Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Europe has become a hiding place for terrorists

Mark Houser/Tribune-Review
By Mark Houser

Editors note: To find out what governments and courts are doing to stop the growing threat of Islamic terrorist groups in Europe, reporter Mark Houser visited Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Spain in March and April on a journalism fellowship from the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Today's stories are the first in a series of reports on what he discovered.
Europe, the cradle of Western Civilization, also is a hiding place for enemies plotting its ruin.

The most infamous, Mohammed Atta, e-mailed U.S. flight schools and devised the airliner hijackings that would kill nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, while living in an apartment in Hamburg, Germany. A Spanish court is now deciding if an al-Qaida cell in Madrid helped Atta's group with money and a safe house.

To a small but growing number of angry young men in Europe, Atta was a martyr in a holy war.

Some of them hope to be next.

Across the continent, police are racing to round up networks of militant Islamic terrorists before they can strike. Italy arrested nine North African men on Wednesday who were allegedly planning attacks. Those arrests were the latest in a crackdown that has put hundreds of suspects in Europe behind bars awaiting trial. Courts with a tradition of leniency increasingly have to weigh the rights of the accused against national security.

The train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people in March 2004 showed that radical Islamic fundamentalists -- jihadists -- also consider Europe their enemy.

America remains a prime target. In the apartment of one Madrid suspect still at large, Spanish police found detailed diagrams of Grand Central Station.

Another suspect had a map of Pittsburgh in his apartment. Investigators don't know why.

Europe has an estimated 23 million Muslims -- about 10 times as many as America -- mostly from the Middle East and North Africa. Some are recent immigrants; others were invited by the host governments in the 1960s to provide cheap labor and stayed.

Most are trying to make a life there, but a few yearn for a glorious death.

Al-Qaida wants to recruit jihadists with European passports to infiltrate America, said terrorism analyst Robert Leiken of the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C.

"They're familiar with Western societies. Many speak English. So they're a much bigger danger than a Middle Easterner trying to cross the Mexican border," Leiken said.

Leiken studied 373 suspected Muslim terrorists caught in North America or Western Europe from 1993 to 2004 and found more than a quarter had European citizenship.

A European passport holder can come to the United States without first getting a visa from an American consulate, bypassing a potentially crucial screening tool, he said.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff today begins his first official trip to Europe, where he will discuss sharing airline passenger data and strengthening law enforcement contacts.

Europe and the United States have to cooperate to counter the jihadist danger, said Gijs de Vries, counterterrorism coordinator for the European Union.

"We cannot fight terrorism unless we work together. That's the bottom line," de Vries said.

Once the fight reaches a courtroom, however, it is in the hands of only one nation's judges. Several high-profile terrorism trials in Europe are testing how well the justice system can handle the threat of violent conspiracies.

In the Spanish trial, which opened in April and is expected to last well into the summer, two dozen men are accused of involvement with an al-Qaida cell in Madrid. Three central figures are charged with helping the 9/11 plotters.

A British man pleaded guilty last month to planning a shoe bomb plot similar to Richard Reid's and got a 13-year sentence. More terrorism trials are under way in Italy, Germany and elsewhere.

Some cases have ended in acquittals that have embarrassed authorities and sparked public anger.

Dutch judges last month cleared Samir Azzouz of terrorism charges, even after he was found in possession of chemicals useful for making bombs, a silencer and gun cartridges, night vision goggles and a bulletproof vest, jihadist literature and videos, and maps of the Dutch parliament and other potential targets along with notes on their security.

"It's ridiculous," said Dutch railroad conductor Wytze Vos, 45, of the Azzouz trial. "He must go to prison for life. When you're planning such crimes, you don't deserve to be out on the streets. But that's Holland -- too weak."

A German court in Hamburg cleared one alleged co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks, while another man is being retried after his conviction was overturned. Eight of nine men charged in a plot to poison Londoners with ricin were acquitted or released last month.

Earlier this year Italian government ministers reacted furiously when a judge in Milan ruled that recruiting jihadists for Iraq is not terrorism but supporting a foreign guerrilla action, which is not a crime. Italy has 3,000 troops in Iraq.

"The struggle against terrorism is not to get a lot of terrorists convicted. It's to prevent bombings," said Bart Nieuwenhuizen, the Dutch prosecutor overseeing terrorism trials in his country.

After the bombings in Madrid, the European Union began pushing for better counterterrorism cooperation among its members' intelligence agencies, police and prosecutors. One major change was a new European arrest warrant intended to speed up extraditions.

The warrant is designed to avoid long delays, such as the one that has kept a suspect in the fatal 1995 Paris metro bombings in British custody for almost a decade despite persistent French efforts to extradite him.

In one of the first uses of the new warrant, last June Spanish authorities asked Britain to hand over a Moroccan they say made cryptic phone calls about 9/11 to an accused terror planner on trial in Madrid. The man, Farid Hilali, is still in London appealing the extradition.

De Vries said alleged terrorists have a right to due process.

"It is critical that in the fight to preserve the rule of law, we continue to use the instruments that are compatible with the rule of law," he said.

"Europe and the United States have never worked more closely in law enforcement than we have since September 11, 2001," U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said during a visit to Spain in March.

But the relationship still is undercut with tension.

Jorge Bento Silva, a counterterrorism administrator in the European Council's Directorate for Justice, Freedom and Security, criticized Washington for announcing last spring -- with almost no warning -- that all European visitors must have their faces and fingerprints electronically scanned at U.S. airports. Europe has no such requirement for visiting Americans.

Now the European Parliament is trying to scuttle a deal for Europe to share airline passenger data with U.S. border security.

"There is still the notion in Washington that ... 'We are fighting terrorism and you are either with us or you are against us. And if you are a European sissy and you don't want to cooperate in the war on terror, then screw you,'" Bento Silva said.

Besides America, de Vries stressed that Europe needs the help of moderate Muslims to isolate the "small, extremist murderous fringe."

"We are not engaged in a war of civilizations between Muslims and non-Muslims. That is what bin Laden is trying to make us believe," de Vries said.

As he spoke, the amplified voice of a man chanting in Arabic rose from the streets of downtown Brussels and floated through de Vries's open window.

Mark Houser can be reached at mhouser@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7995.
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