British Bombing Response Offers Lessons to Europe

The London bombings rattled Europe's counterterrorism agencies. But the apparent success of the British police operation in arresting suspects might hold wider lessons for officials across the English Channel.

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Since last month's London bombings, many European governments began drawing up new tougher security and counterterrorism measures. They also are having to cope with the realization that terrorist threats can come from deep within their own societies, but it's not clear if new national security efforts will eventually translate into a common European counterterror strategy. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Immediately after the July 7th bombings, France suspended the European Union's Schengen open-borders treaty. Italy approved measures that include forcible taking of DNA samples from suspects and allowing the army to patrol civilian areas. Germany announced plans for a centralized nationwide counterterrorism database and Spain began considering a bill that would allow the expulsion of even potential terrorists. But the most drastic changes are being planned in Britain, which critics say had become a safe haven for Islamist radicals who took advantage of the country's long tradition of free speech.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced new measures to close down radical mosques and to deport radical clerics as well as to make it an offense to glorify, prepare for or incite acts of terrorism even if carried out outside Britain. Counterterrorism analyst Peter Bergen says this would mark a major transformation for a country he claims had become an exporter of Islamic terrorism in recent years.

Mr. PETER BERGEN (Counterterrorism Analyst): We've had British suicide bombers conducting operations in Tel Aviv in 2003, killing three people. We have had British citizens trying to bring down American airliners--Richard Reid. We've also seen British citizens undergoing paramilitary training in Kashmir.

POGGIOLI: A radical change in the British attitude toward security could have significant impact on other EU countries as Britain currently holds the EU presidency. Britain's security minister, Home Secretary Charles Clarke, has urged better information-sharing among European law enforcement agencies. He also wants a crackdown on the flow of terrorist funding and that phone companies and Internet servers store records for at least a year for intelligence use, but Hugo Brady of the London-based Centre for European Reform says proposals such as these were first put forth after 9/11 and again after last year's Madrid train bombing, but have never been implemented.

Mr. HUGO BRADY (Centre for European Reform): Counterterrorism and the policies that are required to fight it are quite intrinsically national. Overall the governments don't really have a collective strategy for countering terrorism. They have a lot of actions, a lot of ideas, useful things that they can do right now, but they don't have a broad strategic approach to a threat that is actually--it's very hard to pin down its exact nature.

POGGIOLI: One thing European investigators have pinned down is that Islamist terror cells in Europe have taken advantage of Europe's open borders and are closely interconnected. The one great achievement has been the European arrest warrant that has shortened the average extradition time from nine months to 45 days, but the procedure suffered a blow last month when the German constitutional court ruled against it, freeing a suspected member of al-Qaeda sought by Spain.

And the EU still lacks a common definition of terrorism. Police and prosecutors are hampered by the lack of a common European juridical space and cannot conduct cross-border investigations. Hugo Brady warns that divisions within Europe are a serious security threat.

Mr. BRADY: We have agencies overlapping with each other's activities. We have some governments who are not nearly cooperating as well as others, and at the end of the day, the very slow pace with which a lot of this has been implemented is working in the terrorists' favor.

POGGIOLI: Armando Spataro(ph), Italy's top counterterrorism investigating magistrate, says that cooperation in the field among European law enforcement agencies is much more productive than is generally reported in the media, but he says multilateral cooperation needs something more.

Mr. ARMANDO SPATARO (Counterterrorism Investigating Magistrate, Italy): (Through Translator) I believe that we need to quantum leap towards a mentality of cooperation. The agreements and regulation we have will become fully effective only if the member states fully believe in them.

POGGIOLI: Analysts worry that the common terrorist threat is not yet sufficient to overcome national pride and sovereignty and translate into a common European action among 25 nations, but like magistrate Spataro, they agree that societies cannot defend themselves completely against those willing to become suicide bombers and that Islamist terrorism is a plague that will not swiftly disappear.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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