Europe’s wake-up call

The March 11 bombings in Madrid did more than simply kill 190 people and injure about 1,800. They acted as an enormous European terror wake-up call. Since 9/11, various European Union member states and international security agencies have arrested Al Qaeda suspects and foiled some attacks in the United Kingdom and France. But the past few months have shown that their efforts were not enough. The EU is now frantically trying to implement security measures—some that had been mothballed for two years—in a bureaucratic atmosphere more accustomed to slow, nationalist politics. Meanwhile, individual governments have tightened their investigations as a result of the continuing pattern of terror in Spain.

Europe’s task is far more complex thananything faced in the United States. In the US, a single federalgovernment supervises one country’s national security. The EuropeanCommission (EC)—the executive arm of the EU—however, oversees 25different nations (10 new members joined on May 1). Each nationcontrols its own security, and any given government comprises dozens ofintelligence and security agencies. Intelligence sharing andoperational cooperation between European nations is not new, but it isthe exception to the rule.

Interpol and Europol collect criminal-relateddata, but they rely on individual countries to submit it. The reasonsfor the country-by-country compartmentalization of intelligence areboth logical and nationalistic: Fears of leaks, the need to protectsources and suspicion of the incoming information. There are alsoquestions of third party sharing. If the United States, for example,shares intelligence with the United Kingdom, the British cannot pass itto Germany without US permission.

Following 9/11, Europeans have increased thenumbers of cross-border investigations and operations, mostly focusingon suspected Islamic radicals. And the network of Al Qaeda-relatedgroups situated in Europe doesn’t only occur in the larger countriessuch as the United Kingdom, Spain, France and Germany. During OperationBazar in October 2002, for example, Italian Carabinieri arrestedseveral suspects and, during its investigations, uncovered links toSpain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, Bosnia, the CzechRepublic, Bulgaria, Turkey and a few East Asian countries. Belgium andDenmark have also made arrests in the past few years in relation toterror threats.

As the case of David Courtailler unfolds inFrance, the tangled web of cells throughout Europe becomes evident. The29-year-old Frenchman has pleaded not guilty, but prosecutors allegethat this well-traveled man has connections with some of the mostwanted men in the world. Courtailler supposedly visited Madrid in 1998to meet with Jamal Zougam, one of the alleged masterminds behind theMadrid bombings. The court also accuses him of training in Al Qaedacamps in Afghanistan and participating with cells in Spain, Belgium andBritain. His brother, Jerome Courtailler, was arrested in theNetherlands as an accomplice to a planned attack on the US embassy inParis and a US army base in Belgium.

But it was the Madrid attacks that shockedEurope into action. Following the bombings, the chairman of theEuropean Council (comprised of the leaders of each member state),Ireland’s Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, led a busy week of meetings totackle the threat of terror. The Council’s draft proposal contained fewnovelties—most of the legislation and measures have been on the booksfor years. But Ahern wanted all EU members to implement the measures byJune 2004, the next time the Commission will meet. Also in June, JavierSolana, the EU’s high representative of foreign and security policy,will present his office’s report on fighting terrorism. Compared to thepast 20 years of EU bureaucracy, a successful completion of this taskby June would rival breaking the speed of light.

Reviving Old Plans

In its March 18 Action Paper in response tothe Madrid bombings, the EC said that it does not propose to create newinstitutions, but solutions instead. The reasons were simple: There’sno time and, more importantly, the EU had already discussed most of themeasures, which have since languished in bureaucratic and parliamentarylimbo.

“We cannot go on producing networks andinstitutions and then refuse to provide them with the necessary toolsto perform their jobs or simply not using them,” the Action Paper said.“Much has been done. Let us use it.”

The Council’s formal “Draft Declaration onCombating Terrorism,” dated March 22, outlines what the Council wantsto accomplish, but the language is vague. The Council made several“calls” for action—calls for cooperation, calls for legislativechanges, calls for quick responses—but did not specify how they are tobe implemented. And there are no penalties for non-compliance. Neitherthe EC nor the Council possesses the legal power to force a memberstate to adopt a measure. Nevertheless, the European leaders whoreunited following the March 11 attacks appeared convinced that theiraccelerated plan was the key to a secure Europe. “There will not be arefuge for terrorism in the European Union,” said Ireland’s Pat Cox,the president of the European Parliament.

Much needs to be done. For example, the Planof Action to Combat Terrorism from September 2001, the EuropeanSecurity Strategy from December 2003 and previous Framework Decisionsconcerning identification documents, customs, transportation andintelligence cooperation litter the EU clerk’s office but have yet tobecome active. The framework decision to implement a European ArrestWarrant occurred on June 13, 2002. As of March 18, 2004, only 10 of the15 member states had passed the necessary legislation (Greece, Italy,Germany, Austria and the Netherlands had not). On that same day inJune, the EU adopted a framework decision on the fight againstterrorism. Almost two years later, three member states still had notyet complied. And in June 2001, the EU passed a convention on MutualAssistance in Criminal Matters, which involved money laundering and thetracing, freezing and seizure of criminal assets. As of March, onlyfour member states had ratified that convention.

Multi-national cooperation concerningcross-border investigations and operations seems like common sense, andthe EU’s framework decision on this took place in June 2002. Althoughthe deadline for implementation expired at the start of 2003, only ninemember states have executed the plan. Legislation concerningcross-border hot pursuit is pending as well. Until its implementation,people will still have the freedom to move across national borders, butnot the police.

The two major European security agencies,Europol and Eurojust, should have contact points established in eachmember state, according to two EU decisions from February and December2002. These points are responsible for “collecting all relevantinformation concerning and resulting from national criminalinvestigations and prosecutions with respect to terrorist offencesinvolving listed individuals, groups or entities, and for passing thatinformation on to Europol and Eurojust.” Two member states still havenot established contact points.

EC representatives in Madrid and Brussels would not disclose which nations were lagging behind.

European Union: Oxymoron?

The main obstacle for a common securitystrategy is simple: 25 different nations don’t always agree. Theproblem the EU faces now is no different than ever before. As oneGerman security analyst wrote in a European defense journal in 1998:“Intelligence, as a profession that is concerned with the unknown, thesurprising and the unwelcome, does not seem to lend itself easilyeither to the current pace of the [EU’s foreign policy] or to itsdiplomatic nature, where all action must wait for a high-levelintergovernmental decision and must never go beyond the scope of itslanguage.”

Every proposal submitted by the Commissionmust go through the member states’ respective parliaments. And if theproposal is not politically viable with a particular constituency, itgoes no further on a European level. For example, the EC proposed thatsecurity agencies be permitted access to telecommunications data, aproposition that has received support from the UK government and itssecurity divisions. In other countries that have strong data protectionlaws, such as Germany, Sweden and Denmark, no politician would riskpolitical suicide by daring to breach the subject. Critics of the EU’sdraft proposal cite the dangers the plan could produce concerningindividual freedoms. Statewatch, a London-based, non-profit think tank,analyzed the EC’s anti-terror proposals and concluded that only 30 ofthe 57 measures are relevant and the rest verge on eliminating civilliberties.

“Under the guise of tackling terrorism, theEU is planning to bring in a swathe of measures to do with crime andthe surveillance of the whole population,” said Tony Bunyan,Statewatch’s editor. “After the dreadful loss of life and injuries inMadrid, we need a response that unites Europe rather than divides it.”

The Plan

Some member states recommended creating aEuropean version of the US Central Intelligence Agency, but the ideawas considered unfeasable and was not adopted. But the European Councildid create a new post, an anti-terror czar who will coordinate theCouncil’s work in the fight against terrorism. Former Dutch DeputyInterior Minister Gijs de Vries will assume the position.

“The coordinator acts under the authority ofthe council of ministers, like Solana,” says Chris Wright, the head ofthe Security Issues Programme at the Royal Institute of InternationalAffairs in London. “This is someone who can then go to the Council andpoint the finger at officials and junior ministers for not doing theirshare. That is potentially a quite powerful and beneficial position. Hewill set targets—short-term targets—to try to find solutions.Basically, it means that someone has to produce something by June.”

But other European observers are not so surethat yet another institution in Brussels will help. For them, it’s thesame story of big words, more paperwork and little substance.

“It’s a joke,” says Sebastian Gorka, who runsthe Institute of Transitional Democracy and International Security inBudapest and is also an editorial contributor to Jane’s Terrorism andSecurity Monitor. “The concept only makes sense if you are a nationstate. This is not economic cooperation or labor markets, this isnational security. This is going to be like Solana, ducking the volleysfrom the nation states. Very little is concrete. Common sense makes itlook all right, but it’s on a road to nowhere.”

Other new-ish measures include the collectionof telecommunications data, passenger lists of private airline carriersand biometric data (fingerprints and DNA) “for the purpose of fightingterrorism,” said the EC. By the end of 2004, the EC also hopes to adopta proposal that incorporates biometric features into passports andvisas.

Some security analysts, however, feel that the majority of these measures are too invasive and will do more damage than good.

“Putting in place measures and proceduresmake people feel better, but their effectiveness is yet to bedetermined,” says Bill Durodié, the director of the InternationalCentre for Security Analysis at King’s College in London. “And in manycases they are counter-productive, creating an information overload.For example, in the UK they just established an anti-terror hotline forpeople to call if they see anything suspicious. They are going to getso many calls with worthless information that they’ll miss the valuablecalls. This creates more problems than they solve. Look at moneylaundering, too. In comparison to previous cases where criminalslaundered their money through legitimate businesses, most of thefundraising for Islamic groups originates from legitimate sources andthe money gets siphoned to terror groups. As a result, banks have beeninstructed to look for suspicious transactions. But because banks aresmart and don’t want to be involved in anything, they are reportingeverything to cover their backsides. So now you can’t see the wood fromthe trees.”

Durodié stresses that any security system hasto rely on people with expertise and experience rather than a fearfuland overly suspicious population. For him, the Council’s securityproposals are long overdue but a political will to lead a socialresistance to terrorism is necessary as well.

“It’s obvious there are real terror threats,”he says, “but they are the least of our problems. It’s us who arecorroding our society—no one from the Middle East did it. We are alwaystrying to understand why groups like Al Qaeda do things like this, butwhat we do is rationalize their actions ourselves and reflect it onthem. We cohere and create Al Qaeda. For example, there is no realevidence that they bombed Madrid because of its stance on the war, butwe assume that. There was that tape, but we can’t just believe the tapebecause it supports our theories. After the Istanbul bombings therewere several groups that made claims in the name of Al Qaeda, so thereare plenty of reasons to discount the tape in Madrid. They know whatthe name ‘Al Qaeda’ means to us—it has a devastating effect on people’spsyches.

“People talk about asymmetric politics but Ithink what’s more asymmetric is that the West is a risk-averse societywhile the terrorists see risk as a means for opportunity. It shows howfragile we have become.”

In Brussels, however, Europe’s primeministers plan to reunite this month [June] to present an unprecedentedEuropean security strategy. But the optimism in the intelligencecommunity does not match the speed with which the Council is working.

“The way ahead is boring police work andbreaking national barriers,” Gorka says. “It’s not going to be adeclaration from Brussels but undercover police work and intelligencesharing.”  HST

Mike Elkin is a writer based in Madrid, Spain. He has contributed to El Pais in Madrid and The Independent in London.

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