Europe hamstrung on terrorism

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Europe is now at the center of the war on terror, no matter how much it wanted to avoid that spot.

French police have a dozen alleged Islamic militants in custody, some on suspicion of helping provide false identities for jihadists living in Europe, others for arms trafficking.

In Pakistan’s lawless Waziristan region, a group of militants were killed by a United States airstrike this week; they turned out to be German.

Based on information that came from a captured fighter under interrogation in Afghanistan, the U.S. on Sunday urged its citizens to exercise maximum caution as they travel in Europe. Japan followed with its own alert.

Britain, already at a “serious” threat level, warned its travelers about the risk of visiting France or Germany. France has now issued an advisory to its citizens about the “high likelihood of a terrorist attack in the United Kingdom,” telling them to be vigilant on public transportation or crossing the English Channel.

“There is a terrorist threat at the moment in Europe,” acknowledged French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, speaking to his parliament. “It must be neither overestimated nor underestimated."

Have the Americans in fact overreacted with their general travel alert, which gives no specifics, just enough of a suggestion of danger that tourists might be scared? Or are the Europeans entirely too sanguine about the possibility of attacks on the scale of the 2008 mass murder of 160 civilians in Mumbai, India, as the plotters are reported to be planning?

If the U.S. government seems to err on the side of verbosity about threats, it’s because it is obligated to share information on threat assessments with the public. European governments aren’t required to do so, so one ends up hearing less about their perception of danger. But that could change if the reported Al Qaeda presence on this continent makes its move.

Frank Ciluffo, director of the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, calls it a “sea change” in the way terrorism is viewed. Presenting a report on the need for improved transatlantic counterterrorism cooperation last week, Ciluffo said it’s hard to gauge the size of the contingent of potentially violent jihadists traveling freely on European and American passports. He estimated those who have undergone terror-camp training to be at least 20 Germans, a minimum of two dozen Swedes, at least 100 Britons and three dozen Americans.

“We had always presumed terrorism was perpetrated by the downtrodden or the illiterate or by those mired in poverty,” said terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, moderating a panel on the report. “But what we see today is that terrorists are not coming from refugee camps necessarily or isolated rural villages. But to penetrate and to navigate in our societies, they have to be familiar with them.”

“This is worrying,” said the EU’s Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove, “because having a passport from one of the member states and not known by the police, these people may fly and not be easily detected.”

The European Union’s infrastructure presents a daunting challenge to combating this homegrown threat. Mark Rhinard, a senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, has been analyzing the situation, including for the European Commission itself.

“European governments know that more cooperation is necessary,” he said, “but the institutions are not yet quite suited for cooperation on sensitive issues like intelligence and internal security matters. … The question becomes how exactly do they do this, through what protocols, and there’s yet to be a real consensus around the fact that the EU institutions are the place to do intelligence cooperation.”

Rhinard said the EU’s reliance on member states as the leaders in security policy and counterterrorism is inefficient and disjointed. “Modern intelligence cooperation is much more than simply exchanging police information or military intelligence,” he explained. “It’s also gathering the whole array of information of what’s happening in society. And from that perspective, the EU is the only organization that has the breadth of policy competencies that potentially allow the free flow of information in a cooperative setting that help member states understand the full threat picture, gainful threat and situational awareness. “

De Kerchove doesn’t seem to be fighting for that to change. “The EU,” he said Wednesday, “is not the primary actor responsible for providing internal security. Member states are on the front line and therefore our role is mainly to design policies, to adopt legislation, and to develop financing program money to develop contacts and assist states.”

But, Rhinard said, because Europe has not experienced a large-scale attack since the 2005 London bombings or the Madrid attacks of 2004, the emergence of the new threats has not yet caused a wholehearted move toward convergence of capabilities.

“Unfortunately, one of the few ways to get European leaders’ heads together on the question of terrorism is for an actual attack to happen,” Rhinard explained. “It’s possible that this latest elevation of the threat level could focus minds enough to get them to reprioritize European cooperation against terrorism.”

Justice ministers from the 27 EU countries meet in Luxembourg today, with counterterrorism coordination high on their agenda. A U.S. official from the Department of Homeland Security will attend to discuss further the information that led to the U.S. alert telling tourists to be vigilant European countries.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the attribution of a quote.