A Year After Madrid Attacks, Europe Stalled in Terror Fight

Commuters read handwritten messages on white hands symbolizing peace at Madrid's Atocha railway station, the destination of the four bombed trains.
Commuters read handwritten messages on white hands symbolizing peace at Madrid's Atocha railway station, the destination of the four bombed trains. (Manu Fernandez - AP)

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By Pamela Rolfe
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 11, 2005

MADRID, March 10 -- Last March, when a series of bombs ripped through four rush-hour commuter trains, killing 191 people and injuring more than 1,500, the attack was widely seen as Europe's 9/11 -- a shock that would force governments to take coordinated action against a terrorist threat that had moved to their soil.

One year later, Europe's fight against terrorism remains hampered by some of the same national rivalries, fragmented intelligence services and bureaucratic obstacles that existed before the blasts of March 11, 2004, according to analysts, diplomats and other experts. About 75 people -- the majority of them Moroccan nationals -- have been arrested in connection with the attacks, and 23 remain in prison. But central questions of who organized them, and how, remain unanswered.

Shortly after the bombings, the European Union created the post of counterterrorism coordinator to facilitate cooperation among European governments. It appointed a Dutchman, Gijs de Vries, to the post, but the position lacks real power or resources, and intelligence officials in E.U. countries continue to resist sharing their most sensitive data.

Many proposals raised just after the attacks -- for a Europe-wide fingerprint and DNA database and biometric passports, for instance -- remain just proposals. Plans for a common arrest warrant, to make extradition of suspects easier, have faltered because some countries have withheld approval.

Despite five decades of economic and political integration in Europe, national governments retain major powers and often undermine standardization plans that originate in Brussels, headquarters of the 25-nation European Union. Even when political will exists, the E.U.'s tangle of rules and regulations can stall change for years.

"We are on the right way, but we didn't go far enough," said Berndt Georg Thamm, a terrorism expert in Germany who works with the country's security agencies and military. "The big bang of 11 March pushed the European Union in the right direction," he said, but added that it would "take some years before we have complete international, and also national, information-centered cooperation."

"There's a lot on paper," said Daniel Keohane, a researcher with the London-based Centre for European Reform. "They have an action plan with over 100 measures . . . the whole gambit of cooperation. But the E.U. is not a government. It doesn't have its own intelligence resources."

"Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, which have the greatest intelligence resources, don't want to share with the 25," he added.

Another subject awaiting more action is control of financing. "Terrorists have found new ways to finance their activities, resorting to petty crime and fundraising within their communities, which is much more difficult to trace," said Loretta Napoleoni, author of the book "Terror Inc.: Tracing the Money Behind Global Terrorism."

Napoleoni was in Madrid attending the International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security, an annual event scheduled for March this year to commemorate the attacks. She coordinated a work group on terrorism financing, which recommended that the United Nations set up a finance monitoring center to help with intelligence and intergovernmental cooperation.

Even here in Spain, scene of the attacks, many of the pre-March 11 problems persist. In the weeks following the train blasts, Spaniards pledged to find ways to increase security and prevent attacks. But other than increasing communications channels among the security and intelligence branches and adding Arabic-speaking intelligence and judiciary workers, not much has been accomplished, according to security experts.

Immediately after the attacks, many European countries stepped up security at crowded rail stations. For a while, there was talk of setting up airport-style security systems at stations, but the idea was soon abandoned.

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