Bridging the Transatlantic Counterterrorism Gap

Daniel L. Byman and Jeremy Shapiro

Rhetorically, the United States and Europe are united in their opposition to terrorism. Governments on each side of the Atlantic frequently assert that counterterrorism cooperation is essential to solving the problem, and they join together to condemn outrages such as the July 7, 2005, attacks in London. In terms of doctrine, the U.S. National Security Strategy of 2002 and European Union Security Strategy of 2003 are remarkably similar in their descriptions of the new threats to national security. Both highlight international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and ungoverned spaces that might foster terrorism as the central security concerns for the future.1

Day-to-day cooperation between the United States and most European countries proceeds apace and is often effective. Although officials on each side have complaints, they are generally satisfied. As the Washington Post reported in 2005, the CIA’s multinational counterterrorist intelligence center is located in Paris and has been a critical component of at least 12 operations, including the capture of one of Al Qaeda’s most important European operatives.2 Indeed, during the transatlantic crisis regarding Iraq, the practical necessity of counterterrorism cooperation helped preserve U.S. relations with Germany and France.

Yet, counterterrorism cooperation is not purely a day-to-day activity. Sustaining effective cooperation requires an understanding of each side’s interests in counterterrorism and a respect for the strategies that follow from those interests. Observed from that type of strategic perspective, the United States and Europe disagree on some basic issues, including the precise nature of the terrorist threat, the best methods for managing this threat, and the root causes of terrorism. Perhaps more importantly, they do not understand or accept each other’s positions.

Of course, in the United States and Europe, there are many internal divisions on the appropriate strategies for counterterrorism. In Europe especially, each country has its own threats, its own threat perceptions, and its own approach to terrorism, and there is no central government capable of unifying those strategies. When compared and contrasted with the U.S. approach, however, internal divisions in Europe and the United States fade in significance.

These distinct approaches do not come through in high-level strategy documents or day-to-day operations but can be seen in many of the policy disputes that the United States and Europe have over counterterrorism. European officials and commentators, for example, have criticized the U.S. tendency to resort to the language of war and in particular the use of the neologism “war on terror.”3 Similarly, Americans and Europeans often disagree about what constitutes a legitimate political or charitable activity and what constitutes support for a terrorist group. Thus, according to Cofer Black, then the Department of State’s counterterrorism coordinator, “[d]iffering [U.S. and European] perspectives on the dividing line between legitimate political or charitable activity and support for terrorist groups similarly clouds the picture. The EU as a whole, for example, has been reluctant to take steps to block the assets of charities linked to Hamas and Hizballah, even though these groups engage in deadly terrorist attacks and their ‘charitable’ activities help draw recruits.”4 The Europeans are much more hesitant to label such groups, Hizballah in particular, as terrorists because they fear the instability that might result. In February 2005, an EU official summed up this view: “This is a difficult issue because Hizballah has military operations that we deplore, but Hizballah is also a political party in Lebanon. … Can a political party elected by the Lebanese people be put on a terrorist list? Would that really help deal with terrorism?”5

Of course, the most dramatic expression of the differences was the distinct views that each side took on the 2003 war in Iraq. For Americans, overthrowing the Ba’ath regime and fostering a democratic Iraq was a critical component of the struggle to defeat terrorism. It is, in President George W. Bush’s words, “the central front in the war on terror.”6 Europeans tended to believe that the conflict would contribute to the instability and enmity that foster terrorism and possibly bring Islamist terrorism to their doorstep. “People in France and more broadly in Europe,” wrote French ambassador to the United States Jean-David Levitte, “fear that a military intervention could fuel extremism and encourage [Al] Qaeda recruitment.”7 As French president Jacques Chirac said in a February 2003 interview, war in Iraq risked creating “a large number of little [Osama] bin Ladens.”8

The most common explanation for such policy divides between the United States and Europe is that they spring from deep-seated cultural impulses that are then reduced to unhelpful stereotypes. Yet, the good news is that the real reason for U.S.-European strategic differences is far more mundane than the stereotypes imply and much less rooted in immutable cultural differences. They are thus amenable to intelligent policy that can bridge the transatlantic gap. In short, the United States and Europe face different threats from Islamist terrorism, they have different perceptions even of their common threats, and they have different tools in their arsenal for fighting terrorism. Not surprisingly, they also respond differently.