Now What Do We Do?

13 minute read
J.F.O. McALLISTER | London

For days after the attack, Europe literally didn’t know what had hit it. But even after Islamic terrorism was blamed for the 10 horrific blasts that killed 202 people in Madrid on March 11, the response outside of Spain was oddly muted, especially compared to the flood tide of emotion and solidarity in the days after Sept. 11. Slowly, however, as investigators unearthed enough evidence to charge three Moroccans with carrying out the bombings, a terrible dread crept across the Continent. In France, an antiterror official declared that another attack was “imminent.” In Britain, Scotland Yard’s chief John Stevens said a strike against London was “inevitable” and the Madrid bombers had a “definite link” with British-based Islamic extremists. And in Warsaw, Jerzy Dziewulski, a terrorism expert and member of the Polish parliament, said, “We have to assume we will be a target. We have to be prepared for the worst.”

No one knows where the worst will strike next, but Osama bin Laden has given many countries reason to worry. In a statement attributed to him last October, he said al-Qaeda “reserve[s] the right to retaliate � against all countries involved [in Iraq], especially the U.K., Spain, Australia, Poland, Japan and Italy.” A message last week from the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, which claimed responsibility for Madrid, named Britain, Italy and the U.S., among others. Even countries that hadn’t been singled out, such as Germany, knew they couldn’t rest easy.

The Madrid attacks represent a self-evident failure by Spanish counterterror services, who let the prime suspect in the case slip through their fingers in 2001 — in part because they were too focused on Basque terrorism. But the bombings also raise crucial questions about all of those hunting jihadists in Europe — specifically, whether Europe has yet learned the lessons of Sept. 11. “They have forced us all to completely re-evaluate everything we thought we knew about the jihadist threat in Europe, and just how well we’ve understood and battled it,” a French antiterror investigator told TIME. “If these kinds of networks are operating and striking in Spain, they’re set up and moving toward attacks elsewhere. And unless we uncover them fast, they’ll do just that.”

The antiterror cops weren’t the only ones reeling. Political temblors rumbled throughout Europe and beyond after Spanish voters threw out the conservative government that had been expected to win until the terrorists struck. The carnage spurred some Spaniards to demand distance from George W. Bush’s deeply unpopular war in Iraq, which Prime Minister José María Aznar had sternly backed. Other voters were convinced that Aznar’s government tried to cook the election by suppressing evidence of jihadist involvement in the blasts, pushing instead the politically advantageous theory that Basque terrorists were the culprits. Whatever the reason, the Socialists scored a victory — which, awkwardly, is exactly what the terrorists wanted.

The incoming Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, reiterated his campaign pledge to withdraw Spain’s 1,300 troops from Iraq by June unless the U.N. takes over the occupation — and did so with the hot rhetoric of a candidate rather than the smoothness of a statesman. “Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush must do some reflection and self-criticism,” he said. “You can’t organize a war with lies.” He called the occupation a “fiasco” and said he was determined to re-establish “magnificent” relations with France and Germany — but even they were surprised Zapatero publicly rewarded the bombers and was so eager to rip open the wounds of the Iraq war. And so the murderers of Atocha forced Europe to confront some life-and-death questions: Can counterterrorist agencies learn to collaborate to thwart future attacks? Will terrorists use mass murder again to exploit Europe’s political disagreements? Or will Madrid be a wake-up call, forging real unity against a menace everyone expects to spread?

In the wake of the bombings, Europe’s governments scrambled to tighten their defenses. Britain announced an extra €22 million for antiterror police, on top of existing plans to boost employees of the security service by 50%. Reports of suspicious parcels on the London Underground surged 300%. Stevens, London’s police commander, called for vigilance not only on the rails, but “in buses, nightclubs, pubs and roads.” Greece asked NATO to help with security at the Olympic Games by providing naval patrols, AWACS surveillance planes and a battalion trained to handle chemical, biological and nuclear threats. Additional steel barriers were erected outside major government buildings in Rome. Germany pressed ahead with plans to use iris scanners at airports and urged the adoption of E.U.-wide biometric standards to help catch terrorists as they move across borders. The Czech government, which like Spain has troops in Iraq, upped police patrols and tightened passport controls — the first line of defense in an E.U. about to expand to 25 members.

France, though a prominent opponent of the Iraq war, also steeled itself for attack; its ban of Muslim head scarves in state schools had brought condemnation from Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s No. 2 (who last weekend was rumored to be surrounded by Pakistani troops). France raised its terror alert to red, the second-highest level, and doubled the number of soldiers on antiterror patrols to 1,500. The government was jittery. Determined to avoid any cover-up charge of the sort that wounded Aznar, the office of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin released a letter from a previously unknown Islamic group threatening to punish France for the head-scarf ban. But its candor was too hasty: intelligence experts concluded the letters lacked the hallmarks of a genuine Islamic threat. In fact, some Interior Ministry analysts believe they were concocted by right-wing extremists trying to whip up fears before regional polls this week.

The foul-up over the letters was only one indicator of how hard it is to identify a terrorist enemy and maintain constant vigilance. At the Slovak Health Ministry in Bratislava, two guards were dubiously inspecting a new directive for hunting terrorists. “Something blows up in Madrid,” one scoffed, “and we should all be sh—— our pants?” In Portugal — fearing attack because it hosted Bush’s last summit before the Iraq war — a TV reporter showed he could build a fake bomb full of wires and a mobile phone in a backpack, travel with it from Spain across a sensitive bridge and leave it unattended in the Lisbon airport, all without detection. Not only in Madrid but all over Europe, defenses are more porous than both officials and civilians have assumed. Even now, says Friedbert Pflüger, foreign affairs spokesman for Germany’s Christian Democratic Party, “Europe is not waking up to the threat the way it happened in the U.S. Europe woke up and then hit the snooze button.”

Unlike the U.S., many European governments have had ample experience dealing with their own domestic terrorists, from the Irish Republican Army to Algerian separatists to ETA. They have foiled many plots linked to al-Qaeda, including planned attacks on the U.S. and Russian embassies in Paris, the Christmas market in Strasbourg, and, according to London Mayor Ken Livingstone, four different strikes in London. Intelligence officials all over Europe say they’re cooperating better than ever — but not perfectly, as the Madrid bombs show. Spanish intelligence was focused relentlessly on ETA, and if foreign colleagues thought that was unbalanced, they did not inveigh strongly enough to make a difference. The only faces on the National Police’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” website are those of suspected ETA members. “There is no doubt that there was a lack of attention to al-Qaeda,” says Manuel Coma, a professor of strategic studies at the Open University in Madrid. Before the elections, “the police were on high alert — but they were not looking in the right direction.”

Because terrorists can always choose their moment, governments have no choice but to build general defenses, brick by brick — and European countries have been doing that. Britain can now jail some foreign terror suspects indefinitely, employing secret trials and evidence. (One of the 14 people in custody under that law was released last week after a judge found the evidence against him “wholly unreliable.”) A new German law forbids acts in Germany that support foreign terror, even if no other offense is committed in Germany. Italy is considering whether to invoke more regularly an obscure law allowing it to promptly expel foreigners deemed a “threat to national security.” A raft of new measures is in the works: biometric passports containing fingerprints or iris scans, sharing of airline passenger details with the U.S., more spies and police, better plans for dealing with catastrophic attacks. Despite civil liberties concerns, there is public support for more intrusive measures to combat terror, with a German poll by TNS Emnid last week showing 74% backing more surveillance cameras and 79% favoring airport-style security screening in train stations.

But much remains to be done. One perplexing problem is widespread disaffection among Europe’s 15 million Muslims. In the U.K., an ICM poll last week found that 13% of British Muslims surveyed would “regard further attacks by al-Qaeda or similar organizations on the U.S. as justified.” Gert Weisskirchen, foreign policy spokesman for Germany’s ruling Social Democrats, said a more robust dialogue with Muslims is needed to make moderates feel part of the mainstream, and isolate the tiny radical minority. “It’s time to make clear that if you want to live in Europe, then you have to be a European, that we have to Europeanize Islam,” he says. “This is a huge task, but we must work on it.”

Another vexing question is how European countries can make common cause against terrorists by sharing intelligence. Previous E.U. agreements to improve coordination in law enforcement have delivered less than promised. A 2000 convention allowing cross-border requests to tap phones and monitor bank accounts has been ratified by only four member states. An action plan agreed after Sept. 11 to choke off terrorist funding has resulted so far in only 100 bank accounts being frozen, worth a paltry €1.6 million. At an emergency meeting in Brussels last week, E.U. Interior Ministers faced calls for much more extensive melding of intelligence. One came from Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who has pushed for a European version of the CIA, an intelligence center able to “share and exchange and, most important, reach a common analysis of the terrorist threat.” Graham Watson, head of the European Parliament’s center-left Liberal Democrat party, blasted member states for letting their law enforcement and intelligence agencies “continue to operate in an atmosphere of mistrust. A terrorist can be halfway across Europe before the European police have their boots on. It comes down to sharing sovereignty.”

But real spies cringe at that kind of talk, so at the Brussels meeting countries with active spy agencies, like Britain and France, turned aside calls for a European CIA. “The birth of Euro-intelligence would be the death of intelligence,” says a French security official. Secrets shared “would all turn up in the morning papers in countries who hadn’t supplied it or considered it less than vital. You could also forget about the Americans, the Saudis, the Russians sharing information with any single E.U. player, since they’d know in advance it would be shared, and inevitably leak. Sharing will always be, and is best handled, on a bilateral basis.” Britain is reportedly limiting its cooperation with Greek security for the Olympics for fear of leaks. But the French official admits the need for better databases so countries can link up their investigations. “We’ll never toss our sensitive information into a hopper, but we certainly can improve the way we share data we are willing to reveal.”

The Interior Ministers vowed to do just that by setting up an E.U.-wide database for forensic material as well as a register of people convicted of terrorism offenses. And they agreed to create a special “coordinator” to manage counterterrorism activities across the E.U. When in doubt, appoint a czar.

The mechanics of fighting Islamic terror proved easier to agree upon last week than the overall strategy. Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic accused Spain of trying to buy off the terrorists by electing a government determined to withdraw from Iraq. Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said the change of government in Spain “in a sense appease[d] terrorists.”

The strident language, which even many conservative Spaniards found insulting, reflects fear that the Iraq coalition could unravel. The war remains unpopular among the citizens of many of its members, including Portugal, Poland, Italy and Britain, whose leaders were clearly jolted by Zapatero’s triumph. In Poland, which has some 2,500 troops in Iraq, President Aleksander Kwasniewski said he thought the world was a better place without Saddam, but for the first time publicly signaled unhappiness with Washington: “Naturally I also feel uncomfortable due to the fact that we were misled … on weapons of mass destruction.” European leaders know their voters believe that al-Qaeda, Iraq and the Palestinians are different problems requiring different solutions, not manifestations of a single terrorism phenomenon, as the White House argues. A Pew Research Center poll released last week showed another drop in European regard for American foreign policy, with a majority favoring greater independence from the U.S.

With Washington desperate to stabilize Iraq and deepen U.N. involvement so it can term the occupation a success before Bush faces re-election in November, many analysts think the Security Council will pass a resolution by June 30 accepting enough responsibility for Iraq to give Zapatero whatever cover he needs to keep Spanish troops there. But no one knows if he will go along. The deeper question is whether Europe and the U.S. can forge a united strategy in the broader fight against terrorists, now that the Madrid blasts have revived old disputes over Iraq and renewed fears of more strikes in Europe.

Can European morale — and the Atlantic alliance — survive the strain? A previous struggle may be instructive. Before World War II, British officials were sure that, in the words of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, “the bomber will always get through” — just as officials today are sure that terrorists will strike again. They bought more than a million cardboard coffins and fully expected the economy, social structure and morale of the country to collapse. But united in a common purpose, Britons demonstrated the courage to absorb the Blitz — and then to beat it. Madrileños displayed that same courage when their city was attacked. Whatever measures security services can devise to stop the bombers, the refusal of Europeans to be defeated by terror is the Continent’s greatest strength. But that resilience must now be linked to a common strategy with their American allies. Defeating the terrorists requires nothing less.

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