The British political and media establishments are in an uproar over a ruling issued by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which prevents the UK from deporting to Jordan Abu Qatada, a Jordanian-born cleric who has been called the leading al-Qaeda representative in Europe.
Columnist Matthew D’Ancona neatly summarizes the case against Abu Qatada in the Evening Express; noting “that he was an associate of Zacarias Moussaoui, the 9/11 conspirator, and Richard Reid, the notorious shoe bomber; that he advised Rachid Ramda, the mastermind behind the Paris Metro bombings in 1995; [and] that he was described as a ‘truly dangerous individual’ by a British immigration court.”
So why did the European justices decide the UK could not deport him to Jordan where he has been convicted of involvement in terrorist conspiracies? Jordan promised he would be treated according to the letter of the law and not abused, but the court held that some of the case against him was derived from interrogation under torture of one of his co-defendants and that this would fatally taint any case against him. Unless London can win an appeal, it will be left with the unpalatable choices of trying him in a British court (where there may not be enough evidence to convict) or simply releasing him, so that he can preach jihad in Europe in total freedom.
This is indeed an outrage. From the British standpoint, the most salient lesson is the need to lessen the EU’s ability to second-guess British institutions. From an American perspective, I would draw another lesson: the need to agree on universal rules for the handling of terrorist suspects.
The U.S. has improvised its own rules since 9/11, with even the Obama administration reluctantly agreeing to hold some suspects in indefinite detention in Guantanamo and to try them in military tribunals rather than in normal criminal courts. But the administration is so unhappy about this outcome it is refusing to send fresh detainees to Gitmo, which creates major problems in trying to figure out how to deal with freshly captured terrorists. The problem is even more acute in other democratic countries such as the UK which have not created a Gitmo-like set-up—and where public opinion is horrified the U.S. has done so. The reality, however, is terrorism is a special form of warfare and requires its own legal mechanisms—ones that are different either from those used to address ordinary crimes or conventional acts of war carried out by lawful combatants wearing uniforms and observing the Geneva Conventions.
More than a decade after 9/11 there has been no appreciable movement toward such an international standard—a sort of standing Nuremberg Tribunal that might win universal respect. But the Abu Qatada case shows the need for such an innovation remains pressing. President Obama should use a sliver of his popularity abroad to advocate for such a course. If any U.S. president can get it done, he can.