Europe's terror fight quiet, unrelenting
MADRID -- A city-bound train rumbled along with purpose on the same commuter line where bombs inflicted brutal carnage more than six months ago, killing 191 people and wounding hundreds in the worst terrorist attack in Europe in decades.
Passengers read their newspapers, snoozed, and chatted, as, on a day this month, a digital clock clicked to 7:38 a.m., the moment on March 11 when members of a Moroccan terrorist cell inspired by Al Qaeda set off the first of 10 bombs stuffed inside backpacks along the train line.
There was no visible increase in security on this suburban Madrid train, and there is no sense of panic among commuters. The mood suggests that Spaniards, hardened by decades of struggle against terrorism, have moved on from the attack -- and that the Europeans have responded in vastly different ways than the Americans to the threat of global terrorism.
For the United States, the response to Sept. 11 was to launch a "war on terrorism," one cast in terms of good and evil and marked with somber ceremonies, fought more with armies than with indictments. But for Spain as well as for France, Germany, and Britain, all countries that have suffered a history of terrorist violence, the focus is a "struggle" against a criminal element.
These European countries have expressed a more quiet but collective resolve to work within an international consensus to fight terrorism. In the eyes of many European counterterrorism specialists and officials, the Bush administration's reliance on conventional military means can serve to provoke more terrorism.
The contrasting strategic visions translate into diverging tactics on the ground. The US confrontation with terrorism turns now on a long-term commitment of troops in Iraq. Spain's newly elected prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, fulfilled a campaign promise to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq, but also increased Madrid's commitment to peacekeeping in Afghanistan. And at home, Spanish authorities have staged a series of raids against Islamic extremist cells, making numerous arrests.
"When Spain pulled out its troops, it was completely wrong to say the Spanish people had gone soft on terrorism," said Gijs de Vries, the European Union's first counterterrorism chief, a post created in response to the Madrid bombing to help European countries coordinate efforts against terrorism. "They were instead exerting their belief that the war in Iraq was not connected to the war on terrorism, and that in fact it undercut the war on terrorism."
De Vries, of the Netherlands, said confronting terrorism needs to combine conventional military force, police investigations, and a political dimension that is "more than just hearts and minds, but truly analyzing the context and the conditions that create terrorism." He said the United States and Europe had cooperated very effectively in many ways, especially in criminal investigations, but that the United States had unnecessarily alienated many of its allies by relying too heavily on a military response and consistently undervalued the political dimension.
Zapatero has politically reunited his country with France and Germany, which have led Europe's opposition to the war in Iraq. Spain's former conservative prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, had aligned himself with President Bush and had supported the war in Iraq.
On the week that Spain marked the six-month anniversary of the bombings, Zapatero welcomed President Jacques Chirac of France and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany to Madrid. Zapatero and his Socialist Party were swept into power just three days after the bombings.
Zapatero derided the now-infamous comment by the US secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, disparaging "old Europe," which had opposed the Iraq war. "You have before you three fervent pro-Europeans," Zapatero said. "This is not just any meeting . . . and I am glad to say that old Europe is as good as new."
The three leaders agreed to share police databases and vowed closer cooperation in the continent's fight against terrorism. They also agreed to pursue a united approach to address the anger and despair among Muslims in the Middle East and those who come as immigrants to Europe, and who sometimes become recruits for terrorist groups.
Across Europe, terrorism has claimed 5,000 lives in the past three decades, in attacks from such groups as the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatist group ETA, anarchists, Italy's Red Brigades, Arab nationalists, and Islamic militants.
This month, the European Union released a report it had commissioned to reassess Europe's ability to confront terrorism. The study was compiled by an independent group of counterterrorism and military specialists. It showed that Europe must increase its capacity to intervene in regional conflicts worldwide, and to help root out security risks at the source.
To do this, the report said, leaders must stress the importance of reexamining outdated notions of protecting states in favor of an approach that protects people and that offers a wider and more interlocking concept of security. "In an era of interdependence, Europeans can no longer feel secure when the rest of the world is insecure," said the report, which was published Wednesday.
The report also emphasized a need to complement conventional military means with improved civilian elements, such as police and their trainers who can provide assistance in peacekeeping missions and in the promotion of democracy and the rule of law.
The report also illustrated the differing approaches of the United States and Europe.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush and his administration responded with a swift invasion of Afghanistan to crush the Taliban government that provided logistical support for Al Qaeda. Then, the administration pushed toward the buildup for the war in Iraq, ignoring widespread opposition among longtime allies.
After the attacks in Madrid, Spaniards reacted with a demonstration of collective resolve that brought 10 million people to the streets to protest the terrorists, as well as Spain's involvement in Iraq. The new government deployed investigators to follow up leads and penetrate Moroccan cells with purported links to Al Qaeda, which turned out to be behind the attacks.
Antiterrorism police have arrested 68 people in connection with the train bombings, including 20 believed to have been directly involved. The suspects are alleged to form a web that ranges from Moroccan cell-phone store owners who perhaps unwittingly helped the terrorists obtain and program phones used to trigger bombs, to Spanish nationals who helped secure some of the explosives, to a core of 20 militants who more actively took part in planning and coordinating the bombings.
The core cell has been dismantled, according to Spanish law enforcement officials. A suspected mastermind of the operation, Rabei Osman Ahmed, is awaiting extradition from Italy under a new EU extradition agreement. A second purported coordinator is in custody in Spain and a third was killed when he exploded a bomb as police tried to capture him, authorities said.
German and French counter-terrorism officials have also made significant gains in disrupting Islamic militant cells through sweeps and key arrests. However, these countries have also suffered setbacks in obtaining convictions. In some cases this is because the FBI and CIA are reluctant to share intelligence on Al Qaeda; in others it is because the kind of information obtained by the United States is deemed inadmissible in European courts.
The Zapatero government has worked to build bridges with the immigrant Muslim community, , and the new foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, has gone on a diplomatic offensive to improve ties with its neighbor, Morocco, and other Muslim countries, relations that were frayed by Aznar's support for the war.
Many European analysts say they believe the Bush administration has manipulated the emotions of Americans by playing up the fear of terrorism with its system of alerts and its rhetoric. European observers wonder why the American public has not reacted against this, and, based on the findings of a recent trans-Atlantic opinion poll conducted for the German Marshall Fund, a large majority of Europeans hope American voters will react by choosing John F. Kerry over Bush in November.
European terrorism specialists, government officials, and counterterrorism investigators from different political leanings say that understanding the difference between the US and Europe's approaches to terror begins with language.
"The semantics are very important," said Gustavo de Aristegui, a leader of the right-of-center Popular Party and a terrorism specialist. He is Basque and is shadowed by a bodyguard because of a perceived ETA threat.
"For America to keep using the phrase 'war on terror' reflects a deep misunderstanding of the threat we face," said Aristegui, who has held postings in the Middle East and whose father, also a diplomat, was killed in Lebanon by Syrian shelling during the civil war.
"Calling what we face a 'war on terror,' " he added, "is a semantic trap that legitimizes a criminal element as a group worthy of being called an enemy in a conventional sense, and worthy of being a force with which we can engage in war. We need to have language that reflects the reality, and the reality is we need to close the faucet of good guys going into the pool of bad guys."
The Bush administration has expressed disdain and distrust of any approach to the fight against terrorism that sees it as anything short of a war, and has questioned Kerry's ability to confront the threat.
In Iowa on Sept. 7, Vice President Dick Cheney said: "If we make the wrong choice [then the danger is that we'll get hit again, that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mindset, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts and that we are not really at war."
Trinidad Jimenez, the spokesman on foreign affairs for the Spanish Socialist Party, said: "We know terrorism, but we are not afraid of it. . . . We know it needs to be confronted, but we have come to understand that it must be confronted intelligently, effectively, and within the framework of international and national law.
"Words in this debate matter. The world was fed fear to sell the war in Iraq, and the conservatives here tried to manipulate words to stay in power," said Jiminez, referring to the previous government's initial assessment that Basque separatists carried out the Madrid bombings. "We will not be intimidated by Washington trying to say we were weak on terror. In fact, we find it offensive."
The differences between the United States and Europe were evident in the aftermath of the two attacks: While Americans rallied around the flag, Spaniards chose a less political symbol -- a white hand.
At public vigils, millions of Spaniards held up hands painted white, a symbol that for a decade has been used to protest Basque terrorism -- making the point that those with clean hands outnumber and will defeat those whose hands are stained with blood.
On the commuter train recently, Maribelle Marcos said friends from her working-class suburb had been killed in the bombings.
"We will never forget what happened, and the mourning isn't over, especially not for the families," she said as the train pulled into the capital's Atocha Station, ground zero for the attacks. "But we also know you can't let terrorists change who you are. If you do, they win."
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