5th Mar 2021

Post-9/11 Europe: 'safer' but less free

  • The image that shocked the world: New York's Twin Towers collapsing (Photo: wstera2)

Ten years after the fall of New York's twin towers and four months after the death of Osama Bin Laden, Europe is said to be 'safer' - but in return, private data is scrutinised by a multitude of counter-terrorism programmes, few of which have been properly assessed.

The still-vivid spectacle of the collapsing towers caught everybody by surprise. Many people still remember what they were doing on 11 September 2001 when the news broke: Belgian Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, head of the rotating EU presidency at the time, was at a jazz concert in Yalta during an EU-Ukraine summit.

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"We got a phone call from the embassy and were told there was a plane that hit one of the twin towers. It was not clear what the source of this was, but then we saw on TV as a second plane hit the other tower. That was no longer an accident," Verhofstadt recalled during a press conference on Thursday (8 September).

The rest is history: the US declared War on Terror, invaded Afghanistan, attacked Al Qaeda training camps and occupied Iraq. "Black sites" - Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Baghram in Afghanistan and Guantanamo in Cuba - sprang up in places where people endured "enhanced interrogation" without the rights guaranteed by the American legal system.

The invasion of Iraq caused deep division in the EU. But several eastern European countries, eager for US support for their Nato and EU bids, sent soldiers to join the war effort and allegedly took part in CIA renditions - the kidnapping and torture of terrorist suspects.

German car salesman Khaled El-Masri was snatched in Macedonia and flown to Afghanistan where - according to his testimony - he was repeatedly beaten and raped over a period of months before being dumped on a deserted hill in Albania. It later emerged that he was mistaken for an Al Qaeda operative with a similar-looking name.

"They permitted, protected and participated in CIA operations that violated fundamental tenets of our systems of justice and human rights protection," the Council of Europe's human rights czar Thomas Hammarberg said in a statement this week.

Hammarberg's call for a full investigation into the events is unlikely to be heeded any time soon.

Poland has admitted letting CIA flights land and take off but says it did not know what they were for. Romania says there is "no evidence" of CIA detention centres on its territory. In Lithuania, former foreign minister Vygaudas Usackas resigned over his alleged role in authorising CIA detentions. But the scandal did not stop the EU's new diplomatic service from hiring him as its envoy in Afghanistan, where Nato continues to fight the War on Terror.

Over the years, fighting al Qaeda has been carried out mainly by intelligence services and police, with few 'soft policies' such as social work or education integrated in the effort. Neither were victims groups associated.

A so-called anti-radicalisation network inaugurated by the European Commission on Friday (9 September) aims at connecting social workers, psychologists, police, think-tanks and victims associations in a bid to exchange experiences and see what works and what does not.

"It's important to look at the victims and let their voices be heard. European identity was based on the memory of people surviving concentration camps, on anti-Nazi culture. Testimonies of victims of terrorism must be made part of this integrated effort to fight radicalisation, if it's going to work," said Luca Guglielminetti from the Italian Association of victims of terrorism.

Water bottles and private data

Less headline-grabbing counter-terrorism policies have also crept into the lives of EU citizens.

Liquids and gels are still banned from airplane cabins, even to the extent of forbidding contact-lens cleaning liquid needed during a long-haul flight. Credit card data, home addresses and even the meal preferences of European passengers flying to the US are sent to American investigators 72 hours before they take off. International banking transactions - for instance wiring rent money in Belgium while abroad - are sent to the US Terrorism Finance Tracking Program (TFTP) via the European transactions processing firm Swift.

The liquid ban is due to be phased out from 2013. But the EU is considering setting up its own Passenger Name Record (PNR) agreement for flights to and from Europe and its own version of the TFTP.

"We have a carbon copy of US anti-terrorism policies. They were often imposed on us, of course. But there is a big difference. In the US there is a lot more scrutiny and accountability than here," Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld, the main opponent of post-9/11 measures in the EU parliament, said.

She noted that US media have been much more active in uncovering the TFTP and rendition programmes than their EU colleagues. Civil liberties movements are also more influential than in Europe while US government bodies have embedded inspectors and civil rights supervisors inside intelligence structures, she added.

In 't Veld questioned EU and Nato officials who claim the world is safer than 10 years ago. "We haven't even proven that the data we already have is enough or necessary to be collected ... With every big terror attack, it proves time and again that we had all the data we needed, but we were not able to connect the dots," she said, pointing to recent events in Norway, where an anti-Muslim radical killed 77 people after evading scrutiny for six years.

MEPs next week are likely to ask for a thorough analysis of the impact and the costs of counter-terrorism policies across the bloc.

"We are in huge economic crisis. We're cutting down on health care, education, culture. I think it's fair and valid to ask these questions. It's our democratic duty. And remembering the 9/11 victims is one thing, but we also owe it to the people who fought and died for democracy in Europe to defend these rights," in 't Veld said

Small-scale attacks more likely

Speaking to reporters earlier this week, EU anti-terrorism czar Gilles de Kerchove said "we are safer today from an attack of the scale of 9/11" but added that the threat has evolved into a "much more complex and diversified" form, including Al Qaeda copycats in the Arabian Peninsula and in Africa as well as 'lone-wolf' far-right and far-left extremists inside Europe.

He noted that Al Qaeda has so far failed to exploit the Arab Spring but may in future use the "security vacuum" in countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya where regime-tainted intelligence services are being dismantled.

He made the case for more data collection instruments in Europe and said the European Parliament, which is to co-decide on most of the projects, should act as guardian of data privacy. "I don't see any instruments that may be too intrusive and should be rolled back," he said.

Human rights groups disagree.

The European Network Against Racism said about the 9/11 anniversary the EU should "finally put an end to the politics of fear and realise the damaging effects they have on peace, order, cohesion and mutual trust in our societies.

"Europe in particular needs to embrace a positive and progressive narrative that shows the value of a diverse population for the prosperity of European society and economy.”

NATO invokes mutual defence after US attacks

For the first time in its history, NATO has invoked article five of mutual defence, opening up the possibility of a collective action by NATO after the terrorist attacks against targets in the United States. The members of NATO agreed on Wednesday night that the terrorist attacks against the United States constitute an article five type aggression against a member of the Atlantic Alliance, and consequently the allies may act in mutual defence. Under article five of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO members have to act to collectively defend a member of the Alliance which has been attacked.

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MEPs call for review of EU counter-terrorism policies

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