Friday, May 14, 2004

New European Union counterterrorism chief Gijs de Vries said cooperation with Washington in the global war on terror is strong despite continuing deep differences over the war in Iraq and other policies.

Even countries that sharply opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq recognize they are targets for al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, said Mr. de Vries, who was in Washington to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Attorney General John Ashcroft and other senior U.S. officials.

“There are no illusions in France and Germany about their vulnerability to terrorism, certainly not after the March 11 bombings in Madrid,” Mr. de Vries, a former Dutch lawmaker and Cabinet official, said Thursday.

He declined to estimate how many al Qaeda cells are active in the European Union, but he said recent arrests by French, British and Italian authorities demonstrated that the danger remained.

“Europe is both a target and a base for al Qaeda,” he said, adding, “the problem is not getting any smaller.”

“I would not suggest for a moment that there is not a clear-eyed analysis of the threat we face all across the Continent,” he added.

In Paris, both French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder forcefully denounced the videotaped beheading of American civilian Nicholas Berg by Iraqi militants.

“Nothing can ever excuse such acts,” said Mr. Chirac, whose government actively opposed the war and has refused to send troops for the postwar reconstruction mission.

The two leaders also condemned the abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops in Iraq, but softened their criticism by noting that U.S. authorities have admitted the abuses and vowed to punish those responsible.

Mr. de Vries’ post was created in the aftermath of the Madrid attacks, which killed 191 persons and have been compared by many in Europe to the physical and psychological shock delivered to the United States by the September 11 strikes. The 25 EU member-states have long been criticized for failing to coordinate intelligence on terrorist threats and on law enforcement and judicial prosecution targeting suspected terrorists.

Mr. de Vries said the bloc’s executive arm has put out a number of concrete proposals to boost cooperation, including a unionwide arrest warrant, joint investigative teams and better pooling of information from various national databases.

But he added that the EU states still have a long way to go in implementing policies adopted in Brussels. His new post is largely advisory and does not include a separate budget or staff to help push counterterrorism policies.

“I am not a European Tom Ridge,” he said. “Our model is based on working together with all the national services in Europe from a bottom-up approach.”

But the March 11 Madrid attacks exposed a continuing problem for EU states: Spanish authorities did not know that many of those suspected in the attacks were already known to security services in other EU states.

“We have to make sure there are no gaps in our legal armor, that the best practices in one country aren’t undermined by weaknesses in other countries,” Mr. de Vries said. But, he added, “twenty-five nations do not just merge overnight.”

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