updated 3/6/2008 2:02:57 PM ET 2008-03-06T19:02:57

The Dutch government raised the national threat level Thursday because of what it said was greater activity in Europe by professional terrorists from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Tjibbe Joustra, said the Netherlands also had become a more likely target after a legislator announced plans to release a film harshly critical of the Quran.

The alert rose to "substantial," the second-highest of four possible levels, said an announcement from the coordinator's office. "There is a real chance that the Netherlands will face a terror attack," it said.

The warning of a growing threat across Europe from foreign-based terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida marked a shift from previous warnings, which accented the dangers from local Muslims working in homegrown terrorist cells.

Less than a year ago, Joustra scaled down the threat level to "limited," saying Islamic terror networks in the Netherlands had crumbled in the face of tougher law enforcement and a lack of leadership.

Terrorists from Pakistan and Afghanistan were directing actions in Europe "and in some cases, sending their own attackers," said the coordinator. These attackers "are more professional than the homegrown variety and less visible to the intelligence and security services," he said.

Joustra referred to the arrest of nine suspected terrorists in Barcelona, Spain, in January. Spanish police said the men had planned to set off explosives in backpacks on the city's subway system. The attack reportedly was thwarted by a tip from a French security agent.

Compounding the threat
Joustra said the anti-Quran film by right-wing lawmaker Geert Wilders, due to be released this month, worsened the Dutch situation.

"Compounding the threat, the Netherlands has recently been cast in a negative light in the Islamic world due to the tone of the debate on Islam in this country, especially since the announcement of a controversial film on the Koran," said the announcement.

Demonstrators in Afghanistan have burned the Dutch flag to protest Wilders' plan to release the 15-minute film, titled "Fitna." He says it will describe the Muslim holy book as "fascist" because it is used by extremists to incite violence and preaches oppression of women and homosexuals.

The Dutch government has said it is powerless to ban the film because of the country's constitutional right to freedom of expression.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has said the government is worried about repercussions from the film and by threats to Dutch nationals abroad.

There has been no terrorist bombing in the Netherlands on the level of those in London or Madrid. However, in November 2004, a Muslim radical killed filmmaker Theo van Gogh for perceived insults to Islam, and threatened then-member of parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali in what authorities described as a terrorist attack.

Hirsi Ali has since left the Netherlands and become a best-selling author. Van Gogh's killer is serving a life sentence.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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