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The Enemies in Their Midst

Europe Confronts Suspected Terrorists Home-Grown and Inspired Abroad

September 05, 2006|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The evolution of terrorism in Europe in the five years since the Sept. 11 attacks can be told as a tale of two threats.

The first spread consternation worldwide when it was revealed in London last month. The alleged plot to blow up transatlantic airliners in midair raised again the specter of Britain's "home-grown" problem: militants with British passports and the accompanying resources and Western ways, as well as links to lethal networks in Pakistan.

The second threat unfolded more quietly in Paris. The suspects arrested beginning last year were largely French, but their inspiration came from a North African network that had allied itself with groups in Iraq to forge a strategy for jihad beyond the war zone. The new target: Europe.

In the years since a group of Arab university students hatched a cell in Hamburg, Germany, that changed the world, Europe remains the front line for a post-Sept. 11 generation of extremists. Major attacks struck transport systems in Madrid and London. Amsterdam suffered a high-profile murder. Vast Muslim immigrant communities, primarily Pakistani here and North African on the European mainland, became a prime recruitment pool, with a staging area within striking distance of the United States.

The cases in London and Paris had elements typical of the fast-changing landscape of extremism: Big plans for massacres in the heart of the West. Ambiguity about the imminence of attacks and the nature of networks. And a dangerous nexus of battle-hardened foreign groups with militants born or bred in Europe.

In the years when Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden oversaw a multiethnic complex of training camps, the disparate networks intertwined in Afghanistan. Today, British extremists find inspiration and expertise in Pakistan, the suspected hide-out of the remnants of Al Qaeda, European anti-terrorism chiefs say. Extremists elsewhere in Europe gravitate toward hotbeds in North Africa and Iraq.

Open borders, tolerant laws and social alienation combine to create a space for radical activity in Europe that does not exist in the U.S. Muslim community or even in some Muslim countries. The rise of the enemy within makes European leaders even more uncomfortable with the American-coined phrase "war on terror."

"We work very well with the United States in counter-terrorism," said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's top anti-terrorism judge. "They are our closest partners. The U.S. approach in one way is fundamentally different than the European approach. The U.S. method, though there has been progress, is still based very much on a military concept of the threat.

"In Afghanistan, where French and American troops fight side by side, that's appropriate. But how can military means do the job when the enemy is not yet identified, well integrated into the social fabric and plotting behind your back?"

With an anti-terrorism apparatus based on aggressive domestic spying and extensive judicial power, Bruguiere and other French security chiefs lead a regional alliance trying to overcome differences in law enforcement cultures. It benefits from partnerships with nations such as Algeria and Morocco.

Despite criticism in Europe of the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and secret U.S. "renditions" of foreign suspects, European police acknowledge that they work closely with North African security services whose methods can be brutal but effective.

So the menace should not be overstated: Most European extremist cells are dismantled well before the attack stage. Moreover, the killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, by the U.S. military this year hurt nascent efforts to build an anti-Western federation spanning Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, said Stefano Dambruoso, an Italian former anti-terrorism prosecutor.

But hundreds, if not thousands, of "graduates" of the Afghan camps and jihadi combat theaters are potential new bosses. And Dambruoso, now a judicial attache to international organizations, worries about the speed with which threats transform. He cited the recent case in which Lebanese suspects in Germany allegedly planted suitcase bombs on trains, an attempt seemingly inspired by Al Qaeda ideology and the recent Israel-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon.

"There is an extremely fast evolution of things, and you can't underestimate the impact in Europe of things happening outside Europe," Dambruoso said. "A lot of people aspire to replace Al Qaeda. There are new leaders we don't know about who seem always more ambitious. You have lots of guys who went to Iraq who were trained concretely. Before that they never had an opportunity to fight; now they are back in Europe and they know how to operate."

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