Countering Terrorism across the Atlantic?

By Thachuk, Kimberley L. | Defense Horizons, July 2006 | Go to article overview
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Countering Terrorism across the Atlantic?

Thachuk, Kimberley L., Defense Horizons


Differences in strategic vision and concepts of security are central to the U.S. and European Union (EU) approaches to counterterrorism. While the United States conceives of a war against terrorism, Europe does not. As a result of different perceptions of the threat, both sides of the Atlantic take divergent approaches to homeland security. Europeans tend to favor the use of a law enforcement strategy over a warfighting approach. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration believes that a quasi-militaristic, overtly proactive, and highly vigilant stance will serve as the best deterrent to future attacks. By their own standards, Europeans are doing more to counter terrorism since September 11 and even more since the attacks in Madrid (March 11, 2004) and in London (July 7, 2005); by U.S. standards, these measures sometimes appear inadequate. As a result, there are significant transatlantic divergences on the best methods for halting the spread of terrorism.

The way ahead in an EU-U.S. counterterrorism relationship may be to focus on positive areas such as capacity building, anti-corruption measures, and strengthening multilateral agreements. Further, the key to apprehending--or at least interrupting--terrorist conspiracies may well lie in cooperating on the law enforcement side to apprehend and incarcerate terrorists for criminal activity. The United States may have to be satisfied when terrorists are brought to justice for organized criminal activity in EU states. While this does not hold the same political weight as convictions for terrorism, the result may be fewer acts of terrorism. Perhaps the greatest task for the transatlantic counterterrorism partnership is to renew the sense of urgency for cooperation in areas where the United States and EU countries do agree.

Differing Assessments

American-European Union (EU) cooperation in the war against terrorism has improved in a number of important areas over the past several years, but in some respects policies and practices in justice and law enforcement continue to diverge. Overall, the effort is exposing serious differences born of the varying backgrounds and diagnoses of the problems. To be sure, both sides of the Atlantic are being more vigilant; the United States and the European Union countries have worked diligently to create inhospitable environs for terrorists. Still, notable variations exist in their approaches to terrorism, especially with respect to the costs and benefits of responses to the heightened threat posed to the West. For the most part, the events of September 11 did not result in a fundamental shift of most European governments' security paradigm. However, both the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004, and the London bombings of July 7, 2005, spurred new antiterrorist proposals that have since brought EU policy closer to that of the United States. Still, these measures have been undertaken not so much to cooperate with U.S. efforts as to address more realistically terrorism as "one of the key strategic threats facing Europe." (1) Indeed, shortly after the March 11 attack, British Prime Minister Tony Blair observed that the Madrid bombings had exacerbated the divergence between the United States and Europe.

In response to the September 11 attacks, Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Charter was invoked for the first time in the history of the Alliance. Nevertheless, Europe does not see itself at war. For Europe, March 11 was a wake-up call that new policies and practices were needed, but it was not the beginning of a war in the same way that September 11 was for the United States. In general, Europeans have been dealing with relatively low-level terrorism for decades and have found means to cope with it. Many prominent Europeans have noted that complacency is a grave danger, particularly in light of the potential for terrorist groups to undertake mass terrorism using chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons.

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