The sentencing this week of four terrorists in Germany underscores the relative success that police and courts in Europe are having in prosecuting the war on terrorism. By comparison, the record in the U.S. is less impressive: one high-profile conviction — shoe bomber Richard Reid — and a scattering of arrests involving mostly lower-level suspects. And the trial in the U.S. of Zacarias Moussaoui — an alleged co-conspirator in the 11 September 2001 attacks — appears to be on hold.
Prague, 13 March 2003 (RFE/RL) — This week’s sentencing in Germany of four Algerian terrorists for planning to bomb a Christmas market in France underscores an irony in the war against terrorism.
Although the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks were committed in the United States, the most visible results to date in the war on terrorism inspired by those attacks have come in Europe — not America.
The four men were convicted on 11 March in Frankfurt on charges of conspiring to bomb a Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg on New Year’s Eve 2001. The men received prison sentences ranging from 10 to 12 years.
The sentencing came just days after investigators in Spain said they had dismantled an Al-Qaeda money-laundering operation in the cities of Valencia and Logrono. The suspects allegedly helped to fund a network responsible for last April’s synagogue bombing in Tunisia that killed 21 people.
Three weeks ago, a court in the German city of Hamburg convicted Moroccan national Mounir el-Motassadeq of 3,066 counts of murder for his role in helping to finance the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. That conviction — the first of a suspect directly linked to the events of 11 September — was widely viewed as a milestone in the war on terrorism.
By comparison, the U.S. record to date on apprehending and trying suspected terrorists is less impressive. The most significant conviction came in January, when U.K.-born Islamic radical Richard Reid was sentenced to life in prison for trying to blow up an airliner with a bomb hidden inside his shoe. But while Reid had personal links to Al-Qaeda operatives, he is not considered to have been a major figure in the organization.
Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to try suspected Al-Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui have stalled. Moussaoui, accused of co-conspiring to carry out the terrorist attacks, was arrested shortly after 11 September. His trial has been postponed three times because of legal maneuvering by both the prosecution and the defense.
Paul Wilkinson, a terrorism expert at Britain’s St. Andrew’s College, says Europe’s relative success is due at least in part to its history. Europe, he says, has been fighting terrorists on its soil much longer than the U.S.: “The major European countries — excluding the smaller countries like Luxembourg — have a long experience of terrorism being conducted within their borders, which is different, of course, from the United States, where it’s a relatively recent problem that has underlined a vulnerability that Americans didn’t previously think they had.”
And in Europe — unlike in the U.S. — Wilkinson says there are well-established domestic intelligence services that specialize in countering terrorism: “These agencies, because they have experience in counterterrorism intelligence, and quite a lot of experience of European cooperation across borders because of the European Union and close bilateral ties, they are well-equipped to do this kind of thing.”
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, by comparison, has traditionally been concerned with law enforcement rather than intelligence work. A new U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which hopes to oversee the development and sharing of domestic intelligence, is only now beginning its work.
The U.S. mainland has not been the target of a terrorist attack since the events of 11 September. A lack of high-level arrests in the U.S. may also simply be because terrorist leaders and networks are based in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, where terrorist attacks are more common.
Wilkinson points to another factor — the “quality” of the intelligence. He says in Europe the emphasis has been on gathering what he calls “human intelligence” — in other words, pursuing direct contacts with members of terrorist organizations. The U.S. instead has tended to rely more on technical intelligence — using technology to spy or eavesdrop on terrorist groups.
“Human intelligence is priceless in this field because it gives you an understanding of the intentions and plans of a group, while technical intelligence may only occasionally give you clues and leaves huge blanks in your knowledge,” Wilkinson said. “Because, of course, sophisticated terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda are getting better and better at hiding their communications from any technical interception.”
Wilkinson concedes the U.S. is still far ahead of Europe in dealing with particular forms of terrorist threats, such as that posed by biological, chemical, and nuclear attacks.
Christopher Preble, the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a private research center in Washington, D.C., defends the U.S. record to date in the war on terrorism. He says European prosecutors may have won more convictions, but he says the pace of justice is slower in the U.S. and that the perception does not quite correspond to reality: “They [Europeans] have a very different legal system and presumably can expedite cases much faster than the United States can. Just witness the wrangling over the Moussaoui trial.”
Besides, Preble points out, U.S. intelligence agents, with outside help, have scored significant victories against Al-Qaeda outside of the U.S. He notes the killing of senior Al-Qaeda operative Ahmad Mohammed Atef in Afghanistan in late 2001 and the captures of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Abu Zubaydah, all in Pakistan. The latter three are believed to have been deeply involved in the 11 September attacks.
In addition, Qaed Salim Sunian al-Harethi, believed to be a senior Al-Qaeda figure in Yemen, was killed in November in Yemen by a U.S. missile strike, along with five other suspected Al-Qaeda operatives.
Experts agree that the war on terrorism is still in its early phase and will take years to prosecute.
Wilkinson says he is particularly heartened by events like the Hamburg sentencing of Motassadeq. The Moroccan student was convicted of supplying logistical and financial support to the 11 September hijackers after an exhaustive police effort. Wilkinson: “That is a particularly interesting example of the ability of a European intelligence police effort to collect the evidence, to produce overwhelming evidence for the court, despite a quite sophisticated effort on the part of his defense lawyers.”
He says this shows that “quiet, unglamorous, unspectacular” intelligence and criminal-justice work are extremely important weapons against terrorism.
(RFE/RL’s Washington correspondent Andrew F. Tully contributed to this feature.)
Copyright (c) 2003. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.