The New York Times, Dec. 8, 2002
By ELAINE SCIOLINO and DESMOND BUTLER
PARIS, Dec. 7 — Political leaders and police investigators across Europe have concluded that the threat of terrorism from Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups is more serious than they had earlier assumed and may take years to neutralize.
Recent recorded messages attributed to Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that cite Europe as a target have prompted politicians to put the continent on alert. Recent arrests in Europe, particularly in France and the Netherlands, have underscored the extent of the problem. Testimony at trials of suspected Qaeda members in the Netherlands and Germany has suggested the global reach of Mr. bin Laden’s terrorist organization.
The holiday season has contributed to the edginess. In France, the prime minister announced on Thursday that he was mobilizing “the entirety of state services” to combat potential attacks and the Interior Ministry said it would double the size of its antiterrorism unit to 800 soldiers and reinforce its police and undercover force.
Senior European officials dealing with terrorism say that recent investigations have uncovered surprisingly well-established networks of Muslim militants with potential to commit terrorist acts and affiliations that stretch across Europe to operatives in North America, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. But in the absence of hard intelligence pointing to a specific threat, the officials disagree sharply over the extent to which Europe is actually more vulnerable to terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. There are suspicions among counter-terrorism experts that politicians and law-enforcement investigators may be exaggerating the threat in order to appear vigilant in the eyes of the public and to cover themselves should an attack occur.
Jean-Louis Bruguière, France’s senior investigative judge dealing with terrorism, is among those who insist that Europe is at greater risk. “There is a probability of an attack in Europe in the coming months,” he said. “The threat is much wider than Al Qaeda. It is like a spreading cancer. There is no structure, absolutely none.”
Pedro Rubira, the Spanish High Court prosecutor dealing with terrorist cases, is similarly alarmed. “Arrests might shut down a cell, but it’s impossible to destroy it completely,” he said in an interview.
European investigators have said that Islamic terrorists are often hardly different from small-time racketeers turned radical, who get money from the sale of contraband and form into small, mobile units. But some terrorism experts say that portrayals of the threat in Europe are being shaped by politics.
“Historically, we French are in the camp of skeptics when it comes to terrorism,” said one senior French official. “On the one hand we have the same intelligence we’ve had for some time that something big may happen in the heart of Europe. On the other hand, we have a turn to the right in this country, and we don’t want to appear to be taking the threat less serious than President Bush or Tony Blair.”
Officials are concerned that Europe is increasingly vulnerable. For example, an October audio broadcast by Mr. Zawahiri on Al Jazeera, the satellite channel based in Qatar, specifically linked the threat to the April attack that killed German tourists outside a mosque in Tunisia and the suicide bomb in Karachi, Pakistan, that killed 11 French engineers.
“The young holy warriors have already sent messages to Germany and France,” he said. “However, if these doses are not enough, we are prepared with the help of God to increase the dosage.” That warning prompted officials throughout Europe to sound the alarm.
Prime Minister Blair urged Britain to steel itself in the face of new threats, warning that the war on terror does not come “without a price.”
On Friday, Germany’s interior minister, Otto Schily, said the threat of terrorism in Germany was as great now as it had ever been since the Sept. 11 attacks. He warned that plots against soft targets like tourist destinations were hard to anticipate. “We cannot protect every hotel,” he said. His comments contrasted with the statements of German officials after the Sept. 11 attacks that Germany and Europe as a whole served primarily as a sanctuary where terrorists could make use of relaxed asylum laws and generous welfare systems.
German investigators have concluded now that Germany itself is a target. Citing American intelligence, the Germans said there were six regional commanders around the world. They identified the coordinator for attacks on Europe as Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who is one of the most sought-after fugitives linked to Al Qaeda.
A senior French official, however, questioned how well-organized Al Qaeda is, saying, “I do not believe that Al Qaeda has the logistical power for this level of organization after being driven out of the camps in Afghanistan.”
Last year, German and other European officials criticized as meaningless and misleading the tendency of American authorities to issue repeated warnings of possible attacks. But in recent weeks, senior German and French officials have sounded similar alerts.
“The call to action by Al Qaeda’s leadership was a signal to the holy warriors and individual assailants worldwide to attack with or without Al Qaeda’s support,” said Hans-Josef Beth, head of the German Federal Intelligence Service’s international terrorism division.
In recent weeks, France has opened a special judicial inquiry to investigate connections between radicals in Europe, and particularly France, and Chechnya, the breakaway Russian region locked in a bitter war with Moscow.
The inquiry, the first of its kind since a 1995 examination of links between France and Afghanistan, gives Judge Bruguière and his colleagues the right to make arrests, interrogate suspects, tap phones and even indict people without evidence.
“If I think an arrest or a search is urgent, I can order it done immediately on my own authority,” he said. “I can decide whether to tap someone’s phone. This gives me an operational ability to react that doesn’t exist in other systems.”
The inquiry was opened, Mr. Bruguière said, because, “Chechnya could become the new Afghanistan. It could serve as a new laboratory for attacks as Afghanistan once did.”
The terrorism threat has high visibility in France. Last month, France hosted the first major European antiterrorist exercises to simulate radiological and chemical disasters. Last week, a front-page headline in the popular daily Le Parisien read, “Terrorist menace: How France protects itself.” Articles included a rundown of how security has been stepped up around Paris.
Even officials who have long denied the presence of Al Qaeda in their midst have begun to change their tune.
In the southern Dutch city of Eindhoven, for example, a small, inconspicuous place that does not have a particularly large Muslim population, there have been a series of arrests since early last year of Muslim men suspected of links to Al Qaeda. The most recent arrest came last month, when a 22-year-old Moroccan was held on charges that he was among several Eindhoven residents who had been recruited by Al Qaeda and had prepared “to be sent out to die in international jihad.” In December 2001, two young men from Eindhoven were killed by the Indian police in Kashmir. Indian authorities say they were preparing suicide attacks.
Eindhoven’s mayor, Rein Welschen, insisted there was no Qaeda cell in his town. But in an interview this week, he said, “It’s very hard to say.”
Trials under way in several European countries show the wide reach of the network. In the Dutch city of Rotterdam, four men are being tried in a plot to attack the American embassy in Paris. Evidence was presented to show that the men were trained in Afghanistan and that their plans extended across Europe’s porous borders.
The main suspect in the case is a 28-year-old French citizen who is accused of providing a fake passport for the Tunisian thought to have been chosen to be the suicide bomber in the plot. The other suspects on trial are two Algerians and a Dutchman of Ethiopian origin.