TCS Daily


How to Lose a War on Terror

By Melana Zyla Vickers - July 19, 2005 12:00 AM

After the London bombings, the first instinct of Italian police was to round up over 100 people in an anti-terrorism sweep. The first instinct of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, meanwhile, was to warn against human-rights violations.

The responses illustrate the European weakness on terrorism: The suspects are plentiful, but the political and legal obstacles to thwarting them are more plentiful, still. More than ever, this weakness has become a global problem. That's because the worldwide center of gravity of Islamic terrorism isn't the Mideast -- it's Europe.

Consider the following:

        - All of the London bombers were British residents.

        - The most serious plot against U.S. targets since 9/11 -- to bomb the 
        IMF in Washington and financial buildings in New York and New 
        Jersey -- was hatched and planned in Britain.

        - The 9/11 bombers prepared for their attack in Spain and Germany.

        - The October 2003 rocket attack against the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad, 
        where then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was staying, 
        involved a suspect from Italy.

        - Plans for suicide attacks in Iraq have been linked to plotters in Germany.

That's not to mention all the attacks and plots on European targets that originated in Europe: Moroccans in Spain plotted last year's Madrid subway attacks, Moroccans in Italy were charged in 2002 with plotting a chemical attack on the U.S. embassy there, and a Dutch-Moroccan citizen killed Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh in 2004, in a radical-Islam-motivated attack. Going further back, Algerians in France bombed the Paris subway in 1996.

None of this is surprising when one considers that whole chunks of Europe's Muslim population live on the fringes of their societies and economies, and easily become radicalized in mosques there. A German cabinet report says there are close to 60,000 "potentially extremist foreigners" in that country. Unemployment among France's Muslim youth is 40%, higher than the 16% national average. And Italian officials have said for years that their North African population is fertile ground for suicide bombers.

To be sure, there are terrorism plotters in the U.S. and in the Mideast as well. But Europe's counterterrorism problem is large and changes are needed if it's to be tackled better. Some flaws:

        -     Terrorism investigations in several European countries are 
               hamstrung. Britain doesn't allow wiretap evidence, for instance. 
               Several European countries, including Italy, severely limit the number 
               of hours suspects can be held without charge. (It's 12 hours in Italy.)

        -     Europe's open borders and geographical proximity to the Mideast 
              make travel by terrorists easy. French anti-terrorism judge Jean-
              Louis Bruguiere noted several months ago, for instance, that terrorism 
              suspects can travel undetected between France and Britain. At 
              least one London tube bomber appears to have done just that.

        -     Terrorism prosecutions in Europe have melted away when evidence 
              was deemed insufficient or inadmissible, or when courts don't have 
              the ability to consider secret intelligence. While this isn't unique 
              to Europe, the fact that so many suspects dwell there makes it a 
              large problem.

        -     Human rights activists pressure politicians to back away from 
              aggressive counterterrorism. In Italy, a politicized judge just three 
              weeks ago ordered the arrest of 13 CIA officers after they were 
              allegedly involved in "rendition," kidnapping a terrorism suspect 
              and sending him to his home country for questioning, in this case 
              Egypt. Rendition is hotly opposed by human rights groups. Similarly, 
              human rights groups oppose close targeting or restrictions on the 
              activities of radical mosques.

        -     Muslim populations in Europe are often isolated and poor, and thus 
              they produce "angry young men" that face the same conditions 
              there that they would in their ancestral countries or countries 
              of their birth. The isolation and lack of prospects makes them easy 
              recruits for more-educated, savvy terrorist leaders.

The Europeans have a long way to go in tacking their terrorism problem. Until they do, their problem is very much ours.

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