Date: 4/24/2004


A continent that differentiates between 'good' and 'bad' terror. The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale.

It was with a proverbial stiff upper lip that the head of London's anti-terrorist squad announced Tuesday that they had uncovered a sleeper cell allegedly assembling a massive chemical weapon.

Coming soon after the Madrid attacks, also carried out by "sleepers," the British success in smashing a terrorist ring might appear reassuring. The truth, however, is that Europe remains extremely vulnerable to Islamist terror attacks. And for this, it mostly has itself to blame.

Having failed to develop a common strategy against terror in their latest ministerial conferences and summits, the European Union members are now trying to pass the buck to the G-7 summit, due to be hosted by the US in June.

The problem is that the G-7 has already discussed terrorism at length. At the Halifax, Canada, summit in 1995 the G-7, joined by Russia, declared terrorism "a serious threat" to international peace. The following year's summit, held in Lyon, France, came up with a raft of measures to combat terrorism that was designated as "a clear and present danger to international law and order."

Nevertheless, of the 44 measures approved at Lyon, only 11 have been included in the national legislations of the countries concerned.

There are at least three reasons why the major powers have been reluctant to treat the war on terror as a genuine war.

The first is that many Western leaders cannot free themselves from the philosophy represented in this celebrated adage: One man's terrorist is another's freedom- fighter.

This leads to a division of terrorist movements into good ones and bad ones.

For example, successive British governments had no difficulty seeing the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as evil. But when it came to terrorist groups using British territory for planning and organizing attacks on other countries, the freedom-fighter shibboleth quickly came to the fore.

Until after the September 11, 2001, attacks against New York and Washington, visitors to London's Regent Park could see groups of bearded militants collecting money for terrorism in half a dozen Muslim countries, including Egypt, while the British police watched with indifference.

THE FRENCH, for their part, would not dream of classifying the Corsican terror gangs as freedom-fighters. But they turned a blind eye to terrorists who used French territory as a base for planning and financing mass murder in Algeria. Even when acts of terror were conducted on French territory, the authorities chose not to act - as long as the targets were not French citizens.

Between 1979 and 1997, for example, 17 Iranian opponents of the Khomeinist regime were murdered in France. The French didn't try to catch many of the culprits.

In some cases, Western elites manifest their pernicious admiration for some terrorist groups by using the phrase "resistance movement." A good part of the European media has banned the very term "terrorist" as an adjective for organizations that kill civilians in the name of this or that cause, replacing it by euphemisms such as "militant," "radical" and, borrowing a term from Noam Chomsky, "people-based."

Few noticed that Jose Luis Zapatero, leader of Spain's Socialist Workers' Party, used the term "Arab resistance" throughout the March election campaign in order to avoid the term "al-Qaida," which had been favored by his rival, former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar.

The second reason many Western governments are not serious about the war on terror is the temptation to obtain an opt-out from the terrorist threat. This was tried by France in the 1970s when it secured an opt-out from Palestinian groups that then specialized in hijacking passenger aircraft. (For a while, Air France became the safest carrier in Europe.)

The third reason many Western powers are unable to take a firm stand against terrorism is that a good part of their elite are persuaded that terrorists can be weaned away from their evil ways through negotiations. Such a delusion is almost natural in the case of politicians and intellectuals educated in a democratic tradition. But when it comes to facing terrorism, it could weaken the resolve without which victory cannot be achieved.

Sometimes the illusion that terrorists can be integrated into the normal political process leads to absurd claims. For example, there are those who call for "some form of negotiations" with the remnants of the Taliban or even what is left of al-Qaida. What these would- be dealmakers do not realize is that terrorists of the Taliban and al-Qaida type do not believe in compromise and give- and-take. They would not be satisfied even with an unconditional surrender on the part of their real or imagined adversaries.

For the global war on terror to succeed, it is imperative that all those fighting it convince themselves that there is no good terrorism, and that the real or imagined nobility of a cause cannot justify the murder of innocent people.