LONDON — European counterterrorism officials say they are facing a new, more dangerous generation of Islamic extremists, who are younger and more radical than their forebears, and in some cases trained and battle-hardened in Iraq.
Judge Balthazar Garzon, an investigating magistrate who is leading Spain’s effort to prosecute Islamic terrorists, said at a conference in Florence, Italy, that this was the “second generation.”
Some, he said, are as young as 16 and in many cases have no history of affiliation with al Qaeda or other established terror groups.
Judge Garzon described the group that carried out the Madrid railway bombings in March last year as “a whole network based on personal contact, where a single person was a kind of catalyst.”
His comments echoed remarks from officials in other European countries, who discussed concerns over terror cells formed by grown-up children of Muslim immigrants, recruited in jails or over the Internet.
For these new networks, Judge Garzon said, “al Qaeda is an ideological reference point, not a real articulated structure with a command chain.”
Because these youngsters often have no history of connection to extremist groups, intelligence and law-enforcement agencies are not aware of their existence, he said.
As citizens of European nations, they can travel to the United States without a visa.
“They are unknown people,” said one senior European law-enforcement official, who asked for anonymity.
Fears about what al Qaeda and its affiliates might have “metastasized” into are included in a high-level interagency review of counterterrorism policy in Washington.
“We are looking at ways to strengthen our global counterterrorism strategy,” one White House official said.
As the enemy adapted, the official said, the White House initiated the review “to improve on the progress we’ve already made [and make] sure we are doing everything we can to protect the American people.”
Recent investigations by authorities in several European countries have discovered networks of Islamic extremists recruiting and making travel arrangements for young radicals, who want to go to fight the U.S. military in Iraq.
Cofer Black, who until recently was the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said at the conference that despite U.S. successes in killing or capturing foreign insurgents, the capabilities the survivors are acquiring are changing the odds.
“Not many have to get past you when they are trained so well in explosives,” he said, referring to skills needed to make suicide-bomb belts and car bombs.