Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 18

The European Response to September 11

By Sebastian Gorka

The ramifications of the 9/11 attacks and the lessons learned have been appreciated differently in various parts of the world. Most striking, perhaps, is the apparent difference in response between Europe and the United States. But how different is the continental approach? Can we really speak of a unified European response?

Crumbling Transatlantic Link?

Much has been made of the apparent fact that in its responses to the horrific attacks, the United States has demonstrated a propensity not only to a Manichean view of the world – divided among simply the good and the bad – but also a renewed unilateralism, which favors force over political or diplomatic tools. Such a shift has been said to exacerbate tension between Washington and various capitals in Europe. Whilst in many instances such a categorization of U.S. policies may indeed be valid, in fact a judicious examination of foreign policy and defense initiatives under the previous two Democrat administrations results in a more nuanced appreciation of the current U.S. stance. It should not be forgotten that prior to 9/11, the Clinton White House was often prepared to use force unilaterally, in theaters such as Somalia, Afghanistan and the Sudan – especially in response to terrorism. Likewise it was prepared more than once to commit sizeable defense assets to prolonged military operations in other parts of the world without a specific UN mandate (viz. Bosnia and Kosovo).

How can we therefore explain the growing number of voices that speak of irrevocable damage down to European-US relations caused by the radical shift in White House policies? How do commentators such as Robert Kagan find themselves in a position whereby their books on the seminal difference between the two partners and their approaches to global affairs become best-sellers? It is important here to look more closely at what in fact Europe has done sine 9/11.

Operational Realities versus Political Transience

With the exception of the Madrid bombings this March, al-Qaeda instigated mass-casualty terrorism has yet to make its presence felt throughout Europe. As a result, the general sense of vulnerability amongst members of the public can be said to be quite low. Nevertheless, if we look at the history preceding the execution of the 9/11 hijackings and also the numerous subsequent arrests made all across Europe, a distinctly different picture emerges.

We now know, predominantly as a result of effective cooperation between the FBI and the police and security services of Germany, that Europe played an important part in the staging and preparation of the 9/11 attacks. In fact, there is evidence that the Madrid train bombing was logistically underpinned by remnants of the support base used by Mohamed Atta in Hamburg, prior to his leaving for the U.S. Richard Reid, the infamous shoebomber, was in fact a UK national who had converted to the Islamic faith. More significantly, in very successful (often international) operations conducted in the last two years across Europe, numerous terrorists and cells have been interdicted in countries such as Italy, France, Germany and the UK. More than once they have been found to be in possession of materials destined for use in a chemically-enhanced, toxic attack.

Those arrested since September 11th have often been legally resident immigrants. But in France, for example, non-Arab, previously non-Muslim French nationals have also been detained, having similar Islamic conversion stories to that of Richard Reid. Indeed, wide use is also made of fake or re-engineered EU passports. During a number of arrests on the continent, no less that 28 false passports were retrieved. The unitary Schengen frontier around the continental members of the EU obviously makes EU-nation-state issued travel documents all the more appealing, given the freedom of movement guaranteed to the holder once he has crossed the Schengen border.

Questioning of apprehended suspects has revealed that once inside an EU member state, the early Arab Service Bureau system as set-up by Osama bin Laden, is able to continue to function on the continent and also in the UK. Along with remaining bureaus, certain mosques have become the recruiting and meeting place for lower level operatives, especially those associated with the more radical and charismatic imams. Overlapping this network is a string of charitable organizations, often linked to Islamist philanthropists resident in Saudi Arabia and several schools which, if not overtly Islamist, are linked via board members, or in other ways, to the previous networks.

As a result of the numerous arrests, subsequent trials and information gathered, it is fair to state that operationally, Europe has indeed taken its responsibilities seriously. Law enforcement officials agree in their analysis that al-Qaeda represents a significant threat not only to the U.S. but also to the continent. But the threat assessment is not universally appreciated. As one of Europe’s leading al-Qaeda experts from the German Foreign Intelligence Service (BND) indicated to the author, there is a distinct gulf between the reality on the ground perceived by the agencies and the stance evinced by the political leaders of many nations, Germany included. Although this may be hard to understand, there does exist a plausible explanation for the disjunct.

Selective Targeting

Despite declaring for well over a decade now that the whole of the West is heretical and anathema to the Muslim value system and that it must therefore be destroyed, Osama bin Laden has been less than broad-brushed in his targeting. Although all Western nations are seen as equally debauched and detestable, his organization has concentrated almost exclusively on attacking but one country of this “civilization”: the United States. From the first WTC bombing, through the African embassy attacks, the USS Cole and 9/11 itself, al-Qaeda has been less than catholic in its choice of “Western” targets. Subsequently, whilst operational officers are fully aware of the extent of penetration of the European Union and the fact that it may be only a matter of time until they too are attacked, politically this is a difficult reality for EU elites to broach, let alone discuss openly.

Many in the U.S. government expected this to change after Madrid. It was felt that the major nations of the EU would finally appreciate the full importance of the Global War on Terrorism (WOT) and support it more fully. The results of the attacks were, however, quite the opposite of what was expected.

The Madrid bombing resulted in a more dove-ish Spanish stance because of the incompetence of the then administration and the surprise results of the elections held one week later. Once it was clear that it was al-Qaeda and not ETA that was responsible for the attacks, as had been stated almost immediately by the then Minister for the Interior, the government was seen as wholly incompetent and worthy of punishment. The expected election results were therefore reversed and the incumbents replaced. Since the public had “voted with their feet” and since the Anzar government has been one of the WOT’s strongest supporters, the new administration, in a show of appreciation, distanced itself from the previous hawkish, pro-WOT stance. It is unlikely that the same would happen if a similar attack were to occur in another EU state that was not on the cusp of an election and where the government did not make the mistake of apportioning blame incorrectly.

The difference, therefore between U.S. and European understandings of the 9/11 attacks and their ramifications are not are large as they may seem, especially if one is able to separate the political from the practical.