Video: Focus on Euro counterterrorism
updated 6/15/2005 5:20:11 PM ET 2005-06-15T21:20:11

On Wednesday, police in Spain arrested and charged 11 men accused of being part of a terrorist group based in Syria that is recruiting members to be suicide bombers in Iraq. The arrest, which experts say confirms Spain's role as a European staging ground for al-Qaida's recruiting efforts, comes on the heels of the arrest of five people on Tuesday in connection with the March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid.

With the arrests, there are building questions of how terrorists like Abu al-Zarqawi may be building up their base in Europe. On Wednesday, MSNBC's Lester Holt talked about that topic with terrorism experts Andrew Cochran, founder of the Counterterrorism Blog, and Walid Phares, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click above.

Holt: Walid, let me start with you. al-Zarqawi is the guy who's got his eye on selling violence and terrorism in Iraq, so explain to me a Spain connection to al-Zarqawi.

Phares: There are two connections. Lesson number one -- al-Zarqawi is a member of the cell office movement, an Islamic Fundamentalist ideology that exists among many immigrants in Spain. That's number one.

Number two, more importantly is the fact that the al-Qaida in Iraq believes since March 11, 2004 that because Spain withdrew from Iraq, it's going to be a safe haven for them.

Holt: A safe haven, but with the activities they were involved in and some of this may come out supporting terrorism operations inside Iraq or simply abroad and this is a safe haven?

Phares: Safe haven is multi-dimensional. Use it first of all to gather more energies and monies for support operations in Iraq, spying operations in other Western powers and if needed like as they did on March 11 to strike Spain if it hardens the position.

Holt: Mr. Cochran, let me ask you, apparently some of these individuals were involved in the financing of terrorism and money laundering, drugs and that sort of thing. Look at the overall War on Terrorism -- is that the key, is that the most difficult thing, tracing and disrupting the flow of money?

Cochran: Yes it is and in fact, in the Madrid train bombings and in the arrests in Germany earlier in this past week, you have a common threat of even petty crime. Small crime is being used to fund terrorism and it becomes very difficult to track the money across border flows. It takes a lot of international cooperation and that's what the U.S. has gone through for some years with Europe and parts beyond.

Holt: When you look at what's going on with Iraq, we know there are foreign fighters who have joined the insurgency but we haven't heard anything about support. Is a lot of the money in the financing and leg-working outside Iraq?

Cochran: That's true, you see that in these arrests and in the German arrests and in the comments by a senior military official to the Associated Press that as the financial support comes across Europe most of these arrests in the Madrid bombings are for some kind of material support. They're not for being directly involved in the bombing.

Holt: Now, let me turn back to Walid. The European Union has resulted in transparent borders between the countries. Has the European Union because of law enforcement been able to work in a cohesive way acting together to disrupt cross border operations?

Phares: There's some distance there in what we as Europeans have been able to do as Europeans. They're still nation states at the end of the day.

I've talked to many European experts at that end. French, Spanish, British will have to exchange information.

They do not have an equivalent of homeland security that we have here but al-Qaida in Europe is one. They have branches. They use European freedom and unity more than Europeans use it for their counter-terrorism activities.

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