Securing Europe- Fighting terrorism on home soil

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The last two years were not easy for the European Union from a security point of view: the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks and massive waves of refugees found it unprepared, and exposed the fallacies in an architecture which was not designed with such events in mind. Additionally, attacks in Nice, Munich and Normandy have led to increased concern. In reaction the EU has made significant legislative changes in order to prevent and fight terrorism, with the desire to maintain an open and free society always in the background of debates and deliberations.

In light of multiple attacks all over Europe, there was a review of it’s security arrangements. Image: LA Times

In a recent Eurobarometer study, which has been the EU’s public opinion measurement tool for more than twenty years, EU citizens stated that the global level seems most appropriate to effectively combat the terrorist threat. Europeans are 38% to think so, compared to 23% for the European level, surpassing the 21% for the national level, and 6% for the local or regional level. The Council of the EU, representing Member States, seems to have grasped this change. During the last October plenary session of the European Parliament stated through its representative that even though security is primarily the responsibility of Member States political expectations of the EU from citizens to deliver and ensure security are very high.

Brussels is not known for undertaking flashy policies that would captivate the eyes of journalists and citizens (with few exceptions, such as the Juncker Plan for Investment and the European Border and Coast Guard, both fruit of a more ‘political’ Commission). It usually operates through a series of actions and legislative initiatives that when combined try to improve the situation bit by bit. Below you can find the current state of play of all actions prompted from the new security challenges that Europe faces.

Information Exchange

The Paris terrorist attacks revealed one crucial element of danger with regards to the EU’s internal security arrangements: the lack of communication and information sharing among security agencies of Member States. It was made blatantly obvious when Salah Abdeslam, the on-the-run Paris terrorist attacker, was questioned at the French border with Belgium once they were closed off as an emergency measure. He was then sent on his way after he showed them his ID card. Officers pulled over Abdelsam on Saturday morning on the motorway between Paris and Brussels just hours after he abandoned a car containing three Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles. He was known to Belgian intelligence authorities, but not to the French. The lack of communication and interoperability between databases did the rest.

Attacks all over Europe have prompted the need for additional insights. Image: Express/GettyImages

The Internal Security Strategy 2015-2020 had information exchange at its core, in terms of improving accessibility and ensuring interoperability between different systems. In June 2016, the Council of the EU also endorsed a Roadmap on information exchange and information management in the Justice and Home Affairs area which will now be regularly reviewed. The Roadmap contains 50 practical short and medium-term actions as well as long-term orientations, with the main aim being that of practitioners, such as police and border officers, to have a speedy and effective access to high quality information.

The European Commission also decided to set up an internal High-Level Group on Information Systems and Interoperability in July to contribute to the development of a long-term vision regarding the architecture of EU systems and databases in order to ensure interoperability. The Commission’s High Level Expert Groups are consultative bodies composed of public and/or private entities that provide advice and expertise on specific topics.

The Europol Information System (EIS), a voluntary and underused support tool for Member States, reported that the number of terrorism-related objects increased in the third quarter of  2016 by 20% compared to the previous one, to a total of over 13 000. Moreover, the number of searches conduced in EIS during Q3 set a new record, since it brought the total number of searches performed this year to more than 1 million, representing a first in the history of the system. The Schengen Information System (SIS) also registered a number of alerts for dangerous persons to have almost doubled, reaching 90 000 queries.

Furthermore, Europol also created the possibility for counterterrorism units to communicate bilaterally using the Secure Information Exchange Network (SIENA), which is now undergoing upgrading to EU confidential level. Since January, the European Counterterrorism Centre has also been operational contributing to the stepping up of information sharing and operational cooperation.

Radicalisation

The issue of radicalisation features high on the agenda for preventing terrorism. While Member States still believe that it can be primarily addressed by them, the Council now believes that for its effectiveness it also needs to be coordinated through efforts at the European level. As a follow-up to the Commission’s communication in June the November Education Council will adopt conclusions on preventing radicalisation leading to violent extremism which will reflect the broad approach needed with the preventive role of education and youth work.

Online content for extremist propaganda is a priority in this field, with the European Referral Unit cooperating with internet service providers on a constant basis. As of now, 90% of content considered to be illegal has been brought down, with new initiatives expected in this field following the December Internet Forum launched by the Commission to fight online radicalisation.

Fear of Foreign Fighters

The EU is worried that western foreign fighters, EU citizens that joined the fight on either side against ISIS, might not be suitable for reintegration following their return, or may even act domestically to conduct terrorist attacks. The EU’s Counterterrorism Directive includes a series of measures, including more systematic checks at external borders in order to alleviate this possibility, as well as responses to the possible abuse of refugee migration routes by terrorists.

The Security Union

The Security Union was a direct consequence of the new European security environment. The first report on its implementation was presented in October, focusing on the Justice and Home Affairs areas in particular, but with a scope that will broaden in the future. The Commission explained that the Security Union has a cross-cutting nature, with initiatives that encompass a broad sway of its work, bringing together more than 20 Directorates General.  The focus of the Security Union is two-fold:

  • First, to close down the space in which terrorists and criminals operate, to deny them the means that they use, namely money, ammunition, and movement, while also working on preventing terrorism and countering radicalisation. The European Parliament and the Council are currently working on the 4th amendment of the Anti-Money Laundering Directive, on implementing the remaining steps of the Action Plan Against Firearms Illicit Trafficking and the Use of Explosives, as well as implementing the Regulation on Firearms Deactivation that has entered into force in April. There is one remaining trilogue between the co-legislators of the EU in order to reach an agreement on the revision of the Firearms Directive that will significantly restrict the movement of military assault weapons.
  • Secondly, to build resilience by strengthening information systems and reinforcing critical infrastructure in the areas of transport, energy, and cybersecurity, too often targeted by both terrorists and criminals.

The power of ideas

The European Commission believes that terrorism must be fought with ideas, firstly by identifying and taking down propaganda, but also through developing a persuasive counter-narrative backed up by opportunities and incentives. This represents the only way to tap in the same idealism that radicalism exploits. Moreover, these actions must target the same people that recruiters are targeting, but through education, employment, and inclusion, with the European Commission funding targeted projects through Erasmus+, Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) counter-narratives, Youth Guarantee and financial support through the European Social Fund.

 

New ideas, same problem

As with most EU legislation that are no directly applicable, what is important is to have an appropriate implementation of what was already agreed upon, with the Commission ready to support Member States with technical assistance, exchange of best practice, and financially as well. However, Member States need to do their part, with Passenger Name Records (PNR) being a prime example. According to Commissioner for Security Union Julian King, the PNR is a key instrument in the fight against terrorism that has a transposition deadline set in May 2018. Yet, few Member States have the necessary infrastructure to handle the data, some others are still developing plans, while 11 are yet to start work. Nevertheless, once the deadline for transposition has passed, the European Commission will not hesitate to launch infringement proceedings, it indicated, which usually serves as an adequate pressuring mechanism.

The coming together of the member states, domestic practices and successful implementation of the different policies is what will aid in fighting terrorism on home soil.

This article is courtesy GA Monitoring, our European partners. You can reach them at info@gamonitoring.eu