May 9, 2004 | Broadcast

On the Line

How grave is the terror threat in Europe, and what’s being done to confront the threat? I’ll ask my guests: Elaine Shannon, a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Time magazine; William Rosenau, a political scientist at RAND; and Andrew Apostolou, director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Welcome and thanks for joining us today. Elaine Shannon, we have arrests in Turkey, attacks in Greece, the recent attack in Spain: Is the threat of terrorism in Europe expanding, growing?

Shannon: Everybody I talk to thinks so. We hear a lot about the third generation of the jihadist movement. Now they call it “the jihadist movement” rather than al-Qaida because it’s groups that may ideologically agree with some of the goals of al-Qaida, but they’re not taking any command and control from what is left of the old al-Qaida structure — which isn’t very much, probably.

Host: Bill Rosenau, is this a new and amorphous linking of groups no longer directly taking orders from al-Qaida?

Rosenau: I think “movement” is a good way to describe it. It’s a bunch of people who have this kind of revolutionary “software” embedded in their minds. They know how to carry out terrorist attacks. Many of them are self-financing. They don’t need direction from the top of this pyramid [al-Qaida] – sort of the way we like conceptualize terrorist groups as being a sort of sinister Doctor Moriarty [the villain in the Sherlock Holmes novels] at the top. Well this is completely different. It is far more difuse and therefore arguably far more difficult to penetrate and to disrupt.

Host: Andrew Apostolou, do you think it is now more difficult to roll up the kinds of terror organizations that are spreading through Europe.

Apostolou: Absolutely. I think it’s quite right to say that this is a movement now. This is no longer a centralized structure. What’s interesting is that they have built on the idea that the far right has used, of so-called leaderless resistance – that is to say, people who are, as you just said Dr. Rosenau, programmed with this terrorism in their minds to go out autonomously, reproduce themselves as cells and carry out attacks. I would caution, however, that I think the attack in Greece may not be a jihadist/al-Qaida attack. It was on a police station; there was prior warning. It was probably a Greek extreme left group, of whom there are plenty. And the problem in Greece is the total incompetence of the authorities in dealing with terrorism. And that’s very worrying ahead of this summer’s Olympics.

Host: Elaine Shannon, this notion that the groups are difuse doesn’t mean that there aren’t connections among them. In the Madrid case, one of the suspects is Abdelkrim Mejjati, who is also suspected of being involved in bombings that took place in Casablanca in Morocco. So, how are these groups related to one another, if they’re not necessarily taking orders through some hierarchical structure?

Host: One time, somebody at the FBI described it as sort of like a “lava lamp.” You have a group here and group here, and a couple of individuals, and they all get together, and then they’ll bust apart and they may not communicate, and then they may communicate. We don’t know very much about their communications because Internet email, Internet voice communications, and all the welter of screen names, make it possible for these people to do a lot of business without ever being in danger of being intercepted by the National Security Agency and other authorities.

Host: Bill Rosenau, does this make [the terrorists] more effective, or just more effective at not being caught as they move around.

Rosenau: I’m not sure it makes them more effective. We’ve raised the cost of doing business for them. It’s harder for them to operate with impunity the way they did in the past. They’re under much more surveillance by the security services in the European countries. There’s been some constriction of their finances, although a lot more needs to be done. It’s harder to move around, I think. It’s more difficult to mount really, really sophisticated attacks. So, to that extent, I think there’s a lot of good news. I think the idea of a sort of a 9-11-style attack on the European continent is, I won’t say remote, but certainly much more difficult to pull off than something like the Madrid railway bombings.

Host, Andrew Apostolou, What do authorities in Europe now think is their greatest weakness, or the greatest threat – more things along the line of the Madrid train bombings, or something that might be more like 9-11?

Apostolou: I think that’s absolutely right. The problem now is they’re going to be going for middle-sized attacks rather than spectacular big attacks. Because, they know that the spectacular large attacks are very difficult to do. For example, the Istanbul summit of NATO – a classic terrorist target: fixed setting, we will know where it’s going to happen, we will know when it’s going to happen. It’s a doddle [easy] for terrorists to plan for that. And so, of course, it’s easier to protect against. But, public transportation systems are very difficult. And what’s interesting in the U-K, the I-R-A [Irish Republican Army] have considered many times attacking the London Underground and never did because it actually would have killed too many people for them, and would have created too much of a political backlash. But the groups that are sympathetic to al-Qaida that are jihadis, the more deaths the merrier. So these sorts of vulnerable systems are very difficult to protect, and that’s the sort of attack we’re going to be seeing more of.

Host: Elaine Shannon, how do authorities in Europe try to protect those kinds of targets?

Shannon: It’s very difficult. Right here in the United States, even as we speak, they’re running tests of explosive-detection gear for the subway. There is a lot of concern within the intelligence community and the people I talk to about our [political] conventions that are coming up, that are [at sites] on top or near train stations. There’s a lot of concern about European elections and that the terrorists, having learned that they can disrupt the Spanish election, will now go on to Italy and Poland and other elections, as well as our own, and try to stage something with these wonderful, rich targets for them, full of V-I-Ps stacked on each other in chaos, noise, anarchy.

Host: Bill Rosenau, is this something new for the terrorists, being able to make as their target, not necessarily society in general by just killing people, but rather a political target, if you will, to affect elections.

Rosenau: I’d argue that basically all terrorists, with a few exceptions, have a political agenda. There is a underlying political purpose to basically every action that terrorist groups. And it’s sort of comforting for us to think that the terrorists are these drooling, maniacal, crazed figures who just want to kill and kill and kill. But even an organization like al-Qaida or this international jihadist movement that’s been metastasizing around the world, has a political agenda. It has a political program. It may be strange. It’s certainly something we would never want to see enacted. But it’s not divorced from politics. So, I would say this is something of a refinement, however – narrowly targeting something like elections. In the past, I think they’ve been much more concerned with broader, more symbolic targets. But I think it would be a mistake to divorce politics from any of their actions or their calculations.

Host: Andrew Apostolou, is there a way, aside from just trying to counteract the plots themselves, that Europeans can make themselves less of a target for these kinds of political actions? Are there political countermeasures, if you will?

Apostolou: I do disagree a little bit with that, in the sense that I met a couple of Ansar al-Islam prisoners in Iraqi Kurdistan when I was there in March. And what was interesting was that what they said to me was nothing about politics but that jihad is an obligation under the sharia, they believe – that they have to keep fighting against the West, no matter what, whether they’re winning or losing. If you have political calculations, you do take winning or losing into account. So the problem here, I think, is you have people who regard this [terrorism] as actually part of their religious obligation. It may be a twisted and distorted version of Islam that they have, but they genuinely believe this. What measures we can take are, first of all, just the standard protective measures. Trying to get the population — I think in the U-K we have this, and in some other European countries we have this – vigilant, aware of the threat. Alerting people to unattended bags, trivial stuff that can seem very boring, but is actually very interesting for people to think about. M-I-5, for example, has got stuff on the Internet now that millions of people have looked at.

Host: And M-I-5 is?

Apostolou: The British domestic security service. You [in the United States] don’t have an equivalent, because they can spy on our citizens and your F-B-I can’t very easily. And so that’s one very important step. The other thing is preventative action. So, for example, in Britain we now have laws which allow us to detain terrorist suspects and give them the option of either going to back to their native country or remaining in detention. It’s a form of internment without trial, frankly. It’s not a very comfortable thing to have to introduce, but when you have people like Abu Qatada, who’s a well known al-Qaida figure, but on whom we don’t have enough evidence to imprison him for a criminal offense, but who’s a known organizer, then you do have to take such measures. So there’s a mixture of offensive and defensive measures that can be taken.

Host: Elaine Shannon, let’s talk about this tension in Europe about going after terrorist organizations through police means, and yet then the tensions of civil liberties, and how this is being dealt with, and court cases. How have these police measures been faring in Europe?

Shannon: We’ve seen a couple of suspects in the 9-11 case let go — we’ve got a re-trial going on – because the Germans said that the U-S didn’t share the evidence necessary, namely, producing some important detainees that the U-S forces had picked up and are now in CIA custody. The U-S is going to be absolutely willing to sacrifice the German prosecutions, and our own prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, and others, before producing important prisoners. Especially now in an atmosphere when everybody wants to cross-examine them about CIA detention and interrogation means. The whole emphasis in this country now is, Yes, we’d like to lock up terrorists but first we want to produce intelligence and prevent things and protect our sources and methods. And anything that threatens to put on trial – and therefore on public record – sources and methods, they’re going to shy away from that.

Host: Bill Rosenau, what do you think about this tension in the way of going after the terrorists, if it’s being done through police measures and courts, the limitations of that?

Rosenau: Well there are certainly limitations and we’ve seen that recently in Spain and elsewhere. But if I could actually pick up on a point that Andrew was making, looking at some of the counter-measures, I want to put in a plug for the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service, which has done a really outstanding job – actually puts our own F-B-I to shame. And looking at some of the roots of terrorism in the Netherlands, looking specifically at the problem of recruitment, and looking at the characteristics of the people who do the recruitment, looking at their targets, looking at the arenas in which the recruitment is taking place, really with an eye toward stemming that next generation of jihadists. In the past, the big concern was people who were being mobilized for the international jihad outside of Western Europe. Now, as the Dutch service points out, I think rightly, the arena of jihad is in Europe itself. And the training is going to go on in Europe. So it’s absolutely critical to cut off that pipeline of new recruits into this jihadist movement.

Host: Andrew Apostolou, on that point, France recently to crack down, if you will, on radical imams who in France preach violence of one sort or another. To what extent is there room, in Europe under European law and what countries are willing to do, to try to counter the recruitment that comes through radical religious groups?

Apostolou: There are different measures in different countries. For example, in Germany they banned last year a group called Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was a very marginal group but it is a vanguardist movement – they’re aimed at intellectuals – because of its anti-Semitism. And that’s something that obviously banned under German law. In the U-K you cannot take any measure that infringes freedom of speech. But, if these people are foreigners and there’s very good intelligence on them, they can be basically detained. In France, there are laws that allow them to deport people if they promote hate speech, for example. It depends on the country. There’s no European-wide standard. But that’s part of the problem that we’ve had as well, which is that, in London, for example, you have a very large number of people from former-French North Africa – Algeria in particular – who moved to the U-K because they were under too much pressure in France. But it was easy to get into the U-K and the U-K provided some sort of shelter. Now the U-K’s countering that. And one of the problems in the E-U [European Union] we have is the lack of coordination between not only legislation but law enforcement agencies. So working out a pan-European strategy is going to be very, very difficult. As Dr. Rosenau just said, the Netherlands is a good example of a country that’s taken the lead, and others can learn from them.

Host: Elaine Shannon, is Europe going to be able to solve these two problems of coordination, 1) the disparity of legal standards in different countries, and 2) cooperation of the various intelligence services and police organizations of various countries.

Shannon: “Solve” is probably not a word that works in any of these discussions, because we’re all going to have different legal standards and evidence standards. Even if the U-S has all this evidence and wants to give it to a German court, is that acceptable under their rules of evidence? I don’t know. They have very strict privacy laws and so do some of the other systems, and rules of hearsay and all sorts of things are different. We haven’t solved some of the practical problems in our own U-S system. I was just looking at a report before I came over about lack of coordination between the U-S Bureau of Prisons and the F-B-I on radical Muslim clerics who are, in some cases, going in to U-S prisons and proselytizing and perhaps recruiting. This is a problem that the F-B-I is very worried about, and I’m sure the Europeans are also, because these are people who may know nothing about Islam except they may be seduced by the most radical, most violent form of it, and because they’re already in prison, they’ve already committed crimes of violence, they could possibly be seduced to commit worse, with only a very superficial knowledge of why they might be doing it.

Host: Bill Rosenau, there are examples, though, of cooperation among European intelligence, police agencies, that work. The ricin ring in London, broken after a French lab was broken up. To what extent are those successes things that are being built upon in Europe?

Rosenau: There are successes. There are also tensions. There’s a report in the Daily Telegraph [newspaper] recently about one of the British services was very offended by the lack of cooperation by their French counterparts. And a certain amount of tension, I suppose, is inevitable. But the Europeans, I think their ultimate goal, or at least their pipe dream, is this notion of a sort of a European-wide intelligence service that would have its eyes and ears all over the continent. The E-U has, of course, appointed a security czar. He’s the former Dutch deputy interior minister. The problem of course is that police and spies are going to be very reluctant to participate in some robust fashion in some kind of European-wide structure. The cooperation that goes on, the cooperation that is most effective, is cop-to-cop, spy-to-spy, it’s all based on individual relationships. It’s very ad-hoc. But it seems to work, and I think rather than trying to create some vast intelligence superstructure, sort of strengthening the bilateral communications between the services is probably the best way to go.

Host: And yet, Andrew Apostolou, we see recently in France a judge setting out an investigation into the Madrid train bombings, on the grounds that there was a French citizen who was killed there. Does that suggest, perhaps, the limits to which national governments are willing to rely on other European governments to pursue these things when citizens of their own countries are caught up in terror attacks in other countries?

Apostolou: One of the problems is that, as Dr. Rosenau has said, it’s a slightly informal arrangement. There are some countries that cooperate very well with each other. Generally, the British and the French do work well together. The recent spat is unfortunate, but generally they work well together. The Germans work very well with the British and the French as well. But for example, coordination with Greece is appalling. The Greek service is a complete joke. Coordination between Turkey and the U-K, with Spain it’s good. There are shared interests. For example, fighting previous terrorist groups who were very active has actually been very useful. For example, the U-K and Spain cooperate against ETA and the I-R-A jointly, and so those sorts of links have been very useful. But the problem is that you’re not going to have European Union citizens frankly accepting an intelligence superstructure for the whole of the E-U. And now we’ve got the difficulty of bringing in the East European countries, and again, if you’ve looked at some of the ways in which some of their intelligence services have behaved post-Cold War, it hasn’t been terribly professional. And there’s a real worry there that we’re going to have leakage in that part, and we’re going to have countries where terrorists are going to move to because it’s easier. They will spot the weaknesses. The terrorists are very, very resourceful, I think more so than is often acknowledged. And they will spot the weaknesses and they’ll move into the cracks in the system.

Host: Elaine Shannon, how big is this concern that, with the expansion of Europe and the European Union that it’s going to mean greater freedom of terrorists to move around and plot around Europe.

Shannon: It’s always been a great concern – ease of communications, countries that don’t have a well-developed criminal justice system. It’s always easier for crooks to transgress national boundaries than [it is for] police or intelligence to get together and communicate. When crooks get together they don’t need to write memos to each other’s bosses to get permission. They just do it.

Host: Bill Rosenau, how are they going to solve this issue of the larger borders?

Rosenau: Solve, again, is the problematical word. Looking at how wide open, relatively speaking, the new borders in the European Union are, I think it’s going to be a huge problem. But again, I think that to the extent it’s going to be solved or mitigated it’s going to be through service-to-service, cop-to-cop, informal relationships rather than formal structures.

Host: I’m afraid that’s going to have to be the last word for today. We’re out of time. I’d like to thank my guests, Elaine Shannon of Time magazine, Bill Rosenau of RAND, and Andrew Apostolou of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Before we go, I’d like to invite you to send us your questions or comments. You can email them to [email protected]. For On the Line, I’m Eric Felten.