BRUSSELS, March 6 (UPI) -- Europeans and Americans are supposed to be fighting shoulder to shoulder in the so-called war on terror. But how can they beat their common enemy when they have such radically different interpretations of the scale of the threat posed by Jihadi terrorism and the nature of the response needed to defeat it?
This question was left lingering at the end of two recent conferences in Brussels on international terrorism -- one organized by the Royal Institute for International Relations in Belgium and the other by the Italian International Affairs Institute, in association with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks the Bush administration has viewed the struggle against terrorist groups like the Taliban and al-Qaida as a war that can be won in the mountains of the Hindu Kush and the deserts of the Sunni triangle. Europeans, on the other hand, remain deeply uncomfortable with the term "war on terror," with many asking how it is possible to wage war on an abstract noun.
"The United States talks of a war against terror," said one senior European Union official at the GMF conference. "We don't subscribe to that view in the European Union." Speaking at the same event, which observed 'Chatham House' rules of anonymity, a NATO official said the 26-member military bloc also preferred to talk about the "fight against terror."
It is more than a semantic issue. The Bush administration -- and many ordinary Americans -- see their country "at war" with terrorism, and argues trenchantly that U.S. troops in Iraq are part of this effort. There is no such feeling in Europe, partly because European nations have lived with terrorist attacks on their soil for decades, if not centuries.
"The European Union sees terrorism through the prism of the past, the United States as a new threat," said one participant at the Italian institute's meeting, adding that the two transatlantic powers are divided over both the nature of the threat faced and the best means of tackling it.
A country that sees itself at war is more likely to take extreme measures to protect its population, even if this leads to an erosion of civil liberties such as the right to privacy, free speech and a fair trial. Gerhart Baum, a prominent German human rights lawyer and former interior minister, told the Belgian institute's conference last month that the United States had "crossed the border between criminal law and war law" in its fight against Jihadi terrorism, resulting in the sanctioning of torture and targeted assassinations.
"The fight against terrorism should be compatible with human rights, but clearly it is not (in this case)," said Baum.
Calls from traditionally pro-American EU leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, for the United States to close its internment camp at Guantanamo Bay highlight the gaping divide between Washington and European capitals when it comes to finding the right balance between using state power against terrorist groups and protecting civil liberties.
Another major difference between the two sides concerns the scale of the threat posed by al-Qaida and its offshoot organizations. The Bush administration believes Osama bin Laden is comparable to Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin and that al-Qaida poses as great a menace to Western free-market democracies today as the Nazis did in the 1930s.
Europeans are in no doubt about the lethal threat posed by Jihadi terrorism -- after all, they were the prime victims of it in Madrid, London and Istanbul -- but there is a growing body of opinion that argues the real danger is no longer posed by al-Qaida, but by the freelance franchises the terrorist grouping has spawned.
"I do not believe that we are confronted with a formidable global external foe," Rik Coolsaet, a security expert at the Belgian Institute for International Relations, told the Brussels conference on Jihadi terrorism. "We must stop behaving as if we were in a permanent state of war with a monolithic authoritarian threat, a successor enemy to Nazism or communism."
Dismissing Bin Laden as nothing more than a "leader of a sect," Coolsaet added: "Unduly stressing the global nature of the threat we boost his appeal to would-be suicide bombers who feel boosted by the worldwide success of a potent al-Qaida the west contributes to magnify."
The U.S. administration views terrorism as primarily an external threat emanating from failed states, jihadist groupings and Islamist regimes in the broader Middle East -- hence the decision to oust the Taliban in 2001 and, although a belated justification, to invade Iraq in 2003.
European governments, on the other hand, see the threat as largely internal -- stemming from extremist sects within their Muslim communities. It is a view drawn from bitter experience. Both the London and Madrid bombings were largely carried out by British and Spanish citizens and the killer of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh was a well-integrated, Dutch-speaking citizen of the Netherlands.
"We have the impression that they are coming to attack us, but in fact it is the other way around," said Olivier Roy, a terrorism expert at the French CNRS institute. "Europe is actually exporting jihadis to the Middle East. More Germans and Japanese have joined the jihad in Palestine than second generation European Muslims."
The Bush administration believes you cannot and should not negotiate with terrorists. But this is precisely what European governments have been doing for decades. Ultimately, Britain came to a negotiated settlement with the Irish Republican Army, just as the Spanish government is trying to do with the Basque terrorist organization ETA. As yet, no one is proposing inviting bin Laden for talks in Camp David, but history is littered with examples of yesterday's terrorists becoming tomorrow's leaders.
One area where there does seem to be an increasing convergence in American and European opinions is over the root causes of terrorism.
Many well-meaning European analysts used to argue that terrorism is flourishing because of the international community's inability to bring closure to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and the lingering resentment felt towards the rich West by the "wretched of the earth."
This idea was comprehensively rubbished by European speakers at both recent conferences. "None of those responsible for Jihadi attacks suffered from colonial occupation, illiteracy or poverty," Javier Ruperez, the former Spanish diplomat who now heads the U.N. fight against terrorism, told the Belgian institute's Feb. 13 conference. Added Roy: "There was never a Palestinian flag flying in the Paris suburb riots in November, but this did not stop the media talking about an intifada." Speaking at the GMF/Italian institute's seminar last week, an EU diplomat said: "It would be a strategic mistake to believe that if we solve the Mideast problem, bin Laden will give up targeting the West."
European experts such as Roy and Coolsaet are slowly beginning to build up a more subtle profile of the Jihadi terrorist that has little to do with the popular stereotype of the crazed, Madrassa-educated religious fanatic in the pocket of bin Laden. "They are almost all Westerners," said Roy, adding: "They don't have a traditional religious education." Instead, most European Jihadis are well-educated Muslims who have experienced a personal psychological trauma -- such as drug or alcohol addiction -- before becoming born-again Islamists.
Jihadi terrorism will only be defeated if Europeans and Americans arrive at a joint understanding of the threat posed by violent Islamist groups and a joint plan of action to eradicate the menace. At present, most experts, analysts and policy practitioners would agree this is far from being the case.