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Threat of Terrorism in Europe

July 8, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said yesterday the London bombings bore “the hallmarks of an al-Qaida-related attack.” How strong a presence do al-Qaida and al-Qaida-inspired groups have in Britain and throughout Europe?

To explore that, we turn to: Steven Simon, a former terrorism specialist on the National Security Council — he’s now a senior analyst at the RAND corporation and co-author of the book “The Age of Sacred Terror”; and Matthew Levitt, a former FBI Middle East counterterrorism analyst. He’s now director of terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Welcome to you both.

Steve Simon, how significant a threat or problem is al-Qaida and al-Qaida inspired groups in Western Europe?

STEVEN SIMON: I think it’s a potentially significant problem. You have a large number of disaffected young Muslims in Europe. They’re marginalized, even isolated in some cases economically, politically and socially. This condition has been complicated by a wave of migrants that has come in more recently. And these people — some of them are economic migrants; some of them are in Europe as political asylum seekers, but they harbor some profound resentments themselves.

On top of these two problems you have a clerical establishment in Europe that is not European in origin, an Islamic clerical establishment that comes mostly from the Middle East because Europe doesn’t have the ability to produce its own home grown preachers as they might priests or Protestant ministers. And these clerics coming from the Middle East can carry with them an attitude towards Europe and its values that is – can be hostile or disapproving and thereby feed some of these prevailing resentments.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you share that assessment, Matt Levitt, and if so, what particular, what makes Britain special or different in any way from the rest of Western Europe?

MATTHEW LEVITT: I do share Steve’s assessment. I would add that on top of the fact that they’re not local preachers and therefore most of the imams that come in come from abroad.

On top of that, you have a phenomenon where preachers who are resident in North Africa and the Middle East, but primarily in North Africa, come in and kind of do tours of the mosques.

And in several cases we know from the Hamburg cell, we know from Madrid as well, there were preachers from North Africa with a particularly virulent message who came through and played a very important and disturbing role radicalizing those cells.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how do – let’s say they’re not homegrown; they’re immigrants or migrants. How do they first get into Western Europe?

MATTHEW LEVITT: It’s not hard to get into Western Europe; it’s not hard to get in from Eastern Europe or even directly. It is not hard legally and certainly not hard illegally. And then once you’re in, you’re in. There really is no border control. Even those few countries that are not part of the EU, itself, like Switzerland, the few times I’ve gone in and out, I’ve just driven right through, and it’s very easy to make your way around.

You asked what’s special about England, and there, one of the things that strikes me most is that Britain’s freedom of speech laws and its libel laws make it so that you can say just about anything you want and some of the greatest, most radical preachers in Europe have been in London, Abu Katada and Al-Hamza Masri, both of whom are now incarcerated, but were not for a very long time are just two examples.

MARGARET WARNER: And doesn’t Britain also have incredibly lenient asylum laws, which in fact say, if you say, I’m an Islamist and I’m being persecuted even in France, you are welcome in Britain, is that right?

STEVEN SIMON: For many years this was the case. Britain has tightened up on its criteria for asylum considerably since Sept. 11, but before Sept. 11, Britain was the haven of choice for opposition figures including some with violent backgrounds from a number of countries in the Middle East.

MARGARET WARNER: I read an analyst today who said that London really had become, “the spiritual communications,” and he also added, “financial hub for the Jihad movement,” at least certainly outside the Middle East. Would you agree with that?

STEVEN SIMON: Yes. Prominent preachers – well, first of all, London is a communication center.

MARGARET WARNER: Period.

STEVEN SIMON: Period and it’s also got a large multi-ethnic community, many of whom are Muslim, and preachers there can have a disproportionately large impact. Two of them that Matthew just mentioned, Abu Katada, and Abu Hamza al-Masri, are perfect examples of such influential preachers with wide reach, but also links to the Jihadist community.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Matt Levitt, if you look at either foiled plots or arrests we’ve seen let’s say particularly in Britain, but throughout Europe or the couple of attacks we’ve seen in Madrid and the Dutch filmmaker, were those home-growns or second or third generation European Muslims who were the perpetrators or were they recent migrants?

MATTHEW LEVITT: Well we’ve seen both; the assassin who killed Van Gogh was a home-grown; the two British Muslims of Pakistani dissent who carried out a Hamas suicide bombing in Tel Aviv were homegrown, but others, including some involved in Madrid and other roundups, particularly in France, some involved in what was the risin plot in London were not.

So we’re really seeing a mix. And, in fact, if we look at Madrid, what we saw in that case was that the network that carried out the attack itself was a mix, so it was kind of a motley crew of like-minded, loosely affiliated fellow travelers. And I’d be surprised if that’s not what we find in London, too.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, if we talk about al-Qaida groups in Western Europe, Steve Simon, are they former al-Qaida cells of the kind we would read about before 9/11 where they’re directed by headquarters, or are they, is it a consequence of this kind of morphing, this devolution that’s taken place in which these groups are more self starters and they can operate pretty independently?

STEVEN SIMON: I think it’s more the latter, the self starter category and Madrid is a perfect example. It was a pickup crew. The group that – (Mohammed) Bouyeri, the killer of Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker emerged from a group of like-minded, disaffected youths who came together in late night bull sessions in their apartments and took it upon themselves to do thing awful, of course, but strike a blow, in their view, for Islam.

MARGARET WARNER: Now what about the Iraq factor, Matt Levitt? There was a demonstration outside the American embassy in London, what, two months ago in which the chant was “UK, you will pay, (Abu Musab al-) Zarqawi is on his way.”

Do authorities think that Iraq, the Iraq War, is generating or radicalizing new groups, new people in Europe and do they think that Zarqawi has a hand in that?

MATTHEW LEVITT: I think Zarqawi was thrown into the chant because it has a ring to it more than anything else. The Iraq War has a radicalizing effect. And when people like bin Laden and others get up there and say that the West is against Iraqis and Palestinians, I don’t think that the West does enough to get up and stand to make a statement to engage in the battle of ideas and the war on terror to combat that kind of strategic terrorism.

But I don’t think that the Iraq factor itself is making tourist operations themselves more of a factor. It’s not clear to me that the number of foreign Jihadists who go to Iraq and come back is so large. On the other hand, you don’t need that many. If a small number of people get that experience and not so much the operational experience but the prestige and reputation because these are start-ups, pickup groups, all you need is someone like that who can pull together a few other people and carry an attack like this to have a real effect.

MARGARET WARNER: Final short thought from you on the Iraq factor, do you think it is something?

STEVEN SIMON: I think it’s a hugely mobilizing factor, and we’ve seen it in the arrest records and trial records of preachers who have been taken into custody for recruiting such individuals. Their pitch is centered on Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Simon, Matt Levitt, thank you both.