This week the Basque separatist group ETA announced a ‘definitive cessation of armed activity’, all but closing the book on one of the few terrorist organisations left in Europe. With only three European terrorist groups still active today, it is clear that the governments of Europe have developed a knack for combatting terrorism. The success of Europe’s bid to eradicate domestic terrorism does, however, serve to highlight the relative failures in the US struggle against the international terrorism of Al-Qaeda. According to estimates from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, the US has spent up to $4 trillion dollars on the War on Terror, set up The Department of Homeland Security, and left an estimated 225,000 dead, with relatively little to show for their efforts. Why then has it proven easier to combat home-grown terrorism than international terrorism?
A significant part of the explanation lies in the geographic realities. European terrorist groups tend to be based within countries with a strict system of law and order, maintained by a considerable police presence, with resistance typically isolated to certain pockets of the country. This allows the authorities to keep tabs on groups and individuals much more easily than if they are spread out across a wide area, only nominally under government control, as is the case on the Afghan-Pakistani border. European conditions also permit more successful intelligence gathering, giving the authorities detailed insights into the activities and leadership of organisations such as ETA and the IRA. This enables governments to effectively implement counter terrorism strategies. By the time of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which marked a cessation of IRA violence, British Intelligence services had thoroughly infiltrated the group and used the information gathered to prevent several attacks and make numerous arrests. In contrast, such close monitoring of Al-Qaeda has proved impossible. The discovery of Osama Bin Laden in urban Pakistan, rather than in the mountainous tribal areas of Afghanistan where the US had long believed him to be, indicated just how difficult it is to track the movement of individuals from afar.
The bottom line, however, is that the strategy which has proven most successful in the struggle against European terrorism is the opening of a dialogue. Time and time again we have seen that it is only through negotiation and diplomacy that governments can dismantle and disarm terrorist organisations. Whilst the death of Osama Bin-Laden was undoubtedly a significant symbolic and psychological victory for the US , the extent to which Bin Laden’s death will impact upon the day-to-day operation of Al-Qaeda is the subject of considerable debate amongst analysts.
Closer to home, British policy in Northern Ireland is a graphic illustration of the limitations of coercive power. For years tactics such as internment and police brutality had been directed towards not only those involved with the IRA, but the Nationalist community as a whole. Such policies served only to polarize opinion further, and prevent the establishment of any lasting peace. In 1998 after almost thirty years of conflict, peace was finally restored to Northern Ireland as a result of protracted negotiations, mediated by the British and Irish governments, along with American assistance. European governments have learnt well the lessons provided by this conflict, and, for the most part, embraced a new approach to conflict resolution. Even prior to this week’s announcement, ETA have throughout the last few decades called ceasefires on multiple occasions, and maintained an open channel of communication with both the Spanish government and conflict resolution groups. It is telling that at the Donostia-San Sebastián International Peace Conference, where ETA announced their cessation of violence, five of those present as mediators had been directly involved in the negotiations which restored peace to Northern Ireland.
Al-Qaeda, however, are an entirely different proposition. The fundamental difference lies in the aims of Europe’s domestic terrorists as compared to those of Al-Qaeda. Europe’s terrorists could be negotiated with largely because their demands were for changes in states’ policies or borders, rather than a desire for the destruction or radical overhaul of the state. In this context, negotiations could take place, concessions could be made and organisations could be placated. By contrast, for Al-Qaeda to be successful the US must be destroyed, making Al-Qaeda an irreconcilable enemy of the US., Whereas the vast majority of European terrorist conflicts have been defined by theoretically achievable aims, the complete overthrow of Western influences in Muslim countries and the creation of a new world-wide Islamic caliphate is not an outcome that can be reached through discussion and compromise.
ETA’s announcement earlier this week is, of course, to be celebrated as a tremendous victory both for Spain and for Europe. In spite of this success however, the strategies which have led to this resolution cannot be taken as a roadmap for the struggle against international terrorism.