WASHINGTON, Apr 5 (Reuters) Islamic militants in Europe pose a direct threat to US national security, more than 4-1/2 years after Europe-based plotters planned much of the September 11 attacks, senior US officials said today.
While small in number, pockets of Islamic extremists exist across Europe and have generated militants such as convicted shoe-bomber Richard Reid, September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, and those behind bombings in London and Madrid, said Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of State for European affairs.
''It is now well known that the terrorist cell that conducted the 9/11 attacks did much of its planning from a base in Europe,'' said Henry Crumpton, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator who spoke at the Senate foreign relations committee alongside Fried.
''Five years later, and despite many counterterrorism successes, violent Islamic extremism in Europe continues to pose a threat to the national security of the United States and our allies,'' Crumpton said.
He said some Europe-based Muslim militants were directly affiliated with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and associated groups such as Abu Musab al Zarqawi's followers in Iraq or northern Africa's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
Fried said one to two per cent of western European Muslims were involved in extremist activity. Of those, he said ''only a small fraction has the potential to cross the threshold into actual terrorism. But a handful of extremists can carry out a devastating terrorist attack.'' FEELINGS OF ALIENATION Some 15 to 20 million Muslims live in western Europe, where they are the fastest growing and largest religious minority.
Fried said European Muslims' struggles with unemployment, discrimination and integration had created fertile ground for extremist exploitation. Militants also took advantage of broad free speech laws in some European states to spread their ideologies, he said.
''Add to this a deeply negative perception and a distorted perception of US foreign policy among Western European Muslim communities, and relative freedom of movement across the Atlantic, and you have a particularly dangerous mix,'' he said.
Citizens of most European countries do not need a visa to travel to the United States, although they must have a fingerprint scan and digital photograph taken by an immigration officer as they enter the country.
Fried said widespread opposition to US and Western policies in the West Asia, including support for Israel and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, had helped increase the allure of Islamic extremism among alienated European Muslims.
''We and our European allies are vigilant concerning the potential consequences of the insurgency in Iraq on European Muslim populations, but to date there have been only a handful of European-residing Muslims who have gone to become foreign fighters,'' he added.
Among the most dramatic examples of this was Belgian Muriel Degauque, a 38-year-old convert to Islam who blew herself up last November in a suicide attack on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Crumpton and Fried said European states understood the gravity of the threat from local Islamic militants, and said overall counterterrorism cooperation was strong.
''But despite this shared perception of the threat, there is disagreement over the most effective means to counter the threat. Some European countries continue to argue that terrorism is merely -- or mainly -- a criminal problem,'' Crumpton said.
Reuters PG VP0335