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23rd Feb 2020

EU to increase intelligence sharing with Arab states

  • Mogherini: 'We know very well that the first victims of terrorists and terrorist attacks are Muslims and are Arab countries' (Photo: European council)

The EU wants to step up security and intelligence co-operation with neighbouring countries to counter terrorist threats.

The plan is part of a broader effort discussed on Monday (19 January) by EU foreign ministers to reduce the risk of militant attacks by getting national intelligence and law enforcement agencies to share data and to communicate better with each other and their counterparts in Turkey, north Africa, and Asia.

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An EU source said it could involve a future proposal by the EU’s counter-terrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove to rebuild dismantled intelligence agencies in post-Arab spring countries, such as Tunisia.

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, told reporters in Brussels she wants "security attaches" posted in EU delegations to help liaise with the host country’s authorities.

She also wants to reach out to Arab-speaking populations by "improving our capacity to speak Arabic, read Arabic" and "listen to the messages coming from the Arab world".

Mogherini, in a separate meeting with Arab League secretary general Nabil El Arabi, agreed to work closer together on counter-terrorism threat and announced that projects would be launched in the coming weeks with Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Yemen, the Gulf countries and some African nations.

“We know very well that the first victims of terrorists and terrorist attacks are Muslims and Arab countries,” she said.

Monday’s meeting, marked by a sense of urgency, outlined plans with formal decisions set to be taken on 12 February.

A meeting in Brussels is also planned in the next few days with experts from the EU, US, Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, and UN agencies to figure out how to cut the funding schemes that bankroll militant groups in Iraq and Syria.

The aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, which left 17 dead, has seen national governments trying to fast track security measures provisionally announced last October.

These includes, among others, stepping up external border checks and blocking, with the help of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft, online content that glorifies the violence perpetrated by Islamic militants.

But concerns are mounting that additional security calls made by national governments, such as confiscating passports, pose a threat to civil liberties and may result in unanticipated adverse affects.

Passport seizures 'alienate'

The director of the Hague-based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, Mark Singleton, told this website that government-led moves to confiscate travel documents of suspected jihadists could provoke further attacks.

“Generally speaking, withdrawing passports of those persons intent on leaving, might deter some, but it may just as well have adverse effects: the individual may become so frustrated that they decide to retaliate by attacking local targets,” he said in an email.

There are also legal ramifications.

He pointed out that presenting compelling evidence to justify the sanction of withdrawing a passport is challenging “to say the least, and arguably in violation of international law.”

“Treating everyone as though they pose an equal threat is incorrect and likely to contribute to further alienation of the vast majority of potential returnees from their home countries and communities, thereby condemning them to exposure to a very dangerous environment,” he said.

“This is not to say that withdrawing one's passport should never be considered; but to apply it indiscriminately is not a wise approach.”

The plans, backed by the European Commission, are already in the process of being enacted or debated by a handful of governments, including Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and others.

Belgium, for its part, remains on high alert.

Fear of follow-up attacks surfaced after a deadly standoff in the east of the country last Thursday when police discovered a stash of explosives, fake IDs, and assault rifles.

On Monday, Greek police arrested a 33-year old Algerian after Belgium issued a European Arrest Warrant.

The counter-terrorism division of the Hellenic Police say the man was allegedly involved in terrorist activity in Belgium.

“The arrested is being led today to the competent public prosecutor, since the Belgian authorities have requested his extradition,” they said in a statement.

PNR not formally discussed

Ministers also backed a stalled EU-wide data exchange bill that requires airlines to hand over passenger details to the police.

The issue was not formally debated as it falls into under the responsibility of EU interior ministers.

But Mogherini, Belgian foreign affairs minister Didier Reynders, along with his counterparts from Ireland and the United Kingdom, all spoke out in favour of the data exchange pact.

“I hope the European Parliament will change its attitude on the issue [PNR] and authorize the setting up of an EU-wide PNR along with collaboration of other partners like the United States, Canada,” Reynders said.

Civil liberty groups and the European parliament’s liberal and green parties say the so-called EU PNR (passenger name record) bill would erode privacy rights.

They note it also risks being struck down by the European Court of Justice unless additional safeguards are added.

The Luxembourg-based court in April annulled the EU data retention directive on the basis that it violated fundamental rights and was disproportionate.

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