By Thomas Escritt
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Since the evening in 2004 when policemen arrived unannounced to escort him and his wife to safety, Geert Wilders has lived in safe houses under 24-hour guard to protect him from Islamist militants who threatened to kill him.
Film-maker Theo van Gogh had been shot, stabbed and nearly beheaded by a militant Islamist earlier that day, and Wilders, another prominent critic of Islam, was seen as a likely next target.
Nearly 13 years under protective seclusion have only strengthened his convictions. Wilders, 53, now wants to halt Muslim immigration, close all mosques and ban the Koran, which he compares to Adolf Hitler's tract Mein Kampf.
He is on Taliban and al Qaeda hitlists, and blames Islam for the long confinement that ended his life as a cosmopolitan globetrotter.
"I can hardly remember what it's like to cross the road alone," he said in February. "I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. But at least I know why I do what I do. My mission is to make sure the Netherlands, unlike my own life, remains free."
With a flare for the limelight - he wears his hair in an instantly recognisable platinum bleached-blond quiff - Wilders is within a whisker of leading the largest party in the Dutch parliament after next month's elections.
Other parties have ruled out a coalition with him, which is likely to keep him out of government, especially since he was convicted in December of inciting discrimination for leading a crowd in a chat for "Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!" Moroccans. Two weeks ago he repeated calls for a crackdown on "Moroccan scum".
Center-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who once led a minority government that excluded Wilders but relied on his support, now says he will never work with him again. "He's against the freedoms and values of our society," Rutte said.
But the prospect of Wilders gaining stature even while shut out of power has alarmed Dutch Muslims, who make up 5 percent of the population.
"It's not about him burning Korans or literally closing mosques, because we know that's very unlikely," said Dounia Jari, a Moroccan-Dutch activist who helps young gay, lesbian and transgender Muslims come to terms with their identities. "But with him spreading hatred, he won't be targeted, but I can be targeted on the streets by someone who shares his ideology."
Though often compared to outsiders like French nationalist Marine Le Pen, Britain's anti-European Union campaigner Nigel Farage or U.S. President Donald Trump, Wilders emerged from within mainstream Dutch politics.
When Van Gogh was killed in 2004, Wilders had just quit the main center-right liberal party over his opposition to Turkey joining the European Union. In February, 2006 he founded his Party for Freedom (PVV), which combined libertarian promises to raise speed limits with harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Most Dutch see openness and religious tolerance as essential national traits of their cosmopolitan seafaring country. Holland has served as a European haven for refugees since the 16th century, when the mainly Protestant Dutch broke away from Catholic Spain, dedicated their new state to religious freedom and offered protection to minorities including Spanish Jews.
Wilders says it is precisely that tolerance that is threatened by Islam's "totalitarian ideology". Passionate about the Middle East since he spent time on an Israeli cooperative farm, or kibbutz, as a teenager, he says his opposition to Islam came from contrasting Israel's openness with its neighbors.
Even as his party has grown, its opposition to Islam has strengthened. A third of the party's one-page manifesto is devoted to it.
When he entered politics in 1990 without a university degree after a stint working for a health insurer, it was as a social policy specialist, advising the liberals on ways to cut back on the Netherlands' then very generous out-of-work allowances.
Colleagues remember a driven expert with a skilled politician's command of his technical brief, with little time for socializing. His party started in that technocratic tradition, advocating pro-business, Atlanticist neoconservatism.
Over the years of his isolation, anti-Islamism usurped most of that agenda. Under his security regimen, his entire party sits in a secured corridor in parliament, isolated from easy contact with other lawmakers, forbidden from visiting the parliamentary bar.
Two armed guards stand in front of his office door. Even when he is in Budapest visiting the family of his Hungarian wife, safe houses are kept ready for emergencies.
"He's been under guard 24/7 for 13 years," said Cas Mudde, a University of Georgia specialist in populism. "If your whole life has been put on hold because of what you perceive as a religion - it's an existential threat to him."
His isolation translates into a willingness to go it alone in politics. He triggered the collapse of Rutte's minority government in 2012 by refusing to back social spending cuts needed to meet European Union deficit spending rules, alienating a political class that prizes constructiveness above all else.
Despite polling around 17 percent, enough for the PVV to emerge as the biggest party, Wilders has the wrong mentality to enter government, said Frits Bolkestein, who led the liberals when Wilders worked there on policy.
He "isn't prepared to make the changes needed to govern, because of his mental make-up", Bolkestein said. "If we wanted to cut him down to size, the thing would be to give him responsibility. If he ran a large ministry, he'd probably fail."
His own brother, Paul, has taken to Twitter and given interviews distancing himself from his policies.
"Political exploitation of social unrest is a dangerous thing," Paul Wilders told RTL Nieuws. "Those with the shiniest fruit on the market often sell the most poisonous oranges."
Wilders grew up as the youngest child of a family in predominantly Catholic Limburg, a south-eastern prong of the Netherlands that juts out into the borderlands between Belgium and Germany, an ancient crossroads.
His father was a middle manager for printing equipment maker Oce, a proud Dutch multinational later sold to Japan's Canon. His mother, a soldier's daughter, was born in Indonesia when that mainly Muslim country was a Dutch colony. He says her parents were Dutch but he had mixed-race Indonesian cousins and that international background influenced his upbringing.
Wilders became an inveterate traveler after his first trip to the Middle East, roaming eastern Europe and visiting Iran repeatedly while working for the liberals.
He was personable in the years before his confinement, remembers Laszlo Maracz, a Dutch-Hungarian academic who helped Wilders write a report in the 1990s on the rights of ethnic Hungarian minorities in eastern Europe. He liked to play high-stakes dice games to relax.
"Yahtzee was his favorite," Maracz said. "He always knew how to go all in on a bet, managing to throw a high enough number against the odds."
(Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Peter Graff)