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Europe, Human Rights, and Terrorists

by Michael Radu

The author’s field of research centers on terrorism. In this commentary, he points up the problematic role Western European governments and public opinion have played in the war on terrorism.Ed.

All the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks had some direct link with Western Europe: the leader, Mohammed Atta, and the other three pilots were all linked to an Al Qaeda cell in Hamburg; and the alleged twentieth hijacker, Zakarias Moussaoui, is a French citizen recruited in London. Since September, authorities in Spain, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Bosnia have arrested over 100 Al Qaeda operatives or recruits—compared with less than a handful caught in the United States.

An in-depth analysis of European reactions, statements, and media comments since September 11 suggests that there is only limited understanding of the causes of this terrorism or why the terrorists have found Europe to be a hospitable environment. More important, there is little if any realization in Europe politically and culturally (as distinct from among the intelligence communities) of why these terrorists are a threat to Europe. Ultimately, the whole issue is perceived of as an American problem. (Except, of course, that the EU and America’s NATO allies claim a political right to be consulted on the nature and scope of the war on terrorism and a moral right—indeed an obligation—to criticize the United States’ conduct of that war and its treatment of captured terrorists.)

On February 6, French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine commented on Washington’s “simplicity” for centering its foreign policy on the issue of international terrorism. This is of course from a country where anti-Americanism is a national pastime. But there are also divisions between the U. S. and Europe on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Witness the widespread pro-Palestinian and often anti-U. S. demonstrations from Stockholm to Milan. With some laudable dissenters (Spain, Denmark, and Italy), the EU also refuses to acknowledge such terrorist groups as the Turkish PKK for what they are: responsible for mass murder in Turkey, a European country, NATO ally, and candidate for EU membership.

All of this raises the basic issue of the balance between the allies’ rights and responsibilities within the alliance, and here the asymmetry is enormous. While Britain did provide useful military help in the Afghan campaign and Prime Minister Blair has been Washington’s staunchest supporter, more often than not he had to do so against resistance from members of his own Labour Party, including cabinet colleagues. Germany found it enormously difficult to dispatch even a few dozen soldiers to Afghanistan, France needed months to deploy its aircraft carrier to the operational area; and Italy and Spain were both late and largely irrelevant in sending small forces to Afghanistan. In fact, they contributed fewer troops than Australia or even Canada.

But these facts are, in the short term, less important than the more immediate problem of the extensive linkages between international Islamic terrorism and Western Europe. Of the four elements required for the success of an organization like Al Qaeda—recruitment, funding, logistics and planning, and training—all but one, training, is best obtained in Europe. Basic training was largely performed in countries such as Afghanistan and Sudan, but top-level terrorists—i.e., the pilots of September 11—were trained in Europe and the United States.

The most “successful” recruiter for Al Qaeda, responsible for both the terrorist conversion of Moussaoui, Robert Reid, and many others and also supporting the assassins of Afghan anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, was Abu Qatada, a Palestinian from Jordan, sentenced there for terrorist plots. He and the second most important recruiter, one Al Faisal, apparently of Jamaican origin, were both based in England, and both managed to slip away from the Scotland Yard recently. Indeed, the UK is clearly the center of fundamentalist Islam in Europe, followed closely by Germany. The latter still harbors Metin Kaplan, Cologne’s self-proclaimed caliph (the spiritual head of all Muslims), whose declared goal is to establish an Islamic state in Turkey. He was accused of trying to reach that goal by, among other means, hijacking a plane and using it to destroy the Ataturk Monument in Ankara. Abu Qatada and Kaplan were both given political asylum—the former also received lavish welfare checks from the British taxpayers—on the grounds that, if returned to Jordan and Turkey respectively, they could be tortured or sentenced to death. Amnesty International’s “human rights fundamentalists” clearly defeated both common sense and national security. AI’s logic, which has been assimilated into the legal systems of the UK, Germany, and increasingly the EU as a whole, is that those involved in or suspected of mass murder have a right to asylum if the alternative is capital punishment or whatever fits into AI’s ever expanding concept of torture. The inevitable result is that the worst of the worst Islamic terrorist ideologues and practitioners see Western Europe as the safest haven anywhere. Call this the human rights paradox: the more extensive the definition and legal protections of “human rights,” the more likely it is that those who disregard any human right would feel comfortable with it—and govern their actions accordingly.

Not surprisingly then, terrorists recruited in England—some Britons, some French or Spaniards—were to be found in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Even French antiterrorist experts talk about “Londonistan,” and there is a connection between one of the worst Islamic terrorists from Britain with the London School of Economics, a center of anticapitalist, anti-Western miseducation for almost a century.

Soon the United States will be asking various European allies to extradite arrested Al Qaeda operatives. Then, if the current European legal practice, elite reactions, and comments on the treatment of the Guantanamo Bay detainees are any indication, the American public will have a shock. In Europe, Islamic terrorists, recruiters, and trainers are seldom seen or legally treated as criminals, unless they murder French, German, or British citizens. Even then, the punishment is very light. Kaplan is in jail with a four-year sentence for conspiracy to murder a rival imam in Germany—not for conspiracy for mass murder in Turkey, or for trying to destroy the only democratic system in a Muslim Middle Eastern country. AI has already demanded, unsuccessfully, the Bosnian government not to extradite six alleged Islamic terrorists linked to Al Qaeda by U. S. intelligence, because in its wisdom they could not receive a fair trial in the United States. For AI, a fair trial is one where the prosecutors cannot request the death penalty. In AI’s judgment, this puts the U. S. legal system in the same category as those of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. And this is the concept shared by most European elites.

A Jan. 27, 2002 London Telegraph headline says it all: “British cash and fighters still flow to bin Laden.” Political correctness in Europe, far more advanced and pervasive than in the United States, prevents police from even checking on, let alone acting upon, Islamic preachers, fundraisers, and terrorist recruiters—all in the name of freedom of speech, religion and expression. Muslim charities, mostly of Saudi origin, are out of bounds in the name of freedom of religion. Because these provide the main instrument for funding Al Qaeda-type cells, there is no legal way to control the flow of funds from European Muslims to terrorist groups and causes in the Islamic world.

There is little doubt that the planning of the two most important Al Qaeda operations—the assassination of Massoud and the September 11 attacks two days later—were carried out with the decisive support of British- based Muslims, especially Abu Qatada, and a Hamburg-based cell led by Atta.

The general training of Al Qaeda terrorist operatives in the West is of a superior level, concentrated in disciplines of direct application to terrorist operations —electronics/computers, math, biology, and aviation. That implies lengthy stays in Western countries and familiarity with the ways and languages of Europe or the United States. Most known Al Qaeda operatives—including those arrested in places as remote as Singapore and Malaysia—were trained in the West, usually in sciences. No known Islamic terrorist was trained in sociology, psychology, or political science, all disciplines seen as haram (impure) by most Muslim states.

All of these facts would suggest the need for greater transatlantic solidarity, especially on the legal questions where big gaps can be seen. Significant voices in France and the United Kingdom demand that their citizens in Guantanamo be tried under their own laws, laws that have no antiterrorism provisions of any importance and, most important, do not provide for capital punishment. But, whatever one’s opinion on capital punishment, as a prudential matter, is it wise to jail for life an Osama bin Laden and thus be a target for terrorist blackmail from his Islamic sympathizers for the duration of his life? For the Europeans to participate fully in a war against terrorism, they will have to recognize their laws, attitudes, and policies must also be changed so that terrorists, Muslim or otherwise, do not find their territories a safe haven.

Republished by permission from the E-Note issued by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) on April 12, 2002. The FPRI is located at 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684. For information, email .


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