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Spain, US Seeking Cooperation in Terrorism Fight

FBI Director Robert Mueller, left, shakes hands with Spanish Justice Minister Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar before a meeting in Madrid
Justice officials from the United States and Spain have launched a series of meetings intended to improve cooperation and intelligence-sharing in the fight against terrorism. The talks are also seen as an effort to patch up differences over the Iraq war. There are key differences in how the two countries address terrorist threats.

The United States and Spain share a dark history as targets of two of the deadliest terrorist attacks in recent years: the September 11, 2001, terrorist hijackings in the United States, and the Madrid train bombing last year.

To help bolster cooperation by police and counter-terrorism authorities, Spain's justice minister, Juan Fernando Lopez-Aguilar met last week with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other top officials in Washington. This week, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Robert Mueller, is to travel to Spain to further strengthen relations.

Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says the two nations are obvious partners in the fight against terrorism.

"There was quite a bit of the 9-11 plot that had elements that took place in Spain," he said. "Spain is a critical entry point into Europe for Muslim immigrants, and among them are a small number of terrorists. And Europe is, in turn, a key entry point into the United States, as well as a target in and of itself."

But Washington and Madrid are still struggling to rebuild ties, strained by disagreements over the war in Iraq. Shortly after taking office last year, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero pulled his nation's troops out of Iraq, ending its military support for the U.S.-led coalition. While Washington justified the war in Iraq as a key step in countering international terrorists, Spain's new prime minister rejected the use of international military action, which was supported by his predecessor.

Samuel Wells, director of West European studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, says the dispute shows key differences in how the nations seek to battle terrorism.

"We view terrorism as a major national security problem, have dubbed it a war and respond with military actions," said Mr. Wells. "By and large, the Europeans, and Spaniards are very much in this tradition, see it as criminal activity, and pursue it with police and trials."

And Spain's courts are playing a key role in the fight against Islamist extremists, blamed for the Madrid train bombing, which killed 191 people. Last month, the country opened a trial of 24 alleged members of the al-Qaida terrorist network, including three suspects in the September 11 attacks in the United States.

During last week's visit to Washington, Spanish Justice Minister Lopez-Aguilar stressed the role of the courts in countering Islamist terrorism, as well as domestic threats, from the Basque separatist group, ETA.

"We have to do our duty in the respect of the rule of law," said Mr. Lopez-Aguilar. "There are no shortcuts against terror. We have to accomplish our duties, respecting the rule of law in the constitutional standards and principles."

The United States is using military tribunals to hear cases against hundreds of foreign terrorist suspects who have been jailed for years as enemy combatants. Human rights groups accuse Washington of denying the right to trial to the suspects, who include some U.S. citizens. But U.S. officials say holding criminal trials could damage the war on terrorism, by exposing national security information or other sensitive data.

The legal debate reveals another feature of the U.S. war on terrorism: most suspects are foreigners detained on the battlefield in Afghanistan or in other countries. In contrast, Spain and other European nations have been battling terrorists on their own soil for years, from attacks by Red Brigade militants in Italy to the Palestinian kidnapping of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

And recent attacks like those in 2001 in the United States and the Madrid train bombings are focusing more attention on Muslim immigrant populations, like the one in Spain. Again, Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution.

"Spain has a large and growing domestic Muslim population, which isn't terribly well integrated into Spanish society, and which is likely to be the main source of any kind of Islamist terror problem that they will have in the next 20 years," he predicted. "And we don't have that type of a problem. We don't have that type of a domestic group that threatens us. We're looking for problems coming from the outside."

To help counter those outside threats, the United States acknowledges it needs the help of its allies and other nations. And combining the resources and intelligence of the United States and Spain, officials hope to win more battles in the fight against terrorism.