Experts testifying before a congressional committee say the threat of terrorism may be greatest at present from Islamist terror cells in European countries.
The experts told the House Subcommittee on Europe and Emerging Threats that a combination of factors lead them to believe terrorist cells in Europe may pose the biggest threat to the security of the United States and its interests.
Peter Bergen, who has written on al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, is among those who see a trend of growing alienation of Muslims in European countries as feeding the aims of terrorist groups seeking new members. "We have the unfortunate confluence of rising Muslim immigration into Europe, a certain amount of European racism, and a certain amount of Muslim alienation, and this problem is going to increase over time," he said.
With Europe's Muslim population estimated as high as 20 million, other witnesses agreed with Mr. Bergen that more attention needs to be paid to this trend.
Claude Moniquet is director of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center.
While many Muslims in Europe know they enjoy more extensive civil liberties and other benefits not obtainable in their home countries, he says others have a different agenda. "A strong minority has very different meanings and a very different agenda. They think they must oppose democracy. They rally around radical patrons. They press extremist views of Islam and some of them choose to fight the so-called western enemy by arms or by bombs," he said.
Mr. Moniquet agrees with others on the role a lack of social integration has played, creating second and third generation Muslims who feel isolated, coupled with high unemployment in Muslim communities, even higher among Muslim youth.
Lorenzo Vidino, Deputy Director of The Investigative Project, notes that a significant part of planning by al-Qaida for the September 11, 2001 attacks took place in Europe.
He points to a troubling escalation of Islamist terrorist and extremist activities attributable to these factors developing over the past 10 years. "Lax immigration policies that have allowed known Islamic radicals to settle in Europe. The radicalization of significant segments of the continent's growing Muslim population. And the European law enforcement agencies inability to effectively dismantle terrorist networks, due to poor attention to the problem and or the lack of proper legal tools."
Mr. Vidino says Europe-based Islamist groups play an essential role in money laundering, supplying weapons and false documents, and recruitment, adding it would not be an exaggeration to describe Europe as a new headquarters of operations for terrorists, as Afghanistan was before the ouster of the Taliban.
Although U.S. lawmakers are relieved that there have been no major terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since the September 2001 attacks, they remain concerned not only that Europe could be used as a springboard for future attacks, but also about potential terrorist actions against U.S. interests.
Elton Gallegly, chairman of House subcommittee on Europe, sums up this concern. "The potential of extremist groups in Europe to obtain or develop weapons of mass destruction. Given the continued problem in securing our border with Mexico and Canada, I am concerned that dangerous weapons originating in Europe can pose a direct threat to our homeland," he said.
In the view of Claude Moniquet this concern is fully justified and offers this chilling prediction. "It is hard to be optimistic. The threats both against Europe, and from Europe to the United States will remain at a very high level (for) the foreseeable future," he said. "And I am afraid that a tragedy will be necessary for the European authorities to face the realities and to really address the problem posed by Islamists. The question in my view is no more and no longer if the tragedy will happen but when it will happen."
In his testimony to the committee, terrorism expert Peter Bergen told lawmakers he expects that future attacks are more likely to mirror those that took place in Madrid last year.
The hearing came as members of Congress are pressing hard for the U.S. government to devote more resources to securing America's borders and transportation system, and tightening immigration procedures to prevent terrorists from attacking again.