Book Review: Al Qaeda in Europe

Al Qaeda in Europe - The New Battleground of International Jihad, by Lorenzo Vidino

The book reviews terrorist networks in France, Italy, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, showing their ideological and actual connections both to al Qaeda and to each other. The main problem with this book, and in general with such books, is that they're not automatically updated. Since this book was published several Danish terror cells were apprehended, as well as planned attacks in Germany. There are reports on the news every so often about terrorists or jihad recruiters being apprehended in different places across Europe. It would be quite interesting to see how they fit in with the cells mentioned in this book.

Vidino starts off with the terrorist profile, dividing the terrorists into three groups: home grown, home brewed and imported:
- Home grown - terrorists who have grown up in Europe - both Muslims and converts.
- Home brewed - immigrants who have come to Europe, mostly from irreligious families, but have radicalized after immigrating.
- Imported - These are jihad fighters who have been given asylum in Europe.

To start with the last ones, Europe had for years misconstrued what political asylum means. It ignored warnings from Middle-Eastern regimes dealing with Islamic terrorism, and assumed that giving known terrorists asylum would be ok. To quote an Egyptian official: "European countries like Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, England and others, which give sanctuary to these terrorists should now understand it will come back to haunt them where they live ." ( Danish Jihad - a study). What I found most surprising was that giving asylum to terrorists did not stop after 9/11. The UK had given asylum to Taliban fighters in 2002 while UK troops were still fighting them in Afghanistan. These Taliban fighters did not hide their affiliation, and yet the UK was nice enough to let them in.

These Jihadis did not waste much time building up terrorist networks. And once in Europe, they met up and turned from trying to affect local politics in their home countries to global Jihad.

Both Muslims and converts tend to get to radical Islam due to a disillusionment with Western and European society. Converts, and that is not the case only with Muslims, tend to go to extremes, but in this case, some people convert as a form of social protest. Vidino points out that Islam serves as a better alternative to neo-Nazi or anarchist groups. Not only can you get violent, but you also have a religious obligation to do so. It might therefore be no surprise that there are connections between Islamist movements and both extreme right and left wing. Islamic terrorism is also very attractive to former criminals, who can usually continue whatever they were doing, but now with a stamp of approval from Allah and in the cause of holy war.

In the cases of home-grown and home-brewed, Vidino shows that there are many terrorists who have come from well-off families, and that it is not only the poor and marginalized who turn to terrorism. On the other hand, feeling a spiritual void, a lack of direction, disaffectedness - all this has nothing to do with how much money you have. Having a large group of immigrants who are not integrated into society and who have their own truth, form both a pool of future terrorists and an attraction for Westerners.

The chapter I found most interesting was the one about Europe's ability to deal with terrorism. Europe, like the US, has difficulties upholding its liberal democratic principles, while at the same time fighting an enemy that wants to destroy those values. Different countries are approaching the problem differently. For example, Germany has (or had) very lax laws against terrorism, and has therefore 'solved' some of its problems by letting other countries make the actual arrests, when needed. France has the most strict laws, and enables its judges to send suspected terrorists to jail based on even just 'association with terrorists'. In a way it's walking a tightrope. With every attack or terrorist cell that is apprehended, there are stricter and stricter laws passed. Vidino says that the survival of the country is the most important, and he is of course right, but I think that it is important not to lose sight of what it is you're fighting for: the liberal values of Western democracy.

The book follows al-Qaeda when after 9/11, it closed up camps in Afghanistan and moved to Iraq and Kurdistan, where they were protected from Saddam Hussein by the US and UN enforced "no-fly zones". There they teamed up with the local group Ansar al-Islam and turned it into an international group with branches in quite a few European countries. In fact, the al-Qaeda support systems in Europe are now working for Ansar al-Islam. This turns Ansar al-Islam and Mullah Krekar (now living in Norway) into major figures in the international Jihad scene.

Terrorist groups are taking over drug trafficking and human smuggling in Europe, using it both as a way to earn money and to build up the routes needed for their own operations. In the case of Ansar al-Islam, Kurds fleeing the violence in Kurdistan are even unwittingly paying in to the same people are engaging in this violence.

Vidino brings quotes and transcripts of terrorists, both in court and as caught on tape by intelligence services. It is quite interesting to hear what they have to say. For example, Austria doesn't figure much in the news when it comes to terrorism, but according to this book it seems to be a major junction for terrorists. For one, Gamaa Islamiya has headquarters in Italy, Denmark and Austria (Sahabah mosque in Vienna). Both Italy and Denmark have active terrorist cells and it stands to reason that Austria would be no different.

In a conversation taped by Italian authorities in June 2002, an unknown man discusses various issues related to al-Qaeda working together with Zarqawi's group. What I found most interesting, though, was his explanation of where it's easier to set up base. The man had come from a meeting in Poland and as he says about Poland: "Now Europe is controlled in the air and on the ground, but in Poland, Bulgaria and in countries that are not members of the European Community, everything is easy. First of all they are corrupt.. but the country where everything starts is Austria.. There it has become the country of international communications. It has become the country of the contacts, as I told you before, all the contacts come either from Austria or from Poland. The most convenient country is Austria and the countries neighboring it. If you are wanted you have two possibilities: either you hide there in Austria or in the mountains."

With Poland now being in the EU, it might have gotten much easier for terrorists there. Also, with all the emphasis on being watched in the EU, there are examples of terrorists who managed to sneak in back into Western Europe, even after they were expelled or while they were on the most wanted lists.

Though it might seem that terrorists are sometimes flat out lying in court, according to the quotes brought in the book, and basing on the translation, they are usually sticking to the truth. As one terrorist accused of trying to commit an attack in Strasbourg said: "At no point did I think about killing one German or French citizen, as I cannot reconcile it with my beliefs." As it happened, he really did not want to kill just one, he had much bigger plans.

Another interesting point, I have written in the past about the Belgian town of Maaseik: it figures somewhat prominently in the story of terrorism in Europe ( Belgium: Ties between Madrid attack and Belgium). This must be kept in mind when considering Maaseik's other 'claim to fame' in the context of European Islam: It is also the only town in Belgium to ban the burka, a ban which was upheld by the local courts ( Burka ban in Belgium upheld).

International Jihad is based on the idea of a war between Muslims and non-Muslims. Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq and Palestine serve as a rallying cry for Muslims everywhere. However, while reading this book it occurred to me that there's a big difference between these countries. Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and Iraq have attracted thousands of Western European volunteers. Palestine hasn't. According to Vidino, there are two issues here:
1. It's physically harder to get there and past the Israeli security forces.
2. The Palestinians aren't looking for volunteers and they don't have recruitment networks.

You can say there is no shortage of Palestinian suicide bombers, but I still find it hard to understand why battle-hardened Jihad veterans don't see Palestine as a challenge.

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