US promotes new counter-terror strategy to EU

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A former FBI official, currently director of an influential Washington-based think tank, presented in Brussels what appears to be the Obama administration’s revised strategy for countering radical Islam and terrorism.

Dr. Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s programme on terrorism, intelligence and policy, gave details of the new policy at the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels yesterday (2 April). 

Levitt, who also served as deputy assistant secretary for intelligence at the US Treasury Department, was quick to criticise mistakes made during the George W. Bush administration in countering the terrorism threat. 

“The fact is that we, unfortunately – and I say we the US […] we’ve done a lot of things that have given our adversaries grist for the mill. They have been able to do a lot, propaganda-wise, with a lot of our mistakes […] I make no apologies for going to Afghanistan. But the bottom line is, whether that’s Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib […] all of these are enabled our adversaries to present evidence, if you will, for their campaigns,” said Levitt, who signed a 30-page ‘Strategy for Counter-radicalisation’ on behalf of a ‘Presidential Task Force’. 

Discrimination is the key 

Levitt explained the title of the strategy. ‘Rewriting the Narrative’, on the basis of the enrolment tactics of terrorists. Terrorists, he said, are able to enrol people with local grievances, often caused by discrimination, and then “plug” their issues into a “singular, radical, global narrative”. 

In Levitt’s view, the fact that people are being denied the opportunity to integrate into their own countries and lack identity, especially in Europe, creates a breeding ground for terrorism. He described the differences between the situation in Europe and the US, where in his view, “melting-pot” ethnicities do not abandon their culture. 

In the US, he pointed out, a “green card means everything”. “There is, among American Muslims, a sense of economic opportunity, of having the same opportunities as anybody else.” He insisted that this was not the case in Europe. 

France ‘the worst example’ 

Levitt repeatedly singled out France as the worse example of integration in Europe.

“If your grandfather emigrated to France from Morocco, you are not a Moroccan citizen, your Arabic is non-existent or not very good. And if you break the law three times, the French law enforcement’s sledge-hammer approach is that they can strip you of your citizenship. And they can deport you to Morocco. Why the Moroccans tolerate this, I don’t know,” Levitt said. 

“Imagine what this says to the French Muslim citizen,” he asked rhetorically. 

He then further continued: “When we spoke to the Brits and to the Dutch, and we said we want to talk about counter-radicalisation, they said great, please, come. When we called the French, they said thank you so much, we appreciate your interest, but we don’t have a radicalisation problem.”

Levitt explained that he succeeded in presenting his views on counter-radicalisation when he called back to tell the French he wanted to discuss integration. 

“I’m very concerned about the French,” Levitt went on, citing constitutional barriers which in his eyes obstruct a clear view of the problem. But he said these barriers could be flexible. Citing a curious example, he said that when he was a member of a senior US intelligence community delegation, he asked French officials “how many Muslims do you have in this country?” The offended reply was: “Constitutionally, you cannot ask that question.” 

But soon after, the same French official observed that the percentage of Muslims in French prisons was higher than the national average. “Then, in a very American way, I said, how the hell do you know that?,” said Levitt, amid laughter from the audience. 

UK leads the way 

Speaking about the ongoing US-EU exchanges in counter-terrorism, Levitt said “the good news is that there is a lot going on”. He singled out the UK, saying that country was very advanced on the issue and had “learned the hard way”. 

“In the EU, my biggest concern is not that we [should] have a common strategy, or even a common conceptual approach. I’m very disturbed by the gap between those who see it only as integration, and those who see it primarily as religious, radical, ideological indoctrination. It is both, and it is not rocket science,” he insisted. 

Elements of strategy 

Levitt’s presentation appears to mark a shift in the US public diplomacy. He was critical of the previous administration’s communication, which was aimed at “convincing people to like America,” he quipped. He called this “a colossal waste of time”. Instead, he wants to expand the debate by empowering people to provide alternative views in radicalised societies. 

“Don’t ban – compete,” he repeated several times, conveying the message that radical organisations are better countered by competing messages, rather than prohibition.

He also indicated that the US administration will not be linking any more external aid to the condition of democracy promotion, but rather anti-corruption achievements. 

Levitt said he would meet with EU officials during his Brussels trip: “The counter-terrorism people, the Middle East people, the Commission, the Council, on a range of issues, not only on this.” 

Co-operation in fighting terrorism intensified among EU countries after the 9/11 attacks in the US, and even more so after the Madrid attacks in 2004. The EU Counter-terrorism Strategy is based on four 'pillars': prevention, protection, pursuit and response. It requires collaboration at national, European and international levels to reduce the threat of terrorism and the bloc's vulnerability to attack. It specifically aims to: 

  • Prevent recruitment of terrorists; 
  • better protect potential targets; 
  • pursue and investigate members of existing networks, and; 
  • improve Europe's capability to respond to and manage the consequences of terrorist attacks. 

On 19 September 2007, Belgian lawyer Gilles de Kerchove was appointed to the brand new function of 'EU Counter-terrorism Coordinator'. In this role, he coordinates the work of the Council of the EU in the field of counter-terrorism and maintains an overview of all the instruments at the Union's disposal. 

In a recent interview with EURACTIV, De Kerchove insisted on strengthening ties with the US under the new administration in Washington. 

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