President Barack Obama can make great strides in combating al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups if he abandons George W. Bush's heated rhetoric and unrealistic view of how terrorism is structured, says Rik Coolsaet, a top European expert on terrorism.

Coolsaet, director of the Security and Global Governance Department at the Royal Institute of International Relations in Brussels, said in an interview that the U.S. and Europe are already working behind the scenes on new ways to reduce terrorist threats, in part by steering away from Bush’s approach.

Europe, which has long experience with terrorist groups such as the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Basque separatists in Spain and France, believes it has a more realistic approach to the problem and never bought into Bush's vision that al-Qaeda, aided by rogue states, represented a new era of global terrorism.

"The comparative absence of terrorism on American soil, together with the dramatic nature of 9/11" go a long way in explaining why some Americans have exaggerated the threat, said Coolsaet, who is a member of the European Commission's Expert Group on Violent Radicalization. The low-profile group advises the commission on policy issues.

President Bush often employed alarmist rhetoric, such as warning of “a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.”

But Coolsaet said today's terrorists are nearly always a patchwork of "self-radicalizing local groups with international contacts" but without a global command structure. "Today it's a bottom-up structure with groups of friends, and sometimes families, who become radicalized and then search for a larger, international network," he said.

Coolsaet said the threat of terrorism can even be exacerbated through exaggeration. Overreaction, like the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, can stimulate terrorism instead of reducing it, he said.

Even before the invasion, European police and intelligence agencies warned that "going into Iraq, using al-Qaeda or jihadi terrorism as a reason, would create another layer of frustration in Moslem communities in Europe and would induce individuals into a radicalization process,” Coolsaet said. “These individuals wouldn't be manipulated by sleeper cells but would be self-starting."

That's exactly what occurred in several European countries, including Spain, Britain and Belgium, where 14 suspected terrorists were arrested last month.
 
Today's terrorist structure requires counter-strategies that are very different from those pursued by the Bush administration, according to Coolsaet. He said the most effective strategy for combating terrorism has these components:

--International cooperation among local and national law-enforcement agencies as well as intelligence services. The Bush administration pursued this strategy to some extent but was handicapped by its misperception of the terrorist structure. Coolsaet said the Obama administration has an opportunity to pursue cooperation much more vigorously, which would be especially important, given the bottom-up structure of most terrorist organizations.

--Forging links between local governments and communities targeted by terrorists. All too often, members of these communities harbor a shared sense of injustice, exclusion and humiliation (real or perceived). The U.S. has an advantage in this area because of its history of assimilating immigrants.

Coolsaet added that counter-terrorism strategies would be even more effective if the Obama administration tones down "the rhetoric about war, enemies, threats and global insurgencies." He acknowledged, however, that domestic politics could make this difficult if there's another attack.

Don Ediger is a former BusinessWeek correspondent in Paris, London and Washington.

 

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