FOLLOWING the events of 3/11 in Madrid and recent news that terrorists were allegedly planning to stage attacks in neighbouring Poland, it is reasonable to ask whether Slovakia too could become a target for Islamic extremists and what impact such an attack would have.
The fundamental question is whether Islamic terrorists have a motive to attack the civilian population of the country.
Traditionally, the actions of terrorist leaders, just as those of any political leaders, had to have double effect: They had to represent a convincing "argument" that was well noticed by the adversaries and appealed to the home audience. Therefore, the incurred terror was frightening enough to pressure the perceived enemy into making concessions, while stopping short of being too gruesome to digest by the supporters of the terrorists' cause. The adversary of Islamic extremists is currently clearly defined - it is the US and its allies, while supporters are from the Muslim world.
However, some analysts say modern-day terrorism is no longer about politics and it does not follow the path of traditional terror. Terrorist groups "are increasingly defined almost exclusively by a macabre culture of violence," writes prominent Newsweek commentator Fareed Zakaria.
"With many terrorist groups... like Al Qaeda... violence has become an end in and of itself. They want a lot of people dead, period," he continues. If that is indeed the case, the threat posed to Slovakia by terrorists is impossible to assess and may be high indeed.
The most obvious choice, regardless of the nature of today's terrorism, would be to attack US interests in Slovakia, whether they be the US embassy in Bratislava, US Steel Košice, or other major US targets.
So, while building a fence around the US embassy situated in the centre of Slovakia's capital, a plan that has been given the go-ahead by key local authorities despite strong opposition from locals, may not be the most aesthetic measure, it does make sense. US interests are hardly safe anywhere in the world. Hitting Slovak civilians in a way similar to Madrid's March 11 bombings would be a different issue. On one side it is true that Slovakia has been a staunch US ally throughout its campaign in Iraq, which does increase its risk. In January 2003 the Slovak government opened Slovakia's skies to US military aircraft and weeks later it allowed the American military to use Slovak transport routes in preparation for the war on Iraq.
At the start of the previous year the administration also agreed to send a chemical, biological, and radiation protection unit of over 70 men into the Gulf. Non-combat Slovak troops are still positioned in Iraq.
Since Spain has reacted to terror by reconsidering its military presence in Iraq, terrorists may feel encouraged to target other countries, which also could be pressured into withdrawing from the country and weakening the position of the US. And, as was the case in Spain, Slovaks will soon be deciding about the future of their right-wing pro-US government, not in parliamentary elections, but in the referendum on whether such elections should be held.
However, there still appear to be some more prominent potential targets on the list, including Great Britain, or Poland, which are both involved in Iraq.
In contrast, Slovakia enjoys the advantage of irrelevance on the international stage and it is questionable how many people outside of the country know of its involvement. It is even more questionable how many people in the Muslim world know of the country's existence. Spain has been called "one of the pillars of the crusade alliance" by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, which claimed responsibility for the Madrid train attacks in a message sent to the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.
"This is part of settling old accounts with Spain, the crusader, and America's ally in its war against Islam," the email said in explanation for the hits, according to the BBC. This can hardly be said of Slovakia. But if bloodthirsty madmen are indeed perpetrating acts of terror, Slovakia's insignificance may not suffice to deter them. Since it appears impossible to rule out Slovakia as an appropriate terrorist target, it is important that Slovakia address all threats.
President Rudolf Schuster recently voiced concerns that the cabinet is not doing enough to ensure the people's safety, a statement, which, as all others, needs to be viewed in light of the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for April 3. PM Mikuláš Dzurinda has responded by claiming that the government has taken sufficient measures following the Madrid bombings.
"We are aware that protecting citizens' safety is the government's fundamental role," Dzurinda said in an interview with the TA3 news channel.
However, there is good ground for concern as regards the future of Slovakia's fight against terrorism. In all countries this fight is mainly in the hands of intelligence services. The Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS) can hardly hope to have its hands freed after a series of scandals in 2003 damaged the agency's reputation and led to calls for limiting, not widening, its powers. It may be a long time before trust is restored and the trend is reversed, especially in a situation when few seem to acknowledge that the possibility of a deadly attack exists. More often than not, countries choose to take decisive action only once it is too late, as is best illustrated by the EU. The interior ministers of its member states met to discuss plans to step up efforts in the field of joint intelligence work only after the bombings in Spain, years after the 9/11 attacks and months after the start of the war in Iraq.
An attack on Slovakia would most likely have a devastating effect on the country's morale. Unlike in the US, people are not likely to unite in support of the government. Slovaks are already deeply distrustful of the cabinet, which appears in surveys as the least trusted institution of all. As many as 81 percent of Slovaks do not have confidence in the government, according to a study the Statistics Office released on February 6. It is narrowly followed by the parliament with 79 percent.
If the government failed to prevent an attack, the ratings of the cabinet would hardly improve, adding to the country's already worrying political instability.
Furthermore, the Slovak mentality has for decades been plagued by a sense of helplessness, a result of historic developments that have only too often made Slovakia an object, rather than a subject, of history.
Being dragged into a war by a mistrusted government following pressure from the world's sole superpower on premises that have not been confirmed, does not do much to improve the Slovak state of mind. And the government's embarrassing efforts to deny that the threat posed to the Western world by the non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction served as its main argument for backing the US-led war will not change that. But if, in addition, Slovakia becomes a victim of an act of terror, the inherent Slovak frustration and fatalism could reach new, untold heights.
29. Mar 2004 at 0:00