Even in their darkest soviet days, Russians were quick with a topical joke that cut, cynically, to the heart of a complex political situation. Having lived through putsches, crime waves, terrorist threats and stepped-up security for the past decade, they now jest that Osama bin Laden was detained in Moscow because he did not have a registration permit but the police let him go for 50 rubles (about $1.60). Although characteristically Russian in its punchline, the joke touches on the ordinary police work and sometimes luck involved in catching terrorist suspects, as well as on the controversial role of personal documents. While European governments step up their offensives in the "war on terrorism" making numerous arrests and claiming early inroads into cross-border terror networks several continue to battle homegrown extremists who rarely present a threat outside their national borders.
"The heat is on," noted a government official in Greece, where Revolutionary Organization 17 November and other terror groups have long targeted Western interests and Americans in particular. In the climate of heightened cooperation following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Greece like other American allies is providing the U.S. free and unfettered assistance in ongoing investigations and tightening security measures at airports, marinas, diplomatic missions and U.S. military installations.
Franceís special Search and Intervention Brigade (bri), set up in June to collaborate with Spanish police in their 30-year fight against the Basque separatist movement eta, claimed its first success. It arrested five people including the alleged head of etaís logistics arm on suspicion of planning to steal explosives.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Muslim, Serb and Croat leaders agreed to coordinate police activities, tighten border controls and strengthen passport procedures. During the Bosnian war, hundreds of passports were issued to Islamic fighters from the Middle East and Central Asia in return for their help in fighting the Serbs. Czech troops, meanwhile, took up protective positions at the Prague headquarters of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty network, which broadcasts to Iraq, Iran and Central Asia, among other areas.
Reflecting U.S. silence surrounding specific military and intelligence moves, European secret services and antiterror units kept mum amid reports from Brussels that they would meet in mid-October to discuss information- and equipment-sharing, as well as possible joint training and anti-terror operations. As Interpol and the European Unionís Europol pledged to work closer together, civil liberties organizations, commentators and others across Europe raised concern that, in a new atmosphere of "emotional correctness," a rush to enact new laws and security measures could potentially erode long-cherished freedoms. In an effort to curtail money laundering in Germany, for example, support is growing for relaxation of laws on bank confidentiality. "Itís simply an example of a government using this [U.S.] tragedy to extend their powers and gain unwarranted access to the private records of its citizens," said Jürgen Jülech, a tax adviser in Brühl, near Cologne. "And Iím afraid theyíre going to succeed."
"When police cooperate, the bad guys lose," says Ronald Noble, secretary-general of Interpol. But to Simon Davies, director of Privacy International a London-based privacy and data-protection watchdog "turf wars can be a great safeguard" against overzealous policing and "joined-up government" that collects vast amounts of data about individuals.
Britain is shaping up as a key battleground in the dispute. Unlike its Continental neighbors, the country has had no national identity card system since war-era documents were phased out in 1952, and the concept has long been anathema to most Britons. Still, Home Secretary David Blunkett says he may propose technologically sophisticated cards that would have "entitlement and citizenship" uses beyond security considerations. Privacy International vehemently opposes such "biometric" cards, which could incorporate unique physical characteristics such as fingerprints or face-recognition "landmarks." They and any card would do little to stop terrorism, argues Davies, and the technology would be available to criminals. "Outrage makes bad laws," the conservative Daily Telegraph noted and Big Brother, many feel, does not need any little helpers.