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Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Two "Wars" on Terror 

Via Cursor: In America, a "war on terror" without discernible objectives, prosecuted in desultory fashion yet constantly invoked as a catch-all justification for unrelated military and political ends, ruthlessly exploited for partisan gain and dependent upon the docility of a perpetually-frightened populace. In Europe, a "war on terror" built on international cooperation and shared intelligence, conducted in silence, intended solely to catch terrorists and disrupt their operations:
Passengers read their newspapers, snoozed, and chatted, as, on a day this month, a digital clock clicked to 7:38 a.m., the moment on March 11 when members of a Moroccan terrorist cell inspired by Al Qaeda set off the first of 10 bombs stuffed inside backpacks along the train line.

There was no visible increase in security on this suburban Madrid train, and there is no sense of panic among commuters. The mood suggests that Spaniards, hardened by decades of struggle against terrorism, have moved on from the attack -- and that the Europeans have responded in vastly different ways than the Americans to the threat of global terrorism . . . .

These European countries have expressed a more quiet but collective resolve to work within an international consensus to fight terrorism. In the eyes of many European counterterrorism specialists and officials, the Bush administration's reliance on conventional military means can serve to provoke more terrorism.

The contrasting strategic visions translate into diverging tactics on the ground. The US confrontation with terrorism turns now on a long-term commitment of troops in Iraq. Spain's newly elected prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, fulfilled a campaign promise to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq, but also increased Madrid's commitment to peacekeeping in Afghanistan. And at home, Spanish authorities have staged a series of raids against Islamic extremist cells, making numerous arrests.

"When Spain pulled out its troops, it was completely wrong to say the Spanish people had gone soft on terrorism," said Gijs de Vries, the European Union's first counterterrorism chief, a post created in response to the Madrid bombing to help European countries coordinate efforts against terrorism. "They were instead exerting their belief that the war in Iraq was not connected to the war on terrorism, and that in fact it undercut the war on terrorism" . . . .

After the attacks in Madrid, Spaniards reacted with a demonstration of collective resolve that brought 10 million people to the streets to protest the terrorists, as well as Spain's involvement in Iraq. The new government deployed investigators to follow up leads and penetrate Moroccan cells with purported links to Al Qaeda, which turned out to be behind the attacks.

Antiterrorism police have arrested 68 people in connection with the train bombings, including 20 believed to have been directly involved. The suspects are alleged to form a web that ranges from Moroccan cell-phone store owners who perhaps unwittingly helped the terrorists obtain and program phones used to trigger bombs, to Spanish nationals who helped secure some of the explosives, to a core of 20 militants who more actively took part in planning and coordinating the bombings.

The core cell has been dismantled, according to Spanish law enforcement officials. A suspected mastermind of the operation, Rabei Osman Ahmed, is awaiting extradition from Italy under a new EU extradition agreement. A second purported coordinator is in custody in Spain and a third was killed when he exploded a bomb as police tried to capture him, authorities said.

German and French counter-terrorism officials have also made significant gains in disrupting Islamic militant cells through sweeps and key arrests. However, these countries have also suffered setbacks in obtaining convictions. In some cases this is because the FBI and CIA are reluctant to share intelligence on Al Qaeda; in others it is because the kind of information obtained by the United States is deemed inadmissible in European courts.

Many European analysts say they believe the Bush administration has manipulated the emotions of Americans by playing up the fear of terrorism with its system of alerts and its rhetoric. European observers wonder why the American public has not reacted against this, and, based on the findings of a recent trans-Atlantic opinion poll conducted for the German Marshall Fund, a large majority of Europeans hope American voters will react by choosing John F. Kerry over Bush in November . . . .

"The semantics are very important," said Gustavo de Aristegui, a leader of the right-of-center Popular Party and a terrorism specialist. He is Basque and is shadowed by a bodyguard because of a perceived ETA threat. "For America to keep using the phrase 'war on terror' reflects a deep misunderstanding of the threat we face," said Aristegui, who has held postings in the Middle East and whose father, also a diplomat, was killed in Lebanon by Syrian shelling during the civil war.

"Calling what we face a 'war on terror,'" he added, "is a semantic trap that legitimizes a criminal element as a group worthy of being called an enemy in a conventional sense, and worthy of being a force with which we can engage in war. We need to have language that reflects the reality, and the reality is we need to close the faucet of good guys going into the pool of bad guys."

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