Officials praise Europe’s terror crackdown
DARMSTADT, Germany — Headlines sound the typeface alarm: Terrorism has fixed its bloodshot eye upon Europe.
With bombings in Spain, an attempted gas attack in Britain and anti-terror stings kicking down doors from Belgium to Turkey, Europe’s collective nerves are firing raw.
But while the March 11 deaths of 191 people in Madrid, Spain, are a horror, experts say that gauging the true threat to Europe — and the U.S. forces stationed within it — is more complex than the klaxon-sounding suggests.
Decades before 9-11, Europeans faced a poison smorgasbord of violent revolutionaries. But while Europe may have had a head start in fighting terrorism, it fought largely as individual countries.
Experts do say Europe trails the United States in today’s struggle against terrorism. But the recent tsunami of arrests may signal the beginnings of better intelligence sharing throughout Europe and across the Atlantic. And American officials are publicly expressing confidence in the European crackdown, though experts say it may take a decade to truly bore to the core of Islamist cells here.
“Our European allies are taking deliberate and active measures on many fronts to deal with a very challenging situation,” said Neil Southwood, chief of antiterrorism policy for the Office of the Special Assistant for Security Matters at U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.
“Many governments faced indigenous terrorist threats in the latter half of the 20th century from such groups as the Red Army Faction, Red Brigades, ETA, the IRA, 17 November, and others — some of whom still present a threat,” Southwood said in the statement. “Though some of the groups and tactics may have changed, European intelligence and law enforcement agencies are by no means novices in dealing with terrorism.”
According to news reports:
• Seventeen people, the majority from Morocco, have been arrested in the Madrid investigation. Last weekend, the group’s alleged ringleader and at least two other suspects blew themselves up after a standoff with police. A Spanish agent also died.
• Fearing Easter attacks, Italy arrested 161 people prior to the holy week in an anti-terror sweep. A dozen were deported.
• Britain recently dispatched 700 police officers throughout London, netting half a ton of fertilizer, a potential bomb component and nine Pakistanis.
• More than 60 people have been arrested in stings across Europe in an attempt by Turkey to dismantle the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front. The faction aims to topple Ankara over leftist principles, but authorities believe it has been newly emboldened by al-Qaida. Nations aiding Turkey were Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
• On Monday, French police arrested 13 suspects believed linked to last May’s suicide attacks that killed 33 victims and the dozen bombers in Casablanca, Morocco.
Though the U.S. military doesn’t discuss its own security measures, Southwood said troops must now clear some personal travel plans with superiors. And commanders have been ordered to counsel troops before approving leave to any area where a State Department travel warning or announcement is in effect. Spain is such a place today.
In addition to the deadly bombings, authorities recently discovered live explosives on a railway connecting Madrid and Seville. A statement allegedly made by al-Qaida to a Spanish newspaper vowed the group would ignite Spain into “an inferno” if it did not pull troops from the Mideast.
A spokesman for U.S. Naval Station Rota, Spain, said the port remains alert but calm.
“We continue to initiate RAM, or random antiterrorism measures, and that’s normal, ordinary procedure,” said Chief Petty Officer Dan Smithyman. “But life goes on. The bombings in Madrid were kind of a wake up. But even so, we continue with life as usual.”
The American ambassador to NATO recently dubbed the Spain attacks a tragedy, but hoped they would at least lead to an escalation in the hunt for terrorists.
“We would hope it never happens again anywhere in the world,” Ambassador Nicholas Burns said. “But we’ve got to be realistic. All of us are potential victims of this kind of brutal terrorism. And we’ve to guard against it and build defenses against it and be effective at fighting it. The Europeans, in my view, have been rocked by these attacks. They shocked people.”
Burns said he believed Europe is resolute in fighting terror and will strengthen NATO and the European Union to do so. He also said Europeans who want to distance their governments from America to avoid further attacks will only encourage terrorists.
“That would be the wrong message to send terrorism. If we send the message that the terrorists can have an impact in our thinking — or on our actions — then we’ve given them an opening that they don’t deserve to have.”
The hype over the spree of arrests in Europe may have been officially fomented to deliver messages of a different kind.
“I think the publicity surrounding it was probably deliberately encouraged by governments to show what they were achieving, but also by showing people that there is a risk,” said James Gow, a professor of International Peace and Security at King’s College in London. “We can’t guarantee to prevent an attack. It’s one of those things authorities need to be successful 100 percent of the time, those carrying out an attack need to be lucky only once.”
When it comes to the safety of U.S. forces in Europe, Gow said the continent isn’t necessarily less safe than other spots. The entire world is perilous.
“I don’t know if there’s an increased threat [here], but there’s certainly some threat to U.S. personnel wherever they are,” Gow said. He believed terrorists would fixate on targets such as public transport rather than military bases. Terrorists prefer soft targets.
That doesn’t mean U.S. troops are beyond terror’s grasp.
“You don’t necessarily want to attack a base, you can attack a night club where Americans frequent,” said Anthony Cordesman, a strategy expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “Just remember that Libya’s already done that.”
The United States bombed Libya in 1986 in retaliation for a bomb attack on a Berlin club popular with U.S. soldiers. Three American troops and a Turkish woman died and 260 people were injured.
One European threat of direct concern to U.S. forces is the possibility of Islamist extremism in Kosovo. Clashes between ethnic Albanians and Serbs reignited smoldering passions. Gow said the situation proves attractive to foreign extremists trolling for recruits. Kosovar Albanians had been largely pro-American since NATO’s war with Yugoslavia in 1999. Kosovar Albanians even tried to join the U.S. Army after 9/11.
“For the most part, al-Qaida and Islamist groups have not been prevalent,” Gow said. “It wasn’t an issue at all. Now it’s an emerging issue.”
Despite any greater cooperation, battling these threats in Europe will take years.
“These arrests are very important, but they are part of a problem that is going on and on,” Cordesman said. Each arrest can lead to another and another in a domino game that could take a decade to win. Cordesman predicted recent arrests amount to the mere beginnings of a 10-year counterterrorism campaign.
“Everyone talks like this as if you can create large numbers of new counterterror groups,” he said. “You can’t.”
Instead, as has been charged repeatedly after America’s failure to predict the attacks of 9/11, intelligence agencies inside the United States didn’t work well with one another. If the recent spate of arrests following the Madrid bombings is an indicator, Europeans may have learned this American lesson.
“Most of what you really need, and what helps most, is the ability to disseminate the data that’s gathered as rapidly as possible,” Cordesman said. “It isn’t some dramatic new collection activity.”