Three Reasons Why Europe Doesn't Care About Bin Laden's Death

It has been noted with some venom in U.S. media circles that America’s European allies have expressed at best muted enthusiasm to the news of Osama bin Laden’s assassination. PolicyMic writer Whitney Waters recently reported a calm indifference in London, and I can certainly report the same quiet reaction in the capital of the European Union, Brussels.

However, the luke-warm European reaction noted by Waters – misinterpreted by many as some kind of underlying anti-Americanism – actually reflects three important distinctions between how they and the U.S. view counter-terror policy.

1. The “War on Terror” – At its core, most European states don’t feel an intellectual or emotional attachment to this policy agenda. Whilst undoubtedly supportive both politically and militarily in the wake of 9/11, the bitter disputes over the invasion of Iraq brought with it serious European doubts.

Suddenly, E.U. institutions woke up to a myriad of ethical and legal inconsistencies, like extraordinary rendition, widespread data collection, and the humanitarian aftermath of two costly military interventions.

Europe has concluded that the War on Terror agenda was a gross miscalculation. Recent years have seen the E.U. judiciously review over-reaching counter-terror policies, something the U.S. has been loath to do, as illustrated by recent arguments in favour of the use of torture. Many European capitals subsequently decided to draw-back many measures; most recently, by reviewing the “SWIFT” terrorism data sharing system.  

Why?

2. Because terrorism is an old, old problem – European governments very quickly placed the threat of global jihad-inspired terrorism into the context of existing terrorist threats. The U.S., Europe suddenly realized, was talking about terror as if it was a “new” phenomena. This was plainly contrary to European history.

For instance, Northern Ireland has been consistently violent since 1969, with no sign of abating today. The first casualty of the Basque Separatist movement in Spain died in 1968, and this is also ongoing. Elsewhere, the 70’s and 80’s saw horrendous terrorist violence, with groups from Germany’s Baader Meinhof to Italy’s Red Army Brigade leaving hundreds of casualties in their wake.

In this context – and as a recent Europol report confirms – compared to European separatists, Islamic jihad barely registers. Out of 249 terrorist attacks on European soil in 2010, only three were related to Islamic groups. Out of 611 arrests for terrorist offences, barely one in five were Islamist. So Al Qaeda may grab headlines, but its terroristic reach is nothing compared to homegrown European threats.

3. Terrorist organizations don’t die easily –  The history of European terrorism is a long and painful one, in which the arrest or death of individual figures have rarely had a lasting influence. In Northern Ireland for instance, each assassination, incarceration or reconciliation of prominent leaders has spurred a splinter faction willing to carry out further terrorist attacks.

This experience has given European governments a long-term view; based on pragmatism, compromise and frequent set-backs in the name of future peace. European Government’s know you cannot “kill off” terrorism, as no individual killing permanently ends a movement.  

Given this, is it surprising that European citizens weren’t dancing in the streets last week? The European experience of terrorism goes beyond one man’s death.

So whilst the world is undoubtedly a safer place without bin Laden, Europe reserves the right not to get too excited. Over-enthusiastic Americans claim this could be “the end of terrorism”.

Europe’s reaction is blunt: It isn’t.

Photo Credit: cvrcak1