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Transatlantic Fight Against Terror Floundering?

A year after Sept. 11, cracks have appeared in the transatlantic alliance against terror. EU interior ministers meet with US Attorney General John Ashcroft this weekend to sort it out.


US and EU investigators need to share more information

It was all so different a year ago.

Europe swung into action in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Declaring "unlimited solidarity" with America and shaken by the realisation that several of the hijackers had lived in Europe, EU chiefs in Brussels were quick to pass anti-terrorism measures.

A common definition of "terrorism" was hammered out, a Europe-wide arrest warrant to enable the quick and unbureaucratic extradition of suspected terrorists from one EU state to another was framed, a new anti-terrorism task force was set up and a list of terrorist organisations was drawn up. The EU also froze millions of euro in terrorist funds.

But now a year after the September 11 attacks, cracks have begun to appear in the transatlantic alliance against terror cells. What began as a zealous partnership to fight the bad guys has now turned into a cooling of co-operative efforts on either side of the Atlantic.

A big dispute over the death penalty

One of the biggest stumbling blocks between the US and the EU remains co-operation over extradition of Al Qaeda because of the death penalty in the US. The thorny issue is expected to be the main topic of discussion between EU interior ministers and US Attorney General John Ashcroft at a meeting in Copenhagen on Saturday.

"This meeting will give us the opportunity to discuss how we, in close co-operation between the EU nations and the United States, can strengthen... the fight against international terrorism," Danish Justice Minister Lene Espersen, whose country holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency told Reuters.

Extradition all tangled up

In October last year, President Bush handed over a letter to European Commission President Romano Prodi containing a list of demands for improved co-operation with the EU in fighting terrorism. One of them requested that extradition processes from the EU to America should be streamlined.

But that’s easier said than done.

EU states are signatories of the European Convention on Human Rights which outlaws the death penalty and opposed to any extradition deal that could lead to their citizens facing the death penalty.

The issue of extradition has been further complicated by the fact that the US could try foreign terrorists in military tribunals which could bring the suspects to trial faster and in more secrecy than normal US criminal courts. Human Rights and Civil Liberties groups in the EU are already watchful of the EU’s moves on the controversial issue.

So far only four EU member states – Britain, the Netherlands, Ireland and Italy – extradite their nationals to the United States. Germany, Portugal, Greece and Austria have made it clear to their EU partners that they have constitutional problems they won't be able to solve anytime soon.

The death penalty has become just one of many disagreements between EU and American justice officials. As early as October last year there, US investigators were reported to be impatient with the EU’s lack of a cohesive response to fight terror and its slow progress in overcoming differences in judicial and legal matters and the dismantling of its internal borders.

There were also reports of friction between US and EU investigators, police officers and magistrates failing to share information.

Friction between German and US investigators

The tension was especially pronounced in Germany, where around 15 FBI agents joined German law enforcement's investigation into the roots and connections of Hamburg student Mohammed Atta and his suspected group of al Qaeda hijackers.

"They (American investigators) came over here with a lot of pressure to get things done as soon as possible, but you have two different legal systems and not everything you can do in the states you can do here," said Klaus Jansen, deputy chairman of the association of German criminal investigators (BDK).

The flow of information was also problematic, Jansen said in an interview with DW-WORLD.

"Sometimes they (the Germans) complain that it's more or less a one way street," he said. "The Germans give but don't always get back."

Internal EU squabbles hindering investigation

Things aren't that much better within the EU.

Despite huge improvements and cash injections to Europol, the EU's common police agency, since the September 11 attacks and the creation of a terrorism desk that includes one representative from each EU country, Jansen says that there are problems in the implementation of co-operation.

Germany, by Jansen's estimates, puts around 85 percent of the information into the EU-wide database on criminal suspects used by police from the 15 member nations. He says other countries are unwilling to part with sensitive terrorism-fighting information.

"You find out it doesn't really work," he said. "There should be more coming from the British, the French, or Spain but everyone is holding their cards very close to their chest. We're at the beginning of a very difficult learning process."