Experts: Less is Sometimes More in Fight Against Terrorism | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.09.2008
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Experts: Less is Sometimes More in Fight Against Terrorism

As the world marks the seventh anniversary of 9/11, some European experts say security improvements in the US have been undercut by fairly basic mistakes. Among the remedies is more trust in America's laws and allies.

People gathered at Ground Zero

Ground Zero remains a symbol of the need for targeted security measures

Seven years after the attacks on New York and Washington of September 11, 2001, America is more divided than ever before about the effectiveness of the Bush administration's response to Islamic terrorism.

A few Americans have even dared to question whether fear of al Qaeda has not been grotesquely exaggerated -- pointing out the extreme statistical unlikelihood of dying from an act of terrorism outside of Iraq or Afghanistan.

So do terrorism experts from Europe, which is often accused of anti-Americanism, share the view that the Bush administration has been creating, perhaps consciously exploiting needless Angst?

Big bangs and trauma

Passengers at Sydney's international airport, Australia, Friday, Aug. 11, 2006, wait to put their foot wear into an x-ray machine

Heightened airport security is a reality -- but is it always rational?

Not at all, says Professor Paul Wilkinson, the recently retired director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

"I think most people now have a fairly balanced view because they realize that major terrorist attacks in Western countries don't happen all that often, and the frequency of deaths in traffic accidents is far greater," Wilkinson told DW-WORLD.DE.

"But assaults of that kind are hardly a minor matter, and I would also say America is relatively safer now than it was at the time of 9/11 due to things like better airline security," Wilkinson added.

Ralf Tophoven, co-director of the IFTUS Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policies in Essen, Germany, agrees that there are reasons to fear 9/11-style attacks -- even if there haven't been any on US soil in seven years.

"Al Qaeda clearly wants a 'big bang' in the US, something with comparable dimensions," Tophoven told DW-WORLD.DE. "They're not interested in killing three people in the New York subway, however terrible that might also be on a human level."

But Tophoven added that the current US government's policies have not always been rational.

"I think the Bush administration was traumatized by terrorism," Tophoven said. "And a lot of measures, such as Guantanamo, were over-exaggerated because of that trauma."

Harmful diversions

members of a legal defense team walk at Camp Justice, part of the legal complex of the U.S. Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base

Many think the US would have been better served sticking to its own legal system

Wilkinson also sees the circumvention of the America legal system as one of two major blunders.

"A country that was always known for its pride in its justice system, which doesn't follow those principles when dealing with al Qaeda suspects, weakens its credibility in the eyes of many in the Muslim world," Wilkinson said.

And the Iraq War, he insists, was a diversion of resources that should have gone toward Afghanistan -- and that ultimately strengthened al Qaeda's hand.

"It gave them a tremendous propaganda boost because they could say 'Look, we are the true defenders of Islam,'" Wilkinson said. "They used it for recruiting and raising more funds, and the conflict in Iraq gave them a huge variety of targets."

Tophoven also stresses the need for global thinking in the campaign against terrorism, including greater cooperation with and trust in Europe.

"Because of Europe's large Muslim populations, even if 99 percent are peaceful, we have much more potential for homegrown terrorists," Tophoven pointed out. "But German authorities sometimes can't prosecute terror suspects because US intelligence withholds necessary evidence for reasons of national security."

Size isn't everything

Police officers stand on guard outside Scotland Yard

America cannot battle terrorism without Europe -- and vice versa

The two experts also warn against territorial competition and too much information-gathering.

"All the NATO countries have had problems coordinating the work of their intelligence agencies, including the work of those agencies with the police," Wilkinson said. "The 'spooks' and the 'cops' have traditionally been at arm's length."

And Tophoven cites the negative example of the East German secret police that became paralyzed in the final days of the Communist GDR because they had collected too much information about possible threats.

"They choked on the volume of data," he said. "The more data you collect, the more sensitive you have to be in interpreting it."

He says America should beware of falling into that trap.

"The danger is that the Department of Homeland Security becomes a similarly bloated state apparatus," Tophoven warned. "Instead they should look to the Mossad in Israel as an example of 'small but effective.'"

Seven years on from 9/11, America should still be wary of large-scale al Qaeda attacks, they say.

But the US should also be wary, they caution, of half-cocked measures that unintentionally undermine security -- and make such attacks a bit more likely.

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