7 June 2004, Volume 4, Number 14
EUROPE: THE NEW TERRORIST SANCTUARY?
By Roman KupchinskyOne of the pillars of the antiterrorism strategy of the United States has been to deny sanctuary to terrorists by cooperating with other states to take action against these international threats. But what if the followers of Al-Qaeda, expelled from their traditional sanctuaries in Afghanistan after 11 September and dispersed around the world, are now taking refuge in the Muslim ghettos of Berlin, Madrid, London, Paris, and other European urban centers? Is the above cited principle still valid under these new circumstances and, if not, what can be done to adopt it to a changing situation?
Prior to 11 September the European connection to Al-Qaeda was believed to be more of individual cells mainly in Germany and Spain and followers in Britain, with its members acting as recruiters for the jihadist training camps in Afghanistan. With the disappearance of those camps, there is evidence to show that the European cells went deeper underground and are now sanctuaries for trained cadre moving about the continent with missions to establish new, combat-ready squads of fighters trained in the techniques of urban terrorism.
THE GHETTOS OF EUROPE
European cities are home to some 15 million Muslims, many of whom are citizens of their new countries of residence. The vast majority of these French or Spanish citizens reject terrorism and violence, but rightfully expect the full legal benefits of citizenship for themselves and their children. Experts predict that by 2015 this number will double. Muslim immigrants in Europe, widely regarded as the new European underclass, resentful of what they believe to be social discrimination, high unemployment, and police insensitivity, are becoming targets for Al-Qaeda recruiters. The ghettos where they live have become breeding grounds for future generations of Al-Qaeda terrorists similar to the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan which were the recruitment centers for the Palestine Liberation Organization and Al-Fatah.
If the Garche les Gonesses suburb of Paris and the Leganes district in Madrid are becoming the new sanctuaries for a myriad of fundamentalist groups who glorify terrorist Osama bin Laden and are bent on bringing the Islamic jihad to Europe, western counterterrorist forces need to rethink their tactics. The terrorists hiding in these ghettos certainly do not enjoy the "sponsorship and support" of the French or Spanish governments, so are the old axioms of counterterrorism still applicable in their case?
The level of Muslim militancy in Europe is on the rise. According to "The New York Times of 26 April, Dr. Mustafa Yoldas, the director of the Council of Islamic Communities in England, sees a correlation between rising militancy and the discord in Iraq. "This is a very dangerous situation at the moment.... My impression is that Muslims have become more and more angry against the United States."
On 7 April, "The New York Times" quoted several intelligence chiefs who warned that the war in Iraq and the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict are adding to the intensity of anti-Western sentiment among Europe's Muslims.
"Iraq has touched the Islamic mainstream in Europe," one senior official said. "This is causing great concern because we believe that as a broader group is radicalized, the support network for violent extremists will expand."
The newspaper goes on to cite European intelligence and counterterrorism officials who claim that hundreds of young Muslim men "are answering the call of militant groups affiliated or aligned with Al-Qaeda."
Robert S. Leiken of the Nixon Center in Washington provided a striking example of the current situation in his 2004 study "Bearers of Global Jihad -- Immigration and National Security after 9/11."
He writes: "In the town of Oldham, the scene of one of Britain's worst race riots in recent history in 2001, 12 percent of the town's 220,000 inhabitants are Muslim, unemployment reaches 20 percent among Muslim youth and the Salafist mosque is burgeoning."
In Paris, police estimate that the number of mosques taken over by extremists has risen to 32 out of 373 mosques in the city.
Ghettoized Muslim communities in Europe are difficult to infiltrate given their closed nature and expertise in avoiding police surveillance, making them ideal hiding places for terrorists. Any unwarranted intrusions into these communities might be met with a violent response and an escalation of hostility towards the law enforcement agencies of the countries where they are located. Such possible intrusions could, without a doubt, evoke charges of police insensitivity and racism, as took place in Oldham -- something which terrorism thrives on. The extremists who find shelter in these ghettos know full well that cruise missiles will not be launched at them and Predator drones will not photograph them. Berlin, after all, is not some cave in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan.
European governments also understand that they are dependent upon immigrants, many of whom are from North Africa and the Middle East, for replenishing their rapidly aging work force and will hesitate to target these communities for surveillance in order to maintain production. Thus a security gridlock emerges as a result of conflicting interests.
Within the EU, members of the new international brotherhood of terrorists are free to move about with little, if any, interdiction, enjoying the liberal benefits of the Schengen border agreement. European police and intelligence forces who, as one pundit wrote, are all for coordination but who refuse to be coordinated, fear distributing operationally vital intelligence among the 25 EU member states in order to prevent security leaks. Ironically, these fears seem to have actually benefited terrorists who currently enjoy the upper hand in Europe.
A CELL IN MILAN
The recent discovery by the British police of yet another location in Britain where explosives were stored tends to confirm the theory of the emergence of European sanctuaries, as do the 11 March attacks in Madrid where Al-Qaeda cells, once used for recruitment, are now full-fledged commando units. The arrests in the Parisian suburbs of 15 individuals -- 11 of whom are Moroccans -- suspected of involvement in the Casablanca bombings in May 2003 raises the question. What were they doing in Paris? Why did they not seek shelter in Morocco? Perhaps they felt that Paris was a safer haven for them then North Africa.
On 31 March 2003, the Italian police arrested the imam of the local mosque in Parma, subsequently arresting 12 other men from Milan suspected of terrorist activities. A number of the arrested men had been active in helping illegal immigrants enter Italy via Turkey and Greece.
The Italian prosecutor's report gives the following details on the leader of the cell.
"Faraj Farj Hassan Al Saadi is the leader of a terrorist Islamic cell set up in Milan with several branches, probably in other European countries. The organization is deemed to be linked to Al-Qaeda and aimed at providing terrorists living in European and Middle-East countries with forged documents. These documents could also be used to help volunteers to reach military camps, mainly in Iraq.
"He is accused of being associated with other individuals included in the list, sharing with them religious and extremist ideals. Although cell members had no steady jobs, they could afford to financially support the cell's activities and to move frequently throughout Europe, probably thanks to illegal proceeds.
"Faraj Farj Hassan Al Saadi attended a military course in Afghanistan and he arrived in Italy to set up a terrorist cell, probably under Al -Qaeda's mandate. He also maintained contacts with representatives of terrorist organizations in other European countries, certainly Netherlands and Great Britain."
By applying tactics straight out of the late Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book," the international terrorist has learned that its best bet is to blend in with the local population and operate in a faceless and silent community which will protect them from detection. This needs to be countered by an effective policy of merging counterterrorism operations with a dialogue leading to a resolution of the grievances in these communities. No security benefits will be reaped from counterterrorist operations which fail to take into account the justified complaints in the radicalized ghettos of Europe.
Most law enforcement officials agree that the current danger to Europe from terrorism will not be solved by kowtowing to insatiable terrorist demands in the Middle East, intellectual anti-Americanism, or a surge of anti-Semitism throughout Europe. These ill-conceived concessions will have little, if any, impact in preventing new attacks. Moreover, they are in fact acts of unconditional surrender to terrorism. The urgently needed task in Europe, they claim, is to reorganize and streamline communications between different police and intelligence services. A significant strengthening of Europol's counterterrorism intelligence section should be followed by reforming it into a European Central Intelligence Agency. And while this proposal was rejected at the last EU Commission meeting, it should be reviewed and adopted in some reasonable form. This, as well as the Schengen open-border issue and the more effective use of the European arrest warrant are matters which desperately need to be addressed at the next meeting of the European Commission.
One argument put forth is that it is not enough to appoint a European coordinator for antiterrorism who is effectively cut-off from intelligence information and whose job seems to consist of harmonizing penalties for terrorist crimes. Such an approach will not give the needed results. It might be more prudent to find ways to implement EU foreign- and security policy chief Javier Solana's statement prior to the March EU summit in Brussels that more is needed to be done to tackle the factors behind terrorism.
DEPORTATION VERSUS FREEDOM OF RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION
Others advocate stronger antiterrorism laws and less stringent deportation policies in order to send agitators out of the EU member states. The article in "The New York Times" from 26 April gives the example of British attempts to expel Abu Hamza, a cleric accused of tutoring Richard Reid, the man who tried to blow up a Paris to Miami airliner with explosives hidden in his shoes. The British home secretary has been trying to strip Hamza of his citizenship for years while he "keeps calling down the wrath of God."
Long-standing freedom of religious expression laws and the protection of civil liberties in the EU countries allow a few radical clerics to make provocative and hate-filled speeches which, in turn, could convince more young men to join the cause of terrorist groups. Akhbar Dad Khan, an elder of the Central Mosque in Luton, England, was quoted in a 26 April "New York Times" article as saying: "I think these kids are being brainwashed by a few radical clerics...we should be able to control this negativity."
WHEN ONE IS ARRESTED, THREE TAKE HIS PLACE
Carl Heinrich von Bauer, deputy head of Germany's North Rhine-Westphalia state police told "The New York Times" on 7 April that: "Most of the Al-Qaeda cells in Germany have been prosecuted and destroyed. But whenever one terrorist gets arrested, one, two, three or more men will fill his space somewhere else."
With the numbers of immigrants being so high, and the large percentage of them coming from Morocco, which has been the source country of many terrorists, police are faced with both operational and legal obstacles. The main one being that many of these North Africans have citizenship in EU member states -- giving them greater protection under the law.
FINANCING AND POLITICS
The Milan cell arrested in 2003 was supposedly earning money by helping to smuggle people into the EU. A report in the 29 April issue of "Jane's Intelligence Digest" reveals that Czech police, in cooperation with Austrian and German authorities, arrested a gang of four men that was organizing the illegal smuggling of people.
The report mentions that some of the profits from this activity were diverted to help finance the activities of Al-Qaeda.
The costs of operations such as the Madrid train bombing are modest while the profits from human smuggling are huge. The U.S. State Department, in its 2003 report on Human Trafficking, estimates that world-wide profits from this activity range up to $9 billion per year. Even 1 percent of this is significant and can buy a great deal of explosives. The nature of this cash-only business (people being smuggled do not pay for this service by wire transfers or by charging it to their Mastercard) leads terrorist groups to regard the Financial Action Task Force in Paris, organized to combat terrorist money laundering, as not being much of a hindrance to their operations.
If human smuggling is becoming a source of income for terrorism as the above facts suggest, this might mean that some of the terrorist groups in Europe have abandoned using the informal "hawala" money-transfer system and are now avoiding all middlemen as a precautionary measure.
Terrorist involvement with illegal immigration could become a serious political issue in some EU countries as well. European right-wing political groups who have traditionally spoken out against liberal immigration and asylum policies could see a surge in popularity if terrorism and immigration become too closely linked. If this were to take place the outcome could rapidly become very unpredictable.
A FRAMEWORK FOR INACTION
In his essay, Leiken describes the European mindset prior to the Madrid attacks: "Though Western European countries passed a series of security measures in the wake of 9/11, the impact in Europe of those events has been less profound and durable than on this side of the Atlantic, for reasons both readily understandable and deeply discomforting. September 11 did not happen to Europe and before that day Western European countries had become familiar with the sort of terrorism that struck those countries. The Irish Republican Army, the Red Army Faction, [and the] Bader Meinhoff Gang...were around for decades, though of course none produced anything like the mass terror of September 11.... Moreover, many Europeans believe that their more accommodating Middle East policies will protect them from jihad."
Unfortunately, the greatest emphasis for action comes after the fact. It was the Madrid bombing more than any other act which galvanized the counterterrorism units in the EU to shift into high gear. But how long can a state of high vigilance be maintained? The phenomena of "alert fatigue" has been mentioned a number of times by U.S. law-enforcement officials as a serious concern. Too often a long period of silence is misinterpreted as security and a certain complacency sets in, only for the cycle to begin again after another atrocity is committed.
The fact that a threat is not visible does not mean that it has vanished. All the post-mortem inquiries after 11 September, both in the United States and in Europe, show that a group bent on committing a high casualty attack might plan it for a year or more.
If the attackers feel reasonably safe in their sanctuary they will concentrate on preparing their next operation. If, however, they see that they are being hounded, they will seek different sanctuaries and continue with their plans.