Given the scale of the extremist danger, it is remarkable that many European states have not responded more forcefully to militant recruitment and organization. Tolerance has been particularly marked in Great Britain, which has become a global center of Islamist activism. Not until the Finsbury Park mosque operated for some years as a reasonable facsimile of an Afghan jihadi training camp did British police finally intervene.
Britain has also been extremely hospitable to leading activists who are wanted in their home countries on very serious charges. Some of the perpetrators of the 1995 GIA campaign in France found refuge here, to the horror of French law enforcement. It was in these years that the British capital acquired its unsavory reputation of London-istan. Abu Qatada was twice convicted in Jordan on terrorist charges, and many other British Islamist leaders stand high on the most-wanted lists of countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and the Gulf states. Yemen has a long-standing request to extradite Abu Hamza on charges of plotting terrorism in that country. Omar Bakri is a British resident only because he claimed asylum there in the mid-1980s while in flight from the Saudi Arabian police. One Islamist militant wanted in the attempted assassination of a former Egyptian prime minister lived freely in Britain for several years despite repeated Egyptian demands to have him delivered for trial. In the words of Egyptian Islamist, Yasser Sirri, "The whole Arab world was dangerous for me. I went to London." Britain was agonizingly slow in responding to Russian threats to extradite Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev on charges of armed rebellion, murder, and kidnapping. In every case, suspects are allowed to stay in Britain because they allege that their home countries are persecuting them only on religious or political grounds. Other countries also accommodate some remarkable guests. Belgium played host for several years to Abdelkader Hakimi, who was sentenced to death in absentia in Morocco for attempting to overthrow the monarchy and who is believed to be the European head of the GICM.43
Beyond supposing a national death-wish, many critics have been baffled by European, and specifically British, tolerance of Islamist dissidence. Partly, it grows from long traditions of ignoring radical exiles, provided that their activities do not directly challenge British interests. There is also a real concern about principles of due process and an awareness that militants wanted in foreign countries might well have been convicted on trumped-up charges, backed up by the pervasive use of torture. Neither Egyptian, Moroccan, nor Saudi police are celebrated for their respect for suspects' rights. European justice systems, in contrast, have tried to preserve due process rights even in some outrageous cases. Members of the Dutch Hofstad Group had for years evaded prison through a series of infuriating technicalities. Though one member had indeed plotted bombings in the Netherlands, he was acquitted on the grounds that his use of the wrong fertilizer meant that the devices were unlikely actually to work as designed.
Also, tolerance of foreign extremists might represent a sound intelligence strategy. When a mosque like Finsbury Park operates openly, it is easy for authorities to keep track of the people who frequent it, to keep them under surveillance, and to record what is said and written in that radical ambience. Police can easily identify extremist leaders, chart their networks and connections, and persuade some to become informants. When police arrested the suspects in the airliner plots in August 2006, that action represented the culmination of over a year of observation and infiltration: the worst thing that could have happened in this process would have been any attempt to silence the extremists, to restrict their movements and organizing efforts, or to purge the radical mosques. According to rumors and media reports in 2002, even Abu Qatada may have served as a double agent for British intelligence. In contrast, suppressing overt centers of radicalism drives such activity underground, where its activities are harder to track. Better they should plot in plain sight.
Ultra-liberalism actually involves a degree of self-interest. Even very radical groups have usually respected the covenant of security, under which Muslims should refrain from attacking a nation that has protected them or treated them hospitably, especially when they are forced into exile. In the 1970s, Europe quelled the wave of Middle Eastern violence on its territory by negotiating a series of pacts with the radicals, under which militants could move freely, while not attacking European targets. Even Mullah Krekar, the Norwegian-based Islamist leader, refuses to support armed actions in Europe itself, though "Muslims who go to Afghanistan and Iraq to fight, that is an honor." In an interview published shortly before the 2005 London attacks, Muhajiroun militant Hassan Butt acknowledged that "a bomb in London would be strategically damaging to Muslims here. Immigration is lax in Britain. . . . London has more radical Muslims than anywhere in the Muslim world. A bomb would jeopardize everyone's position. There has to be a place we can come."44
Liberal asylum laws also reflect difficult judgments about the nature of political dissidents and the governments against whom they are rebelling, and it is not obvious which exiles or asylum seekers pose a truly dangerous threat to European states. Just as European Muslims come in many nationalities and religious styles, so do its Islamist militants, who might be Sunni or Shi'ite, pro-Iran or pro-Qaeda. Algerian Muslims naturally take a special interest in conflicts in their homeland and might be drawn into activities connected with the GIA or the Salafists; the completely separate struggles in Kashmir or Afghanistan prove critical in radicalizing Pakistanis. And while Europe is home to many veterans of international Islamist campaigns—in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kashmir, Algeria, or Chechnya—by no means all necessarily want or plan to bring the war home, to undertake their future fighting in the streets of European cities. Since 2003, Islamist groups like the Algerian GSPC and Moroccan GICM have been involved in recruiting jihad fighters to travel to Iraq. That activity poses a real threat to Europe's allies, but not directly to European nations themselves.45
Governments often wink at revolutionary activities that are directed against overseas regimes. For an American parallel, we might think of the close relationship between Irish-American communities and the IRA, which to varying degrees has persisted for close to a century. Technically, supporting the IRA violates several U.S. neutrality laws, but the movement long drew its primary funding and material support from American donors, usually channeled through thinly disguised front groups and charities. In this instance too, the militant group was targeting a close ally of the host nation.
European governments must decide how far to wink at such use of their territory for overseas campaigns that do not directly affect them, especially when such activity provides a safety valve for militant sentiment that might otherwise be directed in the homeland. This issue arises in acute form over the struggle in Israel/Palestine. In the United
States, a group pledged to support armed Palestinian resistance against the state of Israel would be regarded as extremist and probably as proterrorist, though without too precise a definition of what separates terrorism from legitimate guerrilla warfare. Most European countries, however, would have greater tolerance for anti-Israel militants, especially when pro-Palestinian sentiment runs so high among local Muslim populations. Extremism is a relative concept. At the same time, radical exiles might prove useful intelligence assets, and today's refugee might someday become the leader of a government, who would be grateful for aid received in time of need. Assisting a Chechen guerrilla on the run might offend today's Russian government, but it could win rich rewards for a European government hoping to establish relations with a future Chechen state.
European tolerance of Islamism is based on much more than self-deluding liberalism. Even so, the violence of 2004-2005 created a much chillier environment for the militants and raised serious questions about Hassan Butt's belief that "there has to be a place we can come." If Islamists must indeed be granted a safe haven somewhere on the planet—which is dubious—European legislators and media have increasingly been asking why this should be found on their soil. Some of the most liberal European states have now adopted much harder-line policies toward militants, with a much greater use of deportation, even to repressive countries like Egypt. Italy has deported radical imams and others who reputedly incited terrorism, sending suspects to Senegal, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Spain, meanwhile, now keeps a close watch on the views expressed in sermons in mosques. Matters have changed decisively.46
From long experience, European states know that while terrorist activities can be kept to a minimum, they can never be eliminated altogether. However, even a full-scale terrorist campaign can be fought and overcome. In the 1970s, several west European nations faced a terrorist situation quite comparable to the worst scenarios imagined today in the Islamist context. Apart from the Palestinian and Middle Eastern groups, thousands of active militants fought for the domestic extreme left or the extreme right, and for ethnic nationalist causes. Groups were well armed, and some at least relied on bases and arms supplies in the former Eastern bloc. In some nations, especially Italy, terrorism came close to provoking outright civil war. A horror like the Bologna train bombing of 1980 killed more people than the London subway attacks, while the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974 represented the mega-terror of their day. And yet the terrorists were comprehensively defeated, and governments did not destroy democratic values in the process, or move indiscriminately against the communities among whom the terrorists found sympathy and refuge. If terrorists have become more lethal since that time, then counterter-rorist agencies have also acquired far more sophisticated tactics and technologies. The authorities would assuredly win a renewed war, though many innocent people would be killed or maimed in the process.
Obviously, preventing a widespread resort to armed action is critically important. Europe today possesses significant networks of deeply disaffected activists, who at least potentially could reach out to the wider constituency of young Muslims. To some extent, responding to violence and terrorism is a matter of familiar political solutions, of intelligence, diplomacy, and counterinsurgency. Diplomatic means would also contribute to resolving that threat—for instance by resolving crises in Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, or Iran, But any long-term solution must come within European nations themselves, by reducing tensions between ethnic communities and Europe's mainstream societies. This means removing festering grievances that potentially drive people to militancy, but it also demands serious thought about the best means of integrating newer ethnic groups into European nations, of accommodating religious needs and interests that until very recently would have seemed very strange to European policy makers. And these solutions might demand policies that depart significantly from the political assumptions of late twentieth-century European societies.
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