BRUSSELS. — Despite recent successes in preventing terrorist attacks in Europe, threats from radical Islamists are real, serious and long-term, according to the European Union’s chief antiterror coordinator.
Closer cooperation and exchange of intelligence between the European Union’s intelligence services have thwarted nearly a dozen terrorist attacks since September 11. The most recent success was upsetting a plot by Ansar al-Islam, a group affiliated with al Qaeda, to kill Iraq’s interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi during his visit to Berlin last month.
In addition to the Islamist threat, Geert De Vries, the EU’s top anti-terrorism man, speaking to United Press International in his office in the European Union headquarters in Brussels, said Europeans should not ignore risks from “classic terrorism” — Europe’s home-grown terrorist groups, such as the Basque’s ETA. A recent spate of bomb attacks across Spain was claimed by ETA, the Basque separatist organization.
Radical European Muslims who volunteered to fight the U.S. invasion of Iraq and who are now reportedly heading back to their respective countries may pose a more imminent risk, however. This raises concerns that the former jihadis — now hardened with combat experience — may become members of active or sleeper cells upon which al Qaeda or its affiliates could call on for future terrorist operations in Europe.
Claude Moniquet of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center in Brussels, who monitors Islamist terrorism, worries Europeans are inadequately prepared for this new crisis.
Reports of returning jihadis corroborates what U.S. military intelligence sources told UPI almost two weeks ago — that an emerging new trend in the Iraqi resistance of insurgents trying to rid themselves of foreign elements.
One report has recent treks of jihadis across the Iraqi-Syrian border, this time heading in the opposite direction, out of Iraq.
Foreign fighters who joined the anti-U.S. resistance in Iraq are vaguely estimated at from a few hundred to several thousands. However, one well-informed French intelligence source told UPI Iranian officials say about 7,500 foreign fighters are engaged against U.S. forces in Iraq.
While the potential return of these fighters to Europe is certainly reason for concern, the good news is that numerous intelligence reports say these groups are not organized. “Calling them ‘groups’ suggests cohesion,” said Mr. De Vries, explaining they are not organized in any real sense. “People have used the word ‘franchise,’” he said. “The phenomenon is more nebulous.” There is no centralized leadership, explains Mr. de Vries.
Claude Moniquet, author of many books on Islamist terrorism, agrees. He was recently assailed by a young Muslim, a professional soccer player, who accused him of “insulting Islam.” His attacker, who Mr. Moniquet said “heralds from a stable family with a good background, did not fit the ‘typical’ terrorist profile.” This makes the job of tracking Islamist terrorists all that much harder. “There is no direct link between poverty and radicalism,” noted Mr. De Vries.
“We are not talking about a clash of civilization, but rather a clash within Islam itself,” said Mr. De Vries. “It is a conflict between the murderous fringe and the overwhelming majority of Islam.” Mr. De Vries said Europe should encourage moderates to speak out against radicals. The chief European antiterrorist coordinator believes including Turkey in the European Union should provide a positive moderating force.
Turkish Prime Minister Receb Tayyip Erdogan, addressing some 300 Turkish business executives in Brussels Friday, echoed similar thoughts. “One of the greatest threats in the world today comes from terrorism. We have to fight it together,” stressed the Turkish prime minister as he continued lobbying European policymakers before their Dec. 17 decision on Turkey’s request for admission into the Brussels club.
With close to 70 million people, of which 99 percent are Muslims, Turkey would no doubt help in moderating Islam. However, only including Turkey in the EU will not address the clear and present danger of Islamist terrorism. Mr. De Vries says “both elements of soft and hard power” are needed.
He explains: “Soft power is dialogue. Getting moderate Muslims involved.” Indonesians and Turks are moderates and should be more involved in starting a dialogue and encouraging moderates to speak out. Hard power is more muscle, which he says Europeans should not be afraid to use when needed.
Mr. Moniquet, the Brussels-based terrorist expert, agrees this is the correct approach. Talk with the moderates and expel the radicals, he says. However, Mr. Moniquet is not overly optimistic. The radicals cannot win but can do serious damage.
Khadija Mohsen-Finan, an expert on Arab world affairs with the prestigious French Institute of International Relations — or IFRI — believes the answer to addressing Islamic unrest in Europe is education and integration.
A newly released report from the Pew Forum on religion titled “An Uncertain Road: Muslims and the Future of Europe” states that “the successful integration of European Muslims is crucial to the future of Europe.”
Unfortunately, integrating Muslim immigrants in Europe has had little success in recent years. As a result, more young Muslims, second-generation immigrants, turn to Islam as a means of identifying themselves. Part of the phenomenon is what Mr. Mohsen-Finan calls “religiosity, rather than religion.”
Antoine Sfeir, editor of a French publication specializing in Arab affairs, surveyed several thousand young French Muslims. He was surprised to learn that, despite their claims of adhering to a strict form of Islam, most could not name the five pillars of Islam, the basic tenets of the religion.
Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International.