ and that a “few years ago was arrested and released for his connection to ISIS. He was not a part of the Turkish community [in Holland], he was a outcast,” he added. Turkish Hurriyet newspaper, also reported that Tanis had participated in the hostilities in Chechnya.
But Dutch mainstream media questioned the jihadist past of Gökmen. The suspect was not considered radicalized by the intelligence services, they claimed. Chechens often appear on the radar because they are seen as people with a high risk to national security.
The Public Prosecution Service would not elaborate on the past of the suspect. People who are detained on suspicion of rape usually stay in custody because of the seriousness of the crime. But Gökmen was set free two weeks later and according to the police then launched the attack on the tram to Utrecht.
Justice officials declined to make a statement on his unexplained release. “We have released his name and distributed a portrait to facilitate the search. We will stick to that,” a spokeswoman for the OM said.
The counselor who assists Tanis in the rape case, Mireille Veldman, said on Monday evening that she would not make any announcements either.
In the Kanaalstraat in Utrecht where many Turkish shopkeepers have their business and where many say they know Tanis, he is best known as a “confused” individual.
The father of Tanis told the Turkish news agency Demirören that his son must pay if he is the perpetrator. He is a child from his first marriage. “I haven’t spoken to him in eleven years,” he added.
The tram doors would not immediately open after Tanis had opened fire on the tram at 24 Oktoberplein, according to one witness. Journalists first at the scene reported seeing a body covered by a sheet, according to NOS.
“The conductor couldn’t get the doors open immediately. Two boys next to me kicked a window out, through which I fled outside. More people did that.”
Local resident Jimmy de Koster said he saw a young woman lying on the ground. “I think she’s between 20 and 35 years old.”