European Views on the First 100 Days

Posted: May 8, 2009 in HSToday
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This is a slightly older piece that I actually missed when it first ran, which I suppose is quite embarrassing. It was originally meant to run in the monthly magazine I write for Homeland Security today (, but in the end it got shunted to the website. It is in essence a counter-terrorism perspective from Europe on Obama’s first 100 days. Some of the information could do with a little updating, but frankly the things I would say probably appear in other things that I have written (or have coming up soon). I would be very grateful for any other thoughts on this one – especially from those who think I have left anything off.
European Views on the First 100 Days

by Raffaello Pantucci
Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Europeans view Obama’s change initiatives on counter-terror front with hopefulness, and caveats.

Prior to his election, European expectations of Barack Obama’s presidency were at almost stratospheric levels. Across the continent, European leaders and publics salivated in anticipation of the new president – and nowhere was this more true than in the United Kingdom, where celebrations of the Obama victory resonated on all sides of the political aisle.

Nonetheless, while his first moves appear to be positive, it remains unclear what is going to change in the war against Islamist terrorism that so firmly binds Britain’s fate with America’s.

The terrorist threat in the United Kingdom remains high. But there are contrasting views regarding its level of intensity. According to political sources, it rests somewhere at the “severe end of severe,” as it was put to reporters in October 2008 by a senior Whitehall source. In British counterterrorism parlance, “severe” means that “an attack is highly likely” and is just below the top “critical” level, that “an attack is expected imminently” – meaning that British security officials are expecting an attack.

This rather alarming perspective was, however, tempered by comments provided in January this year when MI5 Director General Jonathan Evans gave a groundbreaking interview to the British press. Unlike in the United States, where intelligence agencies operate in a relatively open manner, the British services are notoriously close-mouthed, and Evans’ interview was only his second public comment since taking up his post in April 2007. The interview, he stated, was part of a conscious move by the Security Service to open up further to the public and to raise its profile amongst a population that it hopes will assist in countering the menace of homegrown terrorism.

According to Evans, “the strategic intent of the Al Qaeda core in Pakistan is to mount attacks in the UK, and their model is to use British nationals or residents to deliver attacks.” However, a string of successful prosecutions in the United Kingdom has diminished the group’s immediate capacity to carry out an attack. Terrorists, he said, were being forced to “keep their heads down,” and his service has seen less “late-stage” planning activity in the United Kingdom recently. He qualified these statements, however, saying that “there can’t be guarantees in the intelligence world” and prophetically that “it is quite likely that the next attack or attempted attack will be by people of whom we have heard or known a bit about.” All suggesting that, while the Al Qaeda threat may not be as alarmingly high as has been suggested, it has certainly not gone away.

The root of this problem is a highly complex set of issues ranging from the very local to an international level, but a major and undeniable driver is what is seen as the American-led “Global War on Terrorism.” While terror suspects in the United Kingdom may frequently deny their actions on the witness stand, an increasingly uniform trend is that they claim the devices they were planning to detonate were in fact part of a non-lethal theatrical act to highlight the plight of Muslims around the world. Discussions with Muslim community leaders and activists and close reading of both extremist and moderate Internet forums, as well as the press, all highlight that US actions around the world are seen as an attack on Islam by Britain’s Muslims, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay. Israeli actions in Gaza and real or perceived American support merely feed this us-against-them mentality. As one Muslim scholar told before the winter troubles erupted: “Palestine is the big issue.”

In this light, Barack Obama’s election represented an enormous opportunity to reframe the issue: He received an essentially blank check from European publics, including the United Kingdom’s. European leaders, aware of this, sought to capitalize on it and use the resulting maneuvering room to reach the open hand offered by the new president. In a way, this popularity has obliged European leaders to tackle issues they would like to avoid. Most prominently, they realized they must try to help close Guantanamo Bay, an institution that has become a symbol of the war on terror and oppression in the Muslim world.

At the time of this writing, it was unclear who was going to answer the call “to step forward” sent out by Portugal to its European Union (EU) partners to help with the “resettlement of detainees” from Guantanamo. Germany stood behind the proposal, and Spain’s foreign minister hinted at the possibility of taking some prisoners when Secretary Clinton visited in late February, but other European member states remained uncertain, fearful of a combination of political repercussions at home and possible security risks (or at least further burdens upon already taxed security services). To date, only Albania (not an EU member) and Sweden had accepted former Guantanamo prisoners who were not nationals.

The United Kingdom accepted an Ethiopian detainee who had lived previously in Britain, Binyam Mohammed, who was picked up in Pakistan before being sucked into the extraordinary rendition program and ending up in Guantanamo Bay. His release was the first move in this regard by Obama and was welcomed by many observers, though it opened up an awkward issue for the British government: the degree to which UK security officials may have been complicit in his torture while he was in custody. The most frustrating underlying issue for British security officials was the fact that any evidence of terrorist activity involving Mohammed is now inadmissible in court, something that might have been averted had he been not been extraordinarily rendered by US authorities to places where he was tortured.

This loss will be made up in the longer term, as Obama lives up to his promise of waging a more just war on terror. Certainly, his first three executive orders covering lawful interrogation, closing Guantanamo and reviewing detention policies were positives. But these all came with caveats, which, while not their focus, fed concerns that Obama would not provide as much of a change as was previously hoped.

For some extremists, of course, it really doesn’t matter what the incoming president does or who he is. In a video podcast reacting to the election and generally echoing Ayman Al Zawahiri’s controversial video, in which he derisively referred to the incoming American president as a “house negro,” former Al Muhajiroun spokesman Anjem Choudhary (and current leader of descendant group Islam4UK, which is the latest incarnation of the group established by banned extremist preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed) dismissed the election, saying “politics is saying one thing before the election and doing another afterwards.”

Choudhary is a known and implacable extremist whose views reflect at best a marginal constituency of British Muslims, but in his presentation he touched upon a theme that resonates more generally amongst Britain’s Muslim communities when he cited Obama’s previous comments on Pakistan, and that “if they [Pakistan] don’t agree with his policies, to use force. You can see, my dear Muslims and non-Muslims, that we are in for more of the same: more killing of innocent men, women and children in Muslim counties; more occupation of Muslim lands.”

While few take Choudhary seriously, for British Muslims the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and its support networks in Pakistan is felt more deeply than in terms of simply being an attack upon the Muslim “umma” (community). The majority of Britain’s Muslims are Pakistani (according to the last census in 2001, there are some 800,000, accounting for about 43 percent of the total Muslim population), and the overwhelming majority of this population traces its family history to the Mirpur part of Pakistan – which is adjacent to the troubled areas where Al Qaeda is apparently hiding and from where Kashmiri terror groups like Lashkar E Taiba (who were allegedly responsible for the Mumbai attacks) and Jaish E Mohammed (who were responsible for the attacks on the Indian parliament in late 2001) operate.

This does not mean, of course, that this entire population is a threat, but it does mean that for those who are radicalized in this community, it is likely to be relatively easier to reach out through a broader friend and family network to find active extremists. And this is reflected amongst the community of individuals who are arrested on terrorism charges in the United Kingdom, of whom the biggest portion is of Pakistani descent or extraction. On the other side of the coin, according to Prime Minister Gordon Brown (and echoed again in Jonathan Evans’ interview), fully “three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots investigated by the British authorities have links to Al Qaeda in Pakistan.”

For the Obama administration, the strong link between British militants, Al Qaeda and the war in Afghanistan should be a major concern, not only in terms of the visa free waiver that British citizens have to the United States, a problem that is already being addressed, but in terms of the fact that ongoing operations in Afghanistan (and the spill-over Predator strikes in Pakistan) may well be having an exacerbating effect on exactly the community that needs to be won over in the United Kingdom if this problem is to go away.

In discussions with community leaders and Muslim citizens, found that the civilian casualties sometimes incurred in these strikes were directly inflaming community anger. And even in the case of Rashid Rauf, it was pointed out that he had actually been cleared by a Pakistani court, and accusations against him remain hearsay, making his death by a US Predator drone awkward once again for British intelligence–it meant that an ally had carried out an extra-judicial killing of a national who was not officially convicted of any crime.

Obama repeatedly stated during his campaign that solving the problems in Afghanistan was going to be a priority, but cutting this Gordian knot is going to require deep care and attention. In a clear example of the difficulties raised, almost concurrent with his inauguration in Washington, a Predator strike in Pakistan killed some 15 to 20 people in Waziristan.

Looking further to the future, experts in the United Kingdom are growing increasingly concerned about trouble in Somalia and the community of angry young Somali youths living in the United Kingdom. These young men have often recently come over from Africa and remain traumatized by events they experienced. In the United Kingdom, they are brought up in families with absent fathers, with little to no education or prospects and, consequently, are hugely over-represented in prisons and amongst the delinquent fraternity.

As Mohammed Ali, a Somali community worker in Wandsworth, London, put it to me, these youths feel that “everyone is against them.” Like their Pakistani-British brethren, they feel the attacks by the US-supported “kaafir Ethiopian army” in Somalia are a personal affront, a sense the Al Shabab (The Youth) militant group in the country has sought to capitalize upon through videos released in English with footage of young, English sounding attackers carrying out operations. This is a problem US officials are already experiencing first hand, with at least one in a series of suicide bombings in October 2008 in northern Somalia being attributed to a naturalized US Somali citizen. In the United Kingdom, a recent investigation by the Channel 4 news network uncovered the possibility that a suicide bombing carried out in Baidoa in October 2007 may have been the action of a young Somali-Briton from west London. Furthermore, the July 21, 2005, copycat attempt to detonate a series of bombs on public transport in London was carried out by a network from East Africa, with two of the failed bombers of Somali origin. According to Mohammed Ali, these two were former drug dealers who had flipped from one extreme to the other.

However, thus far, there is no evidence of the same sort of structures with Somalis as with the British connection with Pakistan. As one journalist with experience of Somalia pointed out to me, “The country is a mess.” Substantial bribes are required to achieve the most basic tasks, leading to an environment not necessarily conducive to complex terrorist planning by foreigners.

The threat in the United Kingdom, however, is even more complex than these two examples fusing international and domestic terrorism. 2008 also saw the conviction of Bilal Abdullah, a British-born Iraqi doctor who in the summer of 2007, along with Indian-Muslim colleague Kafeel Ahmed, attempted to detonate two car bombs outside a busy London nightclub before driving a car laden with petrol and gas canisters into Glasgow international airport. Ahmed died from wounds incurred during this second attack, but Dr. Abdullah was finally brought to trial this year. Allusions were made about the possible connections to Iraq in this plot: The types of devices used echoed Baghdad’s worst, and Abdullah had visited Iraq from May to July 2006, when he allegedly may have established links with the insurgency. These have not been proven, however, and it certainly does not seem as though the men were directed by Al Qaeda in Iraq. Instead, it seems as though they may have had some contact, but were for the most part a self-starting and self-radicalizing cell who wanted to express their anger at Britain’s foreign policy in the Muslim world.

This brings us back to the deadly cycle of foreign policy impacting terrorism at home. In his swansong trip through London, former US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff spoke before a meeting of the openly neoconservative British think tank, the Henry Jackson Society. He highlighted the fact that, while “some consider the issue of radical Islamist terrorism as one of criminality, we in the United States have taken the position that we are in a war.” Later, during a question and answer session, he disagreed with the notion that “war on terror” was a misnomer, stating that it was not “inappropriate because terrorism is a concept.”

While many in the audience listening seemed to agree with Chertoff’s comments, this echo of the Manichean outlook presented by former President Bush is not one that resonates that widely in the United Kingdom. As former intelligence chief Sir Richard Mottram has put it, Al Qaeda has been “significantly aided” by “the way in which Western countries have pursued and presented their counterterrorist effort against what we have ourselves have chosen, for example, to designate as a ‘global’ threat.” Britons would more likely agree and look to comments Obama made to CNN that terrorism “is one of the severe threats that we face,” but “I don’t think it’s the only threat we face.”

None of this is to take into account the clear centrality of the war in Afghanistan — in both the rhetorical narrative and in practical terms — to Al Qaeda’s ongoing conflict against the West. Obama has made solving the troubles in Afghanistan and Pakistan a clear fulcrum of his foreign policy, and many of his opening approaches to Europe have been through the prism of getting greater support for operations from European forces. While most nations will push to send a few more troops, it is unlikely that the sorts of numbers Obama seeks will be forthcoming. This may be frustrating to the administration, but the truth is that European forces are being stretched to their limits, and anger from Washington is unlikely to change anything in this regard.

It remains to be seen how much will actually change with the new administration in Washington, but it is hard to discount the positive image that the new president cast during his election campaign. Measuring the impact of this projection of “soft power,” however, is impossible to calculate, and in the end Obama will be unable to pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan with any sudden speed or bring an abrupt and permanent peace to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

However, reframing the current narrative espoused by Al Qaeda may be the first step in the “generational struggle” to eradicate Islamist terrorism.

  1. […] even in the case of Rashid Rauf, it was pointed out that he had actually been cleared by a Pakistani court, and accusations against him remain hearsay, making his death by a US Predator drone awkward once again for British … […]

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