Over the past month, US officials have ratcheted
up terrorism warning levels in the face of what they call "specific and credible
threats." Intelligence data gleaned from several foreign countries, mostly European,
has been characterized as invaluable in making these threat assessments. However,
while the new concern has resulted in a few trans-Atlantic flight cancellations,
Europe has by and large been excluded from the current list of terrorist targets.
Rather, the US is viewing the continent merely as a source of terrorists bent
on wreaking havoc inside Fortress America. In other words, while we are all
at risk from terrorist attacks in theory, only America is in fact; other nations,
"allies" included, must be watched vigilantly for the inherent dangers they
allegedly possess. The only possible exception to this rule is Britain – America's
closest ally, inveterate war partner, and an ambivalent member of Europe separated
by the sea and mindset alike.
Differing Perceptions of the Terrorist Threat
Whether or not this American view represents a
realistic fear or paranoid prejudice, it is clear that Europe's experience of
the "war on terror" has been far different from that of the US. The Iraq War
exposed the fault lines between what Donald Rumsfeld clumsily termed "New" and
"Old" Europe, between those aspiring countries willing to support the US invasion,
and those other, more established nations that opposed it. Yet while the Continent
was divided over Iraq, all European countries except Turkey have so far had
the same experience – freedom from retributive terrorism. Has this been the case
because of savvy police work, or because Europe is not considered a target equal
to America, or perhaps because the very war that engendered the current quasi-jihad
in Iraq is draining al Qaeda of its European assets?
Unsurprisingly, Western European nations – with their extensive resources,
advanced technology, and all-around enhanced capabilities – have been successful
in quashing terrorist plots. At least judging by what governments have
announced, numerous potential attacks have been stopped just in time through a
combination of skill and luck. This would seem to indicate that the threat and
motivation are there for Islamic terrorists in the heart of Europe. The
existence of underlying tensions in France, for example, has been confirmed with
the recent agitation over a proposed head-scarf
ban in schools, and reportedly increasing
anti-Semitism among immigrant Muslims.
Towards the EU Super-State?
Since 9/11, all European security forces have,
regardless of their opinion on the Iraq war, been refocused to the fight against
terrorism. That this is not just America's fight would seem to be proven by
the pervasiveness of terrorist planning cited by European police. Nevertheless,
even within the affluent and interconnected countries of the European Union,
many believe there is still room for improvement. A
report from the British Center for European
"…national governments urgently need to overhaul further their approach
to security policy: Europe's security agencies intelligence, police and armed
forces are organized in ways that remain more suited to fighting the battles
of the Cold War era.
…since the terrorist threat exists both inside and outside the EU,
governments cannot afford to maintain the traditional distinction between
external and internal security."
Calling for some sort of overarching central authority (akin, perhaps, to the
US Dept. of Homeland Security), the report alleges that "…EU governments barely
co-ordinate their intelligence-gathering; do not share sufficient information on
threats; and do not conduct enough joint assessments of terrorist groups." While
these charges are all fairly accurate, the idea of creating yet another
bureaucratic super-state structure in the EU seems destined to just as unwieldy
and corrupt as the rest of the Union's labyrinthine ministries and departments.
If the other side of the pond can be dubbed "Fortress America," here we have
The problem with intra-governmental cooperation, however, is not attributable
only to bureaucracy. In some countries, and especially in the East, mafia figures
and officials associated with illicit activities enjoy state protection, making
inter-governmental cooperation harder. Indeed, bomb attacks described as "terrorist"
as well as targeted assassinations (Serbian
president Djindjic, for example) in Eastern Europe have more to do with
the Mafia than mujahedin.
Turkey: the Unfortunate Exception
Travelers within Europe have noted a relative
laxity in security compared to the US, especially at airports. This is certainly
due to the European (non-paranoid) mentality, but also to the fact that the
vast majority of the continent has thus far enjoyed freedom from terrorist attacks.
Since the "war" began, only Turkey has been directly affected. The country's
European and financial capital, Istanbul, was rocked by two deadly
attacks in November that targeted a synagogue, the British consulate and
a British bank.
Perhaps Turkey was considered a "soft" target, like those countries where
attacks and attempted attacks have historically occurred (Saudi Arabia, Yemen,
Kuwait, etc.), and where terrorists can more easily blend in with the local
Nevertheless, Turkish authorities were swift to
make arrests and claim to have destroyed the al Qaeda cell believed to have
been responsible for the attacks; linking them to heretofore
unknown militant Kurdish groups in the east of the country.
Festering Sores: Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania
also presents a threat, but being closer to Western Europe it can also be more
easily controlled. Nevertheless, it is a failing state that cannot be expected
to monitor all of its transients and would-be terrorists. Recently Greek authorities
cited concerns over Bosnian Arab terrorists interfering with August's Olympic
Games in Athens. America should know well about the Bosnian terrorist threat – after
all, it helped to airlift Arab mujahedin there during the 1990's covert offensive
it waged against the Bosnian Serbs.
Saudi Arabia has frequently been assailed as a source of terrorist financing
through its myriad of NGO's and missionaries fanning out across the Balkans.
However, the kingdom has also been quite ready to comply with US requests for
freezing of assets and suspension of work for those suspected of terrorist ties.
Most recently, the two governments asked the UN to freeze assets belonging to
Vazir, an organization from Travnik, Bosnia, that was alleged to be nothing more
than the surreptitious resurrection of the disbanded aid
group Al Haramain.
American officials have also taken an interest in charities operating in Kosovo – another
state that could only be described as failing, were it allowed to be a state. As
it stands now, the UN protectorate is becoming increasingly dangerous, as the
Albanians grow restive and renew sometimes violent calls for the UNMIK
administration to leave. The power vacuum that will surely come after Kosovo is
set free may allow room for terrorists to operate unobserved. Since 2001, the US
has been cracking down on Islamic charities there, believing that their
financing or missionary activities have a more sinister purpose. Still, Kosovo
has mountainous and porous borders, meaning that terrorists will always have
plenty of room to slip through, whether north through the region of Sandzak
or south through Albania.
Albania itself – corrupt, clannish and in large parts unpoliced – received great
attention in 2003. Various reports from the US Government and independent
sources alike have claimed that international terrorists continue to use the
country as a safe haven and a springboard for further European penetration.
However, if these states are really so dangerous to Europe, the fears have
not been born out. In fact, despite occasional announcements of one terrorist
plot or another being thwarted, there has been no evidence for anything on the
scale of 9/11 being planned against Europe. Rather, the US-led war in Iraq is
emptying the continent of its mujahedin.
The Iraqi Magnet
When America bombed Tora Bora in late 2001, the
al Qaeda terrorist network was not destroyed; rather, it fragmented. International
Islamic terrorism just went deeper underground, becoming more dangerous and
harder to track in the process. Nevertheless, the ensuing internal fighting
remained between the warlords and the tribes. Afghanistan did not (until relatively
recently, at least) become a jihad magnet.
Somewhat differently, the war on Iraq created a cause for terrorists where
none had existed before. And, as the death count ineluctably rises, not only is
the influx of foreigners increasing but also the radicalization of local Iraqis
who heretofore had no interest in killing Americans.
How does this affect Europe and European security? France and Germany, two
countries with large Muslim populations, led the antiwar camp last March. Has
this defiance of Uncle Sam resulted in their removal from the terrorist "hit
list?" Or have they just been lucky enough to dodge the bullet on several occasions?
The answer is probably more the former than the latter. The Europeans should
indeed thank America for its eternal protection – though not for the historical
reasons Washington never tires of asserting (i.e., its role in staving off the
long-extinguished Soviet threat to the West). In other words, nations such as
Germany and France are now able to keep the moral high ground they won by
opposing American military adventures. At the same time, they are benefiting
from the same destructive recklessness they opposed. Both states have frequently
stated that the extremists in their own Muslim populations are leaving in droves
for the fight against the infidels in Iraq.
Yet it is not only the antiwar bloc that is benefiting. Other European countries,
some pro-war (like Italy) also have noted an exodus of Islamic militants. No
doubt, they are glad to see them go; they hope these people will be purchasing
a one-way ticket. The Iraqi quagmire, so messy for the Americans, is proving
to be an excellent way for Europe to clean house.
In short, if the ongoing conflict in Iraq is indeed such a mujahedin magnet,
we can argue that European security has actually been improved since George W.
Bush's fatal, fateful decision last spring. While the world in general continues
to become more turbulent and unpredictable, Europe has remained calm – and with
good reason. The Continent remains something of a happy void between the Iraqi
magnet and the ultimate target, America itself. At least so far, life goes on as
usual throughout most of Europe, and no one is complaining about that. The
litmus test for European security is however imminent – in the form of the
Athens Olympics, now only 6 months away.