Terrorists shift focus to Europe, experts say

Posted in Terrorism | 06-Apr-04 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

MADRID - Suspicions hardened Monday that Europe has become the main target of Islamist terrorists in the Western world as a letter signed by Al Qaeda's European branch promised to turn Spain into "an inferno" and French special forces rounded up more than a dozen suspected members of a group with ties to the network.

"Europe is now clearly in the spotlight of terrorism," said Daniel Keohane, a security and defense expert at the Center for European Reform in London who says it is highly probable that Al Qaeda was behind the Madrid bombing. "It is the greatest terrorist threat the Continent has ever faced."

After a weekend in which at least four suspected authors of the Spanish train bombings blew themselves up in a southern suburb of Madrid, the Spanish daily ABC published a handwritten letter Monday that the newspaper said it had received by fax over the weekend from the same group that claimed responsibility last month for the March 11 attacks.

The document, which was written in Arabic and taken seriously by government specialists examining its authenticity, threatened further attacks in Spain unless the country ceased to support the United States and pulled its soldiers out of Iraq and Afghanistan by April 4. It was signed by Abu Dujana al-Afgani, who called himself a member of "Al Qaeda in Europe."

Meanwhile, French counterterrorism police organized a series of dawn raids in multiethnic suburbs around Paris, detaining 13 people with suspected links to the militant Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. (Page 3)

The Moroccan group, which operates in several European countries, is believed to have orchestrated the suicide bombings in Casablanca last May, killing at least 33 people and the 12 bombers, and has been identified as the focus of the investigation into the March 11 attacks. It is also thought to have ties to Al Qaeda.

In Europe, no recent week has passed without what appeared to be a narrowly missed terrorist attack or the discovery of a cell of potential terrorists.

Last Tuesday, 700 British police officers swept through London and parts of Southeast England, arresting eight men of Pakistani origin suspected of preparing a terrorist attack. On Thursday, four Western European countries cooperated with Turkey to round up more than 50 suspects of a far-left terrorist group. On Friday, the Spanish police defused a partly assembled bomb on the busy high-speed train link between Madrid and Seville.

If the train bombings in Madrid were the first large-scale attack by terrorists believed to be linked to Al Qaeda on European soil, the explosion on Saturday that killed at least four of the group's authors and one police officer to chants of Arabic verses created another eerie precedent: jihad and suicide bombs have arrived in Europe and are likely to stay, security analysts say.

While the United States remains the prime target of militant Islamist groups, Europe's relatively greater vulnerability has made it the focus of attacks, Keohane said. Its disparate security and intelligence services have fought a variety of largely individual terrorist threats for decades, from the Irish Republican Army in Britain to the Red Army Brigades in Italy and Basque terrorists in Spain. But Keohane said they were not prepared for global terrorism as America is two and a half years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The second weak spot is geographic. Through Turkey, Europe has land links to the Middle East and Caucasus regions, which have spawned much of the Muslim fundamentalism of recent years. Spain is vulnerable, too, because only the narrow Straits of Gibraltar separate it from Morocco and neighboring North African countries.

In addition, Europeans rely much more on public transport and the rails than Americans.

As the Spanish police detained two more suspects in the Madrid bombings Monday and forensic experts worked to establish whether a fifth terrorist committed suicide Saturday, security forces remained on high alert.

Spain's 106,000 national police and home guard officers were reinforced nationwide with army contingents and municipal police forces to secure subway stops, train stations and other public buildings with a lot of human traffic, according to Ricardo Ibáñez, an Interior Ministry spokesman.

The government gives "a certain credibility" to the authenticity of the letter sent to ABC on Saturday, though its threat was more questionable, Ibáñez said.

"We have to be vigilant, but we don't see the need for panic," he said. The letter said European Al Qaeda operatives had proved their force on March 11 and on Friday, when the bomb was discovered on the Madrid-Seville tracks. The letter declared a truce with Spain to be over unless Spanish soldiers were withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan immediately.

"If these demands are not met, we will declare war on you and convert your country into an inferno," the letter read. "Your blood will flow like rivers."

Experts say the real challenge for European governments is to join forces. The only way to defeat global terrorist networks of the Al Qaeda kind is to improve infiltration of Islamic militant networks and to join forces on intelligence across Europe, Keohane said.

That's no easy task, Ibáñez said.

"People and terrorists move freely across borders in Europe," he said. "Police and justice officials do not. What we really need is to tear down that last frontier in Europe and unify our information and policing services."