Thursday, March 10, 2005

Terrorism Conclusions One Year After 11-M

It is one year since the largest terrorist attack on European soil. 191 people were killed as ten bombs went off on four trains heading for Atocha station in central Madríd.

We now know that the attack was masterminded by circles that are likely to have been connected to and drawn inspiration from al-Qaeda networks.

The March 11 attack was designed to be even more devastating than it turned out to be. It was planned to be the beginning of a campaign of terror across Spain in the months to follow.

It was only when seven of the conspirators blew themselves up after being surrounded by police that the planned continuation of the terror campaign was stopped. Only the day before, a bomb had been found on the high-speed train between Madrid and Sevilla. Investigators are now talking about a series of other planned targets – among them a college in the suburb of La Moraleja and a synagogue in Avila.

No less than 74 persons have no been indicted for their part in the March 11 attacks, but the actual trials are not expected to start until early next year. Inquiries are still carried out in Morocco, Algeria, France and Belgium in order to get a full picture of the plot that resulted in 11-M.

When many world leaders – including 23 heads of state - gathered in Madrid during theses days, it was natural to try to take stocks of what has been learnt and achieved since 11-M.

Much has certainly been done to strengthen anti-terrorist coordination inside the European Union, although more needs to be done. The glaring deficiencies identified in the Spanish system prior to 11-M should hopefully have been eliminated throughout Europe, but there are countries that are seriously lagging behind.

There has also been a continuing strengthening of cooperation across the Atlantic on these issues. As was the case also before 11-M, it is particularly worth noting the discreet success of US-French cooperation on these issues.

But the most remarkable aspect of the discussions in Madrid was really how there has been a general rapprochement between US and European views of the so called root causes of at the least this global terrorist phenomenon.

There has been a noticeable coming together of views on both the need to try to move the conflict between Israel and Palestine to some sort of settlement, with importance this would have also in the wider Muslim world, and of the need to pursue what President Bush has called a “forward strategy of freedom” in the entire region.

In Madrid, you heard people who otherwise are almost genetically anti-American and fundamentalist anti-Bush stand up and de facto echo the rhetoric on this issue coming out of so called neoconservative circles in Washington.

Indeed, the very theme of the Madrid meeting was “Democracy for a safer world”, although the more nuances discussions pointed out that while important for numerous reasons, the advance of democracy would not necessarily eliminate terrorism. Spain itself is a case to the point.

There was a mood of cautious optimism in the discussions on these issues. Israelis and Palestinians talked to each other in the debates, the corridors and the closed rooms. And Egyptian opposition activists and regime representatives could share a laugh or two in the discussions.

Sometimes there was a flare-up, as you would expect.

A prominent Arab editor of a newspaper known for its previous links to the Saddam Hussein regime launched a vicious attack against US F16’s allegedly killing tens of thousands in Iraq during the last year.

But he rapidly feel silent when a young girl stood up in the middle of the audience and said that without these F16’s - or whatever - many tens of thousands would continue to be routinely killed by the henchmen of Saddam and any discussion on building democracy in Iraq – and perhaps the wider region - would have been impossible.

Not everyone in Madrid was prepared to agree explicitly with her. But the entire theme and approach of the meeting was an implicit recognition of the truth of what she said.

11-M reminds us of the terrorist threat that is still there and the challenges ahead of us.

It is vitally important to achieve a democratic stability in Iraq. It remains important to strengthen police and security cooperation in Europe. More must be done to address the integration challenge also of 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants from these regions.

And not the least must the European Union be prepared to be – as El Pais quotes me as saying in one of the debates – more hardnosed in the use of its soft powers to promote the opening up and reforms of the often ossified regimes of the Middle East and North Africa.

Perhaps the discussions in Madrid – I’ll post the conclusions when they are ready – can be described as the opening up of a new “second front” of political action in the fight against global terrorism. If so, it has certainly been well spent days in the sun of Madrid.