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Grappling with global terror conundrum

Aftermath of Madrid train bombing
The conference honoured those killed in the Madrid train bombing
The world's anti-terrorism experts met for a conference in Stockholm this week and, as Roger Hardy, the BBC's Islamic Affairs Analyst, found, optimism was in short supply.

As the event began - at a conference centre overlooking the famous Stockholm waterfront - we stood in silent commemoration of the victims of the Madrid train bombings of 2004.

It was a sign, had we needed one, that we were gathered in the Swedish capital to discuss one of the most important and difficult issues of our time.

The participants came at the topic from every angle.

There were senior soldiers and policemen, intelligence professionals, diplomats, think-tank experts, a handful of journalists - and, on the fringes, salesmen eager to explain the latest gadgets, designed to make us feel safer in a dangerous world.

Counter insurgency

Our common concern was how do you defeat an insurgency - and the phrase invoked more than once was T E Lawrence's dictum that it is like eating soup with a knife.

He, after all, was in a position to know, having led a much-romanticised Arab insurgency against the Turks in the First World War.

US troops on foot patrol in Baghdad, 10 March 2008
Many experts see the "ideas war" to be as important as the battlefield
Insurgencies of course are not new.

At one point, delegates trooped off to see that classic Sixties film The Battle of Algiers - the moral of which is that a Western country, however powerful (and even one that is ready to resort to torture) will fail to crush an insurgency if it faces determined popular resistance.

Now the West and its allies are trying to adapt the lessons drawn from past insurgencies to help them fight a new kind of war.

Even defining the conflict is problematic. US President George W Bush dubbed it the "war on terror".

Others now prefer to call it a "global insurgency". Still others think that term is not quite right either.

Ideological struggle

But whatever it is, it is posing a whole host of dilemmas for those who are fighting it.

Above all, this new war is being fought, not just on the battlefield, but in the mind.

Protesters in Pakistan burn a Danish flag (24 February 2006)
Cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad inflamed opinions
The West and its Islamist adversaries are competing for Muslim opinion - and that means Muslim opinion in Birmingham and Jakarta, as well as Baghdad and Kabul.

So in this battle for hearts and minds, how do you protect law-abiding Muslims, while continuing to capture or kill the violent ones?

And can you be sure you can tell the difference?

One British defence expert remarked: "We're not looking for a needle in a haystack - we're looking for a piece of straw in a haystack."

Everyone is having to reinvent their traditional role.

Soldiers are no longer just fighters but nation-builders.

Policemen must visit mosques and explain what they do to sceptical Muslim congregations.

Intelligence people are trying to get into the minds of an enemy they only dimly understand.

Government departments can no longer operate as "stovepipes" - the favourite jargon nowadays for agencies which do not co-operate with one another and sometimes do not even speak to one another.

It is clear there are still significant differences of approach - not least between the Americans, who tend to see terrorism as a form of war, and the Europeans, who tend to see it as a form of crime.

And, as the conference made plain, Europeans are far from being united in their perception of Muslim radicalism in Europe - and how their governments and societies should respond to it.

Pessimistic predictions

There is an abiding fear of social division.

The Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad polarised Muslim and non-Muslim opinion in Europe - and now there are fears that a film about the Koran, made by a right-wing Dutch politician, could do the same.

As for those salesmen for whom the conference was essentially a marketing opportunity, I had to confess to being technically challenged.

I never did master "predictive analytics" - and my favourite bit of gobbledy-gook was "open computer forensics architecture" - or OCFA for short.

And if, like me, you do an internet search for it, you may not end up much the wiser.

It is now widely recognised that Muslim hearts and minds matter
What struck me most, in three days of debate, was the degree of pessimism about the task at hand.

Yes, there has been a learning curve.

It is now widely recognised that Muslim hearts and minds matter and that military successes mean little if the battle of ideas is being lost.

But there is still a long way to go.

This came home to me when I spoke to an American military man who had helped produce the US Counter-Insurgency Manual.

How long did he think the "long war" - as many now call it - would last?

It is the kind of question journalists ask, and I did not expect that he would put a number on it.

But he did. "Thirty years if we get it right," he said. "A hundred years if we get it wrong."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 15 March, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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