By Claude Salhani
UPI International Editor
Washington, DC, Apr. 27 (UPI) -- The precise scale and reach of Islamist extremism in Europe is difficult to identify, but the terror threat -- including that of nuclear terrorism -- is real, warns a new report from the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center.
At a hearing Wednesday delivered to the House Committee on International Relations, the Center's director, Claude Moniquet, pointed out gaps in precise intelligence data concerning Muslims in Europe, given Islam is not reported in the Europe Union census. Moniquet cited as example the lack of official figures of Muslims living in France, with estimates ranging between 4 million and 6 million.
Moniquet said public demonstrations by Islamists in Europe before 2000 "were a rare event." But since Sept. 11, 2001, "thousands of people" in France and Belgium took part in open demonstrations, such as the protests against the law banning the Islamic veil in French public schools.
Prior to the 1990s, Islamist political parties didn't exist in Europe, and though they still are not represented in parliament, they are making themselves heard. In Brussels, for example, in May 2003 the Party of Citizenship and Prosperity, which advocates radical Islam, won more than 8,000 votes.
European police and intelligence services have documented fundamentalists preaching hate in many European mosques, with youth associations often acting as front organizations for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mounting anti-Semitism in some areas has made teaching the history of the Holocaust in schools attended by young Muslims impossible, and Muslims students are openly questioning the theory of the origin of life. Europe's prisons on the other hand, have seen the increase of its Muslim population, which is frequently in the majority.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, hundreds of suspected terrorists have been arrested in Europe.
"Each week police arrest additional suspects," demonstrating, says Moniquet, "that the number of people willing to go from ideas to action is growing."
The French domestic intelligence service, les Renseignements Généraux, or RG, has tried to calculate the number of fundamentalists based on the assumption that on average, 5 percent of the Muslim population is fundamentalist. Of those, 3 percent could be considered dangerous. If those estimates are correct, then out of a population of 6 million people there would be 300,000 fundamentalists, of which, 9,000 are potentially dangerous. However, Moniquet cautions these figures should not be taken to mean the average Muslim is fundamentalist or dangerous. Most Muslims want to live a normal and decent life.
The causes of Islamic extremism in Europe are many and various, reports Moniquet, who said "there is not a single explanation for the appearance of Islamist extremism in Europe." The counter-terrorism expert points to lack of integration and racism, which leads to high unemployment. In France and Belgium, unemployment is around 10 percent, but more commonly 20 percent within Muslim communities.
He stated that events in Bosnia, Somalia, Chechnya, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "lead some young Muslims to create what the French sociologist Farid Khosrokhovar called 'an identity of vicarious humiliation.'"
Feeling excluded in the country they're living in, they develop a kind of empathy with all the "Muslim victims in the world" and convince themselves of their own exclusion and of the "persecution" of their coreligionists.
The terrorist threat is very real said Moniquet, though he stressed Islamists know they will not win. Their hope is to create or deepen the cultural and social divide between Muslims and non-Muslims. The idea in doing so is to radicalize Muslim communities.
What we are now expecting, warns Moniquet, "is the emergence of a new generation of terrorists: kids who were 12 to 15 years old on September 11 2001...." The threat against the interests of the United States from European terrorists is also very real, he warns, with U.S. interests, embassies, consulates, military personnel, hotels and companies being natural targets.
But there is more: most of the second-generation people and almost all of the third-generation now hold European passports, allowing them to travel freely to the United States or anywhere else they want to.
The Belgian expert cautioned against blaming all attacks on al-Qaida.
"A common mistake is to try to link each and every terrorist attack or plot to al-Qaida," he said.
Al-Qaida did have a "historical role" to play: "to build an international terrorist coalition uniting dozens of organizations." Now, however, individual Moroccan, Algerian, Chechen, Pakistani, Saudi, Iraqi and other organizations, often collaborate in very sophisticated projects.
Now, the counter-terrorism expert believes al-Qaida's role is to set "the general framework." This includes designating targets and giving "lawful authorization" -- or fatwas -- to act.
Recent successes by European intelligence services indicate the security services are getting better. Still, all Islamist groups and cells must be considered able to carry out terrorist attacks.
"What is more worrying" is some of the failed attacks in Europe (in France and Britain) were to use weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical products, he said.
Intelligence further indicates suspected terrorists have shown great interest in recent years in nuclear facilities, suggesting they are hoping to develop and use a "dirty bomb."
Moniquet stressed the importance of greater coordination among countries.
"The threat will not diminish in the foreseeable future," he said.