Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Lorenzo Vidino, the European expert at The Investigative Project on Terrorism—a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism institute and America’s largest private data-gathering center on militant Islamic activities. He is the author of the new book Al Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of International Jihad.
FP: Mr. Vidino, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Vidino: Thank you.
FP: What inspired you to write this book?
Vidino: A year ago I had a few meetings with US officials who were reviewing US VISIT, the immigration program that allows citizens of Western European countries to enter the US without a visa for up to three months. These officials were among the few in the US government to understand the changing face of Islamic terrorism and to realize that Europe is now a key strategic pole for al Qaeda. Thousands of Islamic fundamentalists nowadays carry European passports and can, therefore, enter the US easily, but the common perception among the American public and many policymakers is that we should screen only visitors from countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia. This view is not up to speed with reality and I realized that more information is needed on the extent of al Qaeda's presence in Europe. The literature on the subject is limited, especially in English, but analysis of the problem is of tantamount importance.
FP: Tell us a bit about the history of Al Qaeda’s roots and presence in Europe.
Vidino: The history of Islamic radicalism in Europe is parallel to that of Muslim immigration to the Old Continent. The first radicals reached Europe in the 1950s. They were mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood fleeing the crackdown of the regimes in Egypt and Syria. Some others were students who attended European universities. They set up mosques and Islamic centers that catered to the small Muslim community that was starting to populate Europe. As this community grew, so did the funding from Saudi Arabia and other rich foreign donors. These wealthy sponsors made sure that the mosques they were financing were run by Muslim Brothers and other radicals who supported the spread of extremism among the continuously growing European Muslim communities. A watershed event was the end of the Afghan war against the Soviets. As the conflict ended, thousands of Arab fighters found themselves without a place to go, as they would have faced persecution in their home countries. Many of them sought refuge in Europe, where they could get asylum and generous benefits under most of the Continent's immigration laws. Once in Europe, they reinforced the already thriving local Islamist scene and established networks that have become crucial for al Qaeda's activities.
FP: The funding of Islamist terror by the Saudis is a huge part of this problem. How do you recommend that we best fight the Saudis on their financing of extremism and terror?
Vidino: Saudi funding contributed enormously to this problem. The flow of money has slowed down after 9/11, as authorities began to pay more attention to the phenomenon. After al Qaeda began striking in Saudi Arabia, parts of the Saudi establishment stopped funding radical activities, even though a significant quantity of cash still flows from Saudi Arabia to the pockets of radicals operating in various countries. But nowadays the main source of financing for terrorists operating in Europe is crime. And while some cells limit their activities to petty theft or counterfeiting documents, some groups have created strategic alliances with international criminal organizations. North African radical groups, in particular, have infiltrated the sophisticated networks that smuggle drugs and illegal immigrants into Europe, earning millions of dollars for their cause.
FP: Let’s get back to the mosques and networks in Europe. They also played a key role in indoctrinating other Muslims, didn't they?
Vidino: Places like the Finsbury Park mosque in London or the Islamic Cultural Institute of Milan became real hotbeds of radicalism, attracting and converting to fundamentalism thousands of local Muslims. The first wave of radicals (which in the book I call the "imported threat") created an environment that led to the radicalization of other Muslim immigrants who were not particularly religious when they left their home countries in the Middle East or in North Africa but, paradoxically, discovered radical Islam in Europe. This was Europe's main mistake, not anticipating the devastating effect that the propaganda of these radicals would have on young men who were already struggling with the normal difficulties of an immigrant in a foreign country. Giving asylum to the "imported threat" led to the creation of what could be called the "homebrewed threat."
Today we are in the stage where a third category has fully developed: the "homegrown threat." European intelligence agencies agree that European-born Muslims are the new face of al Qaeda in Europe; the 7/7 attacks in London (where 3 of the 4 suicide bombers were British-born) are just one of the many proofs of that development.
FP: The attacks in Madrid and London speak for themselves, but to what extent is al Qaeda present in Europe today?
Vidino: I think those two events are just the tip of the iceberg. For years, networks operating in Europe have provided key logistic support for terrorist operations throughout the world. Money, documents, weapons and recruits from Europe were crucial for almost every single attack against US interests over the last 15 years. It is not a coincidence that most of the planning for 9/11 itself took place in Germany and Spain. The number of radicals that various European intelligence agencies estimate to operate in the Continent is staggering. London estimates that between ten and fifteen thousand British Muslims are active supporters of al Qaeda or related groups, while Berlin believes that at least thirty thousand Muslims living in Germany can be considered Islamists. It would not surprise me if those estimates are much lower than the real numbers.
FP: What kind of strategic victory would conquering Europe be for the jihadists? What kind of prize do they envision Europe to be?
Vidino: There is a part of the radical Islamists' leadership that talks publicly about conquering Europe. Sheik Yusuf al Qaradawi, one of today's most influential Sunni clerics, is very open about it, as he has repeatedly predicted that "Islam will return to Europe as a conqueror and victor." But additionally, secularists have expressed a similar vision. In 1974, for example, former Algerian President Houari Boumedienne proclaimed in a speech at the U.N.: "One day millions of men will leave the southern hemisphere to go to the northern hemisphere. And they will not go there as friends. Because they will go there to conquer it. And they will conquer it with their sons. The wombs of our women will give us victory." The greatest majority of Muslims who come to Europe just want a better economic future and, in all likelihood, completely ignore these plans. But Europe has to win the battle for the hearts and minds of these Muslims. Governments must be relentless and aggressive in opposing the radical minority while, at the same time, offering a good alternative to its new citizens. But who wants to integrate in a society that is ashamed of itself? We are not making our case more appealing than the radicals' and that is why so many Muslims are rejecting our culture. If we reject it ourselves, how can we expect them to embrace it?
FP: The riots in Paris are yet just another terrifying confirmation that Europe is one of the key battlegrounds in the terror war, no?
Vidino: I am a bit reluctant to tie the events in Paris with terrorism. Deep socio-economic issues play a key role in what is going in France and while Muslims seem to be the majority of the rioters, many non-Muslims are also participating. Having said that, one cannot avoid pointing out the fact that Salafis and other Islamist organizations have for years exploited the sense of disenfranchisement that affects large segments of the European Muslim population. The same organizations (such as the UOIF--Union of Islamic Organizations of France) that now try to portray themselves as moderates and want to be seen calming the riots have carried out vitriolic verbal attacks against the French state and culture for years, urging French Muslims to shun integration and establish a parallel Islamic society. This kind of message finds fertile ground in the economically deprived suburbs of European cities, where recruiters find scores of potential recruits.
At the same time, I am also reluctant to equate economic deprivation with alienation and extremism. While France has made mistakes and not given many economic opportunities to Muslim immigrants, other European countries have strived to integrate them, yet failed to instil a sense of citizenship in them. Holland has extended all the benefits of its generous welfare systems to immigrants, providing them with good housing, benefits and even financing Islamic schools. Yet the level of segregation among Dutch Muslims is not less than that in France. The assassination of Theo van Gogh is a clear example of this phenomenon. More than the killing itself, what is more telling is the reaction of many Dutch Muslim youths, who consider van Gogh's killer, Amsterdam-born Mohammed Bouyeri, a hero who killed an infidel who vilified Islam. The dogma that equates radicalism with poverty is clearly disproved by an analysis of the background of European Muslim terrorists. The 7/7 suicide bombers, like many others British Muslims involved in terrorism, had a middle-class background, good education and prospects for their future.
FP: How come so many Muslims in London, Paris, Amsterdam and other European cities do not assimilate into their new societies and actually despise them? If they admire their own homelands so much more, why do they remain in the West?
Vidino: The answer to this question is to be found in the role of today's Muslim leadership in Europe. I firmly believe that the majority of Muslims who have come to Europe did so in search of a better future. Nevertheless, once in Europe, many of them fall under the influence of the radical networks and organizations that dominate mosques and entire neighborhoods. This relentless anti-Western and anti-democracy propaganda finds fertile ground among many young European Muslims who have problems assimilating culturally and economically in the continent's modern and secular societies. Groups such as Hizb ut Tahrir or al Muhajiroun spread the message that says "don't assimilate into these decadent societies, Islam is going to take over." Unfortunately this kind of message bounces from internet chat rooms to mosques and appeals to many young European Muslims. Europeans have ignored the problem for decades, but the latest events show how dangerous this denial is.
FP: Are we at the moment witnessing the end of Europe?
Vidino: Europe as we knew it thirty years ago is long gone. Demography doesn't lie: in a couple of decades non-ethnic Europeans will represent the majority of the population in many European cities and a large percentage of them will be Muslim. It's up to Europeans to make this work, but it is clear that the policies employed so far have all failed. It is crucial for Europe to find its soul and be proud once again of its history, tradition and values. It's difficult to ask a newcomer to become a good citizen of a country if the natives themselves are not willing to uphold the values and heritage of their own countries. More and more Europeans are understanding that multiculturalism, at least in the way it was conceived in Europe until now, does not work. We have to stop justifying intolerable behaviours just because we are afraid of offending other cultures. All cultures must be respected and immigrants should be able to cherish their own customs, but only as long as they do not infringe on those basic human rights that have characterized life in the West for the last three centuries. Brutalities like honor killings and female genital mutilations have been tolerated out of fear of offending minorities. Moreover, it is one thing to respect other peoples' customs and traditions, but it is another to reject the hallmarks of our own civilization. This latter attitude is not only wrong, but also counterproductive, as it is often perceived not as openness and tolerance, but as a sign of weakness.
FP: Mr. Vidino, thank you for joining us today.
Vidino: Thank you to FrontPage.
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