Bodegraven is the type of well-heeled Dutch town where young moms push their prams past smart restaurants, people say hello to each other as they pass in the street, and packs of children roam around by bicycle. In March, the only sign that something strange has happened here is the insistence of the groundsman in the local graveyard that he cannot speak to passing journalists.
Two years ago, this graveyard was overwhelmed with visitors who turned up from out of town to leave flowers and messages of outrage for children buried here, believing they had died at the hands of a satanic pedophile ring involving the prime minister and a Dutch virologist, the Netherlands’ equivalent of Anthony Fauci.
The conspiracy was a mutation of the QAnon conspiracy, which came out of Internet messageboards in the US but has found new life in Europe, piggybacking on local concerns to reach new audiences—with dangerous results. In Germany, 25 people were arrested in December on suspicion of plotting a QAnon-inspired coup to overthrow the country’s government.
Having found itself at the center of a new conspiracy, the town of Bodegraven turned to the courts to fight back against unfounded accusations of a satanic cover-up. Yesterday, a court in The Hague sentenced Micha Kat, the country’s most famous conspiracy theorist and one of the architects of the libel against Bodegraven, to two and a half years in prison for threats and sedition. His sentencing means all three of the people spearheading this Dutch QAnon offshoot have now been jailed.
Kat’s sentencing echoes the case of the US talk show host Alex Jones, who was found liable for defaming the parents of children killed in a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, after falsely claiming that the mass shooting was a hoax. The hope is that legal proceedings introduce a chilling effect “in a positive sense,” says Ciarán O'Connor, senior analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that researches online hate. “Other conspiracy theorists, who engage in dangerous belief systems that might endanger members of the public, might see this action and think twice about spreading lurid conspiracy theories.”
The Bodegraven conspiracy centered around claims made by Joost Knevel, who claimed to remember witnessing a satanic pedophile ring operating in the town when he was a child. “He initially implicated a local doctor, and it was a local story,” says Sander van der Linden, a professor of psychology at Cambridge University in the UK, who advises governments and companies on how to prevent the spread of misinformation online. But when Knevel teamed up with Kat, a former journalist with a track record of being sued for defamation and making bomb threats, and another conspiracy theorist named Wouter Raatgever, the story morphed to claim that perpetrators also included the country’s prime minister, Mark Rutte, and the head of the Netherlands’ public health institute, Jaap van Dissel, who was at the time the public face of the country’s coronavirus response. “These two other conspiracy theorists helped him craft the narrative in a way that made it really go viral,” says van der Linden.
The inclusion of more high-profile figures in the story meant the Bodegraven conspiracy more closely echoed the QAnon template, van der Linden adds. Not only did it play into anti-lockdown sentiments circulating at the time, but the idea of mass child abuse was also shocking enough to attract the attention of even ordinary people—prompting the conspiracy to go viral, he adds.
In response, dozens of people arrived in Bodegraven in spring 2021 to express their sympathy for the children they believed, without evidence, had been murdered, leaving flowers along the long path leading from the road to the local graveyard. “I lay these flowers in honor of Joost Knevel (hero of heroes!) and the other victims of satanic abuse,” read one message left at the children's graves, which has since been removed. They signed off their message with the hashtag #StopVanDissel.
“I was really angry,” says Ida Bromberg, describing how she felt after these visitors left a teddy bear ornament on the grave of her father, who is buried in Bodegraven. “The idea that some of these lunatic people went to his grave and they did all these things, it really got to me.”
The Bodegraven conspiracy sent ripples across the country. After his home address was leaked by Kat’s website, Red Pill Journal, van Dissel was forced to employ round-the-clock security. In October 2021, a man was arrested on suspicion of plotting to assassinate the prime minister after posting to a Red Pill Journal–linked Telegram group, De Bataafse Republiek, which has since been taken down by Telegram.
By May, the municipality of Bodegraven had resorted to legal action to try to stem the tide of conspiracies that were engulfing the town. The mayor at the time, Christiaan van der Kamp, said he was worried the attention the town was receiving could descend into violence. “A man was beaten to death in Arnhem last year during a so-called ‘pedo hunt,’” he told the Dutch newspaper AD, adding that he didn’t want a repeat to happen in Bodegraven.
Kat was arrested in July 2021 in Northern Ireland, where he was living, and was finally extradited to the Netherlands last year. Knevel, who was based in Spain, was also extradited in August 2021 to face charges of inciting violence and was sentenced in June 2022 to 15 months in prison. Raatgever, who published a video of himself shouting “child abuser” at van Dissel as he cycled past, was also sentenced to 18 months in jail in June 2022. Bodegraven also launched legal action against the platforms the men used. Police forced the closure of two Telegram channels with a total of 13,000 members. And in September 2022, the municipality also took Twitter to court, trying—and failing—to force the platform to remove remaining traces of the Bodegraven conspiracy.
In Bodegraven, local residents credit the municipality’s proactive response for the fact that life here has returned to normal. “For me, it's over,” says Bromberg, adding that she no longer thinks about the incident now that the people responsible have been sentenced. Local residents in the town say the same. “It’s like it never happened,” says Manon von Agmond, pushing a pram down the high street. Another resident, Remco Zwaan, says the whole affair is now just a funny story he talks about with his friends. “I think everyone has moved on,” agrees Stefanie, who has lived in the town for two years but declines to share her surname.
The conspiracy cloud over Bodegraven might have dissipated, but not everyone is so sure this episode is over for the Netherlands. “QAnon is vague and broad and general,” says Daniël de Zeeuw, assistant professor in digital media culture at the University of Amsterdam, who refers to QAnon as a super-conspiracy myth that is particularly good at adapting to different countries. In the Netherlands, he describes QAnon as finding an affinity with new-age, alternative subcultures who might ordinarily post about food and wellness. “It is a bit like a meme,” he adds. “It's a template people can use and adapt to their own liking or their own local context.”