Thursday, July 28, 2005

Intelligence Brief: Islamist Terrorism in Europe

Drafted By: Erich Marquardt, Federico Bordonaro

The wave of terrorism that has swept through London in recent weeks is causing much concern in European capitals. Beginning with the deadly July 7, 2005 terror attacks on London's transportation system, and ending with the July 21, 2005 attempted terror attacks on that same system, there is concern that extremist elements among the European Muslim community are attempting to further the interests of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. [See: "The Threat of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Revolutionary Movement"]

The July 2005 attacks in London came more than a year after the last major terror attack in Europe, the deadly March 2004 train bombings in Madrid that had the intention of altering the upcoming Spanish presidential elections -- a strategy that was successful.

While the attacks in London could very well be an isolated incident and not predictive of a future terrorism trend, there is growing concern throughout Europe since the July 7 attackers were raised in Great Britain and had British citizenship; this knowledge has caused other European governments to worry over their own potential "home-grown" Islamist terrorists. The coming months will answer the question as to whether what just occurred in London is the forefront of future conflict or whether it is another isolated incident of Islamic extremism against the interests of U.S. allies in the "war on terrorism."

The London Attacks

The July 2005 London attacks were claimed by Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, an Islamist militant group that was formed in 2001. Their first attributed attack occurred on March 9, 2004, when two suicide bombers detonated themselves in Istanbul, killing one person and injuring five others. Then, on May 11, 2004, the group claimed responsibility for the terror attack on Madrid's transportation system, where 191 people were killed and over 600 wounded when ten bombs were detonated on the train line. The brigades claimed that the attack was in response to Spain's military support of the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq.

The relatively unknown group appears to be decentralized and it is unclear what organizational capacity it retains. For instance, the organization claimed responsibility for the August 5, 2005 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, in addition to the power blackout in August 2003 that affected the northeast United States; both claims turned out to be false. Yet, because of some of the organization's past claims did bear fruit, the organization must be taken into account.

Threats Levied at Europe

After the July attacks in London, the brigades reiterated its threats to Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands; the aforementioned countries, except for the Netherlands which withdrew its troop contingents in June 2005, currently have troops in Iraq supporting U.S.-led operations there. For instance, on July 25, the organization reportedly warned that, "After London, it is Rome's turn." The threat, released on the Internet, says that if Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi does not withdraw Italian troops immediately, he would be responsible for Rome turning into a "graveyard."

But a complete Italian withdrawal from Iraq cannot realistically occur in August. Although before the July 7 London bombings Berlusconi hinted at the possibility of a gradual withdrawal to be initiated in Fall 2005, it is now clear that such a pull-out could become even more difficult to perform due to the recent wave of terrorist attacks. A complete withdrawal within the mid-August deadline would appear like a full retreat. The militants know this, and their Internet messages appear to be a form of psychological warfare aimed at destabilizing Washington's allies, making their citizens fearful of future attacks. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Italy"]

Different Interpretations

The new wave of terrorist attacks occurring in July 2005 is modifying the security perception in European countries. The two London attacks and the Sharm el-Sheikh bombing on July 22 -- which struck tourist facilities known for its vacationers from the West, and an important source of income for the Egyptian economy – already changed the previously widespread belief that al-Qaeda-affiliated militants are rarely able to carry out high-impact attacks in the West.

Henceforth, politicians and the populations in the E.U. now ask themselves whether the American and European anti-terrorist policy is bringing results. Those that support current U.S. strategy believe that the current wave of terrorist attacks is the result of radical Islamic ideology, hence denying any direct cause-effect relation between the Iraq war and the terrorist attacks against European countries aligned with Washington.

On the contrary, many other observers and a growing number of citizens now believe that taking part in U.S.-led operations in Iraq has led to a loss of national security and has endangered the plans for an enhanced cooperation between the European Union's members and Muslim governments. Italy, for instance, is developing a common policy with Libya, aimed at containing the mass immigration that passes through the North African state. Similar policies could be envisaged to tackle terror cells. Whereas some politicians believe the Iraq war is making these relationships more difficult, others maintain that the U.S. and Western grip of the Middle East will force Arab governments to cooperate more seriously.

The Bottom Line

Despite concern over appearing to give in to the demands of terrorists, expect European countries to scale back their efforts in Iraq. Such an action would not be a direct result of the recent attacks in London, but more due to the failure of the U.S.-led coalition to quell the ongoing insurgency. Washington, too, has been considering withdrawal strategies in order to limit its involvement in Iraq. Indeed, General George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters on July 27 that a substantial withdrawal of U.S. forces could begin in Spring 2006. [See: "U.S. Faces Pressure to Pull Troops from Iraq"]

An important date to watch will be August 15, which is the current demand by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades for the withdrawal of Italian and Danish troops. If another European country involved in ongoing U.S.-led operations in Iraq suffers a terrorist attack within a short period of time after the deadline, it will accelerate public debate in European capitals as to whether supporting U.S. operations in Muslim countries is worth the fallout from Islamist groups.

Furthermore, an attack soon after the deadline will mean that either al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations have reorganized, or that U.S. actions in the Middle East have led more Muslims down the path of al-Qaeda's confrontational ideology. Considering that those responsible for the recent attacks in London were raised in Britain and not recent immigrants, the latter scenario appears to be a growing possibility.



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