Accessibility links

EU: Fortress Europa?

  • Roman Kupchinsky --> The well-established drill of reacting to a large attack by increasing what is suddenly perceived to be inadequate security now appears to be a pattern in Europe and elsewhere.

Despite alarming statistics published recently on the rising number of terrorist acts perpetrated last year, European security officials had mobilized their forces just twice in 16 months to defend the continent from possible attacks on transportation systems: once after the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, and again after the suicide bomb attacks in London on 7 July, which claimed the lives of at least 56 people.

The Terrorist Knowledge Base reported on its website ( that 271 acts of terror took place in Europe last year, excluding the European part of Russia. A total of 194 people died as a result of those attacks -- the vast majority, 191, were killed during the Madrid train bombing in March 2004. By comparison, a total of 372 terrorist incidents took place in Europe in 2003. Most of those incidents (117) occurred in France, in which one person was killed. Bombs, most of which were primitive devices, were used in the overwhelming majority of these incidents and excluding the Madrid attacks, there were no coordinated blasts or suicide bombings.

The same day of the London blasts, police patrols appeared in force on the platforms and carriages of the 49 European cities with subway systems. How long the administrations of those cities intend to keep such police patrols in a high state of readiness before so-called alert fatigue sets in is difficult to predict.

Throughout the initial stages of reporting on the London blasts, many analysts and officials compared the attack to the train bombing in Madrid 16 months previously.

Europe's Response To Madrid...

The March 2004 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid were seen to mark a turning point for European counterterrorism preparedness. They showed the vulnerability of the European Union to such attacks, and seemed to mobilize European security forces and politicians into adopting a more coordinated and defined approach to security issues.

Earlier, after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, European counterterrorism forces mobilized their efforts, but Madrid suggested that those steps had been uncoordinated and inadequate.
Regrettably, of course, the greatest call for action comes after the fact. This has been demonstrated by 9/11, the Madrid bombings, and the London attacks of early July.

"It is quite obvious that there is pressure in Europe to see law enforcement action and results," a senior European intelligence official was quoted by "The New York Times" as saying on 6 April 2004. "The detentions in France after the Madrid bombings are an illustration of this."

Passengers boarding Eurostar trains under the English Channel between Britain and France were forced to undergo security screenings similar to those employed for air travelers. "The New York Times" reported on 17 March 2004 that officials said that "otherwise, Europeans generally step onto trains unchecked," adding that "there are just too many people to screen. The paper quoted Claudia Triebs, spokeswoman for the national rail system Deutsche Bahn, as saying that "in Germany alone, short-haul trains carry 4.2 million people a day; long-distance trains add another 350,000."

A few days after the attacks in Madrid, EU High Commissioner for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana proposed nominating a special envoy dedicated to counterterrorism issues at the EU level, a sort of terrorism czar. That envoy would coordinate measures the European Council and the European Commission were carrying out to combat terrorism, according to the website.

"There is an enormous amount of information, but much of it gets lost because of the failures of cooperation," Baltasar Garzon, the Spanish investigative judge in charge of the Madrid bombing investigation was quoted by the "International Herald Tribune" as saying on 23 March 2004. "We are doing maybe one-third of what we can do within the law in fighting terrorism in Europe. There is a lack of communication, a lack of coordination and a lack of any broad vision."

"The problem with intelligence in Europe is that we are far too bureaucratic and fragmented across borders," a senior German intelligence official said, according to the "International Herald Tribune." "Our security is much less integrated than our business or transportation infrastructures. We also have many different languages, while the terrorist cells all speak Arabic. The extremists also move relatively freely across borders."

The London attacks showed that even senior intelligence officials are prone to generalities. The London bombers presumably all spoke perfect English, perhaps even didn't know a word of Arabic; nor did they have to cross any borders to get from Leeds to London.

One of the most remarkable post-Madrid events took place in London as early as 8 July 2004, however. "The Guardian" reported that Islamic cleric and professor Yusuf al-Qaradawi -- who is banned from entering the United States because of his views, including his defense of "the right of Palestinians to use such tactics" as suicide bombings -- was invited to participate in a conference of "Muslims in Europe."

"The influential Egyptian-born theologian was speaking at the opening of a the Greater London authority's Thames-side building, where he shared a platform with the London mayor, Ken Livingstone," according to "The Guardian."

The conference was co-sponsored by the London Metropolitan Police.

...And Its Response To London

After the London blasts, European leaders issued warnings similar to those they had made after the Madrid attack.

"The terrorists have a different mentality," French President Jacques Chirac said in an interview with television channels on 14 July, Bastille Day, according to AP on 17 July. "There's not a single country in the world that's safe from terrorism, including France."

France, according to the Terrorism Knowledge Base, experienced 71 terrorist incidents in 2004.

"We have done everything we can to fight against terrorism," Chirac was quoted as saying.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin placed France on its highest level of alert on 7 July. Italy did the same as it rounded up hundreds of suspected terrorists.

Nicolas Sarkozy, France's interior minister, declared that France would tighten border controls, according to the "Financial Times" on 14 July: "If we do not reinforce border controls when around 50 people die in London, I do not know when I would do it."

Police patrols were increased on the Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich metro lines.

Reuters reported that Dutch Minister Jan Peter Balkenende meanwhile warned of a Europe-wide terrorist threat, and his country stepped up border checks and heightened security for British buildings in the country.

New Measures?

The United Kingdom, which currently holds the EU Presidency, sought to hasten the implementation of measures already agreed upon, including the controversial step of retaining for at least 12 months all e-mail and phone data.

According to the "Independent" of 14 July, this would include details of the time, date, and duration of all phone and Internet messages, the calling and called numbers, and the location of mobile calls at the start and the end of a connection.

Additionally, "by December all 25 EU ministers promised to finalize rules on a European evidence warrant and on the exchange of information between law enforcement authorities," the "Independent" reported.

This issue has been debated since 11 September 2001.

The EU ministers also pledged to examine the causes of radicalization of young Muslims in their countries. The European Commission apparently had identified a "crisis of identity" among young Muslims born to immigrant parents in a report that was leaked to the Belgian newspaper "De Standaard."

The report, according to the "Independent," describes radicalization as "a modern kind of dictatorship" and "likens it to neo-Nazism or nationalism, and says the Internet, university campuses and places of worship are tools of recruitment."

Putting aside the roots of terrorism in Europe -- which arguably needs to be addressed in a serious manner -- the immediate question is that of safety.

Regrettably, of course, the greatest call for action comes after the fact. This has been demonstrated by 9/11, the Madrid bombings, and the London attacks of early July. All of those acts galvanized the counterterrorism units within the EU to shift into high gear, and they generated similar statements of intent and resolve from European political leaders.

But it is legitimate to ask how long a high state of vigilance can be maintained. U.S. law-enforcement officials have noted the danger of "alert fatigue." And long periods of silence can produce a false sense of security, leading to complacency. Too often, the cycle begins again when a new atrocity is committed.

See also:

"U.K.: New London Explosions Follow Deadly Attacks By Two Weeks"

"Pakistani Authorities Question Suspects In London Probe"

"Blair Seeks Alliance With Muslims Against Extremism"

"Analysis: Can Subways Be Protected?"