At a time of growing division, both within and across Western countries, we were reminded on the 17th of August through the pain on the streets of Barcelona of the value of unity. If the most recent attack on a European city should teach us one thing it is that our values and way of life unite us; if not always in our eyes, surely in those of our enemies.
Among the victims of the attacks there were nationals of at least 35 different countries. Barcelona is a markedly cosmopolitan city at the heart of the European Union (EU), itself a beacon of freedom and of liberal values. Moreover, the attack took place during the summer break at a time when Spain welcomes millions of tourists from every corner of the world. Tourism is one of Spain’s most important economic sectors making up over 10 per cent of the country’s GDP. What was attacked on the 17th of August was therefore a symbol of Europe’s openness and one of the pillars upon which Spain’s recent economic recovery is built.
Spain had not suffered a major terrorist attack since March 2004 when commuter trains entering Madrid were bombed by Al-Qaeda, killing 192 and injuring more than two thousand people. Since then the country has followed a two-pronged approach to dealing with terrorism. Externally it has aimed to procure institutional and economic resilience for countries in its southern flank such as Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania or Mali. The central goal of Spanish policy in the Maghreb and the Sahel has been to both reduce the number of migrants moving northwards towards Europe and deal with two of the root causes of radicalization in these places: the absence of responsive political institutions and the dearth of economic opportunity.
Internally, on the other hand, Spain opted for a strategy that sought to enhance its intelligence capabilities through institutional development and better cooperation across different security services. Of particular import in this area was the creation of the National Security Council in 2013 and the Round Table for the Evaluation of the Terrorist Threat, which brings together all of Spain’s major security services to share information and best practices. Also, Spain reformed its criminal code after the 2004 attacks, enabling the prosecution of suspects of minor terror-related crimes, including involvement in planning an attack. This has over the years made the number of arrests made in Spain linked to terrorism offences skyrocket. It is estimated that from 2004 to 2016 there were over 170 counter-terrorist operations in Spain that produced 650 arrests. Most of these led to short jail sentences but they enabled Spanish authorities to prevent major attacks for over a decade.
Shared intelligence – and prosperity
The long-term efficacy of all of these efforts, however, is strongly dependent on the cooperation across security services and also on collaboration with allies around the world. Strength in the fight against insecurity in the 21st century is a product of unity. This is particularly true of the fight against terrorism, a diffuse threat that knows no borders. Defeating this enemy will require supporting the development of countries in Europe’s direct neighborhood and in the Middle East, as well as building tight information sharing mechanisms across national frontiers. These are tasks of a scale and complexity that can only be tackled by capable states and within the frameworks of the EU and NATO.
And yet these institutions are today under threat, not just from without, but, worryingly, from within. The internal threat is perhaps the least evident and yet it is also the most pervasive. It comes from those who question the liberal international order, who seek to exploit differences within our societies, who speak disparagingly of alliances or international institutions or those who, in some instances, seek even to break up the nations that integrate them. The truth is, however, that the fragmentation of the international order would only serve to limit our capacity to provide security and prosperity to our citizens.
It is regarding this latter point that the attack on Barcelona and its aftermath become the most revealing. After months of discord and growing mistrust between the Spanish government and the regional government of Cataluña – the region where Barcelona is located – regarding the plans of the latter to hold an independence referendum in the fall, the attacks led all political forces to come together to honor the victims and condemn terrorism. It was during a march in Barcelona headed by the King of Spain after the attacks that the crowd starting chanting “No Tinc Por!” – “We are not afraid” in Catalan. It was an expression of unity, diversity and defiance.
Tragedy reminded all political leaders of the ultimate obligation of the institutions they lead: that of keeping citizens safe. In the face of such hatred and violence all other political goals had become smaller. And through the thick fog of the recent terror a clear message emerged: only together can Spaniards, Europeans and their allies defeat the threat posed by terrorism.
It is unclear if this event will in any meaningful way alter plans for the afore-mentioned independence referendum in Cataluña. As time goes by it seems that the spirit of unity seen right after the attacks is weakened. The Catalan government has now re affirmed its desire to push ahead with its plans for independence. This would be an unwise path to follow as what the tragic events in Barcelona teach us is that our perceived differences are not so great, and that we can only be effective in tackling international terrorism through unity.