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26/11 Redux in Europe: Strategic Imperatives

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 21, 2010

    The ongoing global counter-terrorism operations have suddenly gained not only European but trans-Atlantic and global dimensions. It is not that these dimensions did not exist before but what triggered the current threat of a 26/11 redux in the cities of specific European countries are the following developments albeit not in strict sequence – the interrogation of a German national in Afghanistan and revelation of terrorist plots, evacuations of tourists from the Eiffel Tower in Paris, neutralisation of German militants by US drone attacks in the Af-Pak region, the arrests of some al Qaeda sympathisers in France, and lastly the statement of the French Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeux, about terrorist threats for France from Yemen. Most worrying for the security agencies, was the intercepted conversations of British terrorists based in the Af-Pak region about carrying out attacks on European soil as intercepted by the British GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters).

    George Friedman was however right in his assessment in Stratfor that, ‘European security forces are far better trained and prepared than their Indian counterparts, and such an attack would be unlikely to last for hours, much less days, in a European country. Still, armed assaults conducted by suicide operatives could be expected to cause many casualties and certainly create a dramatic disruption to economic and social life.’ The terror cloud is still hovering over European cities, some strategic imperatives emanating from this current terrorist threat in Europe need to be discussed briefly.

    Firstly, the current terrorist threat has reemphasised the importance of Europe, considered to be increasingly irrelevant in global security and strategic calculus. No more are its exotic locales, which attract global tourists, safe and secure, but terrorist attacks like those in London, Madrid, Glasgow, thwarted plots like in Heathrow and Amsterdam, and attacks on individuals are concerns not only for common Europeans but for foreign visitors as well. Not only there exist imminent threats of terrorist attacks and the hazard of interruptions in international traffic but strategic threats like radicalisation of younger generation, recruitment of terrorists and revival of terrorist sleeper cells with international ramifications. The Europol in its EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) of 2010 has already warned that ‘the EU is used as a platform to prepare and initiate terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world.’

    Secondly, even after the long engagement of many European nations in Afghanistan, the threat emanating from the region has not at all decreased. On the contrary, the Af-Pak region still offers an important training ground for terrorists from Europe. The TE-SAT report of 2010 for instance has noted the links between the security situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen and radical Islamist activists in the EU. The previous year, this report had observed that, “Afghanistan and Pakistan seem to have replaced Iraq as preferred destinations for volunteers wishing to engage in armed conflict.” Jörg Ziercke, the head of the German Federal Criminal Investigation Office (BKA) recently depicted the current German reality when he noted that at present there are 400 Islamists in Germany posing threat to internal security. There is concrete information about 70 such individuals who have participated in paramilitary training in those terror camps in the Af-Pak border region. Although Jonathan Evans, the Director General of the MI5, has lately acknowledged that the percentage of ‘priority plots’ in the UK originating from the Af-Pak region has decreased given the pressure mounted on the al Qaeda leadership there, the recent neutralisation of terrorists from Britain and Germany in the Af-Pak region are evident enough that the networks do exist and could pose terrorist threats anywhere in the globe. The strategy of the terrorist networks is to run the camps the Af-Pak region, and not to send the combatants to fight coalition forces in Afghanistan but send them back to their countries of origin because of their nationalities and familiarity with European places. This development shows that despite cooperation between Pakistani and European agencies the steady flow of militants to the Af-Pak region cannot be plugged successfully. Though miniscule, the steady stream of European militants to the Af-Pak region is evident enough that global terror networks still have a strong appeal and do attract the ‘disaffected’ youth in the European Muslim diaspora.

    This also leads to the deliberation of another important strategic imperative, i.e., the integration of younger Muslims in mainstream European societies. It is true that after 9/11 and especially after 7/7 most European countries and the European Commission have started grand integration initiatives and confidence-building measures to stem the imminent risk of radicalisation and bridge the gap between Muslim communities and host societies. However, these initiatives are often mired in controversy, sectarian politics and the involvement of controversial people. At present, these new initiatives have not yet started delivering the desired results. There is not only a gap between the mainstream and the immigrants but also a generation gap between the elders of the Muslim community and the younger generation who consider these integration programmes as elitist and their recommendations as cosmetic. Moreover, within the mainstream, there is a recognisable trend of considering Islam if not as an existential threat but at least as a challenge. Be it the bestseller of Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West or the recent controversial book Deutschland schafft sich ab1 by a leading German politician and banker, Thilo Sarrazin, it appears that not only the entire issue of immigration has been securitised and Islamicised but a section of mainstream European politicians has started accepting the Far-Right discourse on immigration and minorities. It is therefore not a mere coincidence that Christian Wulff, the Federal President of Germany, on the 20th anniversary of German unification, talked about the changing time and integration of Islam into the German identity: “Christianity is without a doubt part of German identity. Judaism is without a doubt part of German identity. Such is our Judaeo-Christian heritage. But Islam has now also become part of German identity.” But it is also true that given current challenges like the economic downturn and demographic decline, European societies are trying to get back to the basics and deliberating on issues like identity, dominant culture, nationhood and a ‘plausible’ failure of multiculturalism practised so far. However, the present time demands that given the existence of different minorities for obvious reasons in Europe and the steady arrival of more from various parts of the world, future national identity in Europe would be an amalgamated one. As identity building is also a strategic project, parameters therein and the paths have to be chosen delicately and every European nation would have its own national experience with its minorities.

    Finally, the strategic imperative of building a common EU counter-terrorism capability has also to be underscored. Against the backdrop of the current threat, intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation appears to be predominantly amongst the European national agencies. The role of the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator would be to deal with strategic intelligence rather than tactical and operational. The future EU intelligence capability might hence be to paint larger canvases on security. However the current challenge may be used as an opportunity for the EU’s own strategic options to provide more muscle to its counter-terrorism structure. The coming EU-India summit may have a focus on counter-terrorism cooperation and to mark specific areas where both the partners can counter this threat strategically.

    • 1. Taking the liberty, the title can be provocatively translated as, ‘Germany: On the brink of extinction?’

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