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One Europe, Many Counterterrorism Policies

Prepared by: Julia Choe
August 6, 2007


There is little question the United States remains a prime target for terrorists, but since President Bush declared a “war on terror” in 2001, Europe has in some ways proven a more active theater in that struggle. An April 2007 Europol report (PDF) counts 706 terror-related arrests inside the European Union in 2006 alone. These numbers do not include Britain, which claims to be investigating some 1,600 terror suspects, though it is reluctant to divulge details. Yet the wider European Union appears to recognize that a more coordinated approach may be necessary, particularly in light of the latest attacks in Britain.

While nothing like the 9/11 attacks have occurred on European soil, its cities and citizens have been targeted at least as often. TIME points out that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) central role in Afghanistan has “raised the incentive” for terrorists to strike at Germany, France, and Britain, and Claude Moniquet of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center says terrorists are trying to open a “new jihad” (Deutsche-Welle) in Europe. Britain’s support for the Iraq war makes it a target, just as it put Spain and Italy in the crosshairs while their troops made up significant contingents in Iraq. In early July, Spain concluded the trial of twenty-eight suspects implicated in the 2004 Madrid bombings (AP). Italy recently arrested three people suspected of operating a terrorist training school.

Perhaps because of their longer history with terrorism, Europeans seem reluctant to buy into Bush's “war” analogy, relying more on policework and intelligence (CSMonitor) and less on military operations in their counterterrorism approach. This has hampered some transatlantic cooperation—for instance, in the sharing of data between immigrations and customs officials. The European Union has been highly critical of some U.S. decisions, most notably, the detention of suspects at Guantanamo Bay Cuba, and the use of secret CIA prisons to interrogate high-level suspects.

Meanwhile, EU officials are careful to avoid using potentially controversial rhetoric. The European Union has created guidelines of offensive terminology (Daily Telegraph) that might alienate European Muslims. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a concerted effort to refer to the attempted attacks in London and Glasgow as criminal acts (NYT Magazine), rather than acts of war. Despite this, the Stategic Study Group, a Spanish think tank, suggests current security efforts remain heavy-handed, with Muslims unduly singled out for arrest. Europe’s more tentative views have made attempts to increase security measures controversial. Germany, in particular, has experienced internal divides over terrorism defense. After Wolfgang Schäuble, its top security official, called for detaining potential terrorists and sanctioning the killing of terrorists abroad, a “rancorous debate” (IHT) emerged over individual rights.

The strongest criticism against European efforts concerns lack of cohesion among EU member states. Washington Institute scholar Michael Jacobson argues in a Podcast that cooperation is crucial because terrorist groups based in several countries can move freely through European borders. Yet domestic intelligence agencies are still hesitant to share information with their EU counterparts. An example of this reluctance is the European Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism, which entered into force on June 1 with ratification from only seven out of thirty-nine countries. Future attacks, however, may clear some hurdles to cooperation. In the wake of the UK bombings, leaders such as Gordon Brown (Guardian) and EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini (BBC) have called for greater sharing of information on terror suspects in Europe.  

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