22nd Mar 2018

EU defends intelligence agencies in wake of attacks

  • The EU's counter-terrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove said the EU's police agency, Europol, needs to receive more intelligence from national authorities (Photo: Council of the European Union)

The EU’s counter-terrorism chief spoke out in defence of European intelligence agencies amid criticism that French and Belgian authorities failed to apprehend some of the attackers in the lead up the Paris shootings despite warnings.

Gilles de Kerchove, speaking to journalists in Brussels following the publication of a report on foreign fighters by the Strasbourg-based watchdog the Council of Europe, rejected notions member state security services are not working together to crack down on potential terrorists.

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“It would be inaccurate to suggest the security services are not working intensively together among themselves”, he said on Monday (7 December).

Turkey had warned France twice about Ismael Omar Mostefai, the 29-year old French national who opened fire on concert-goers at the Bataclan on 13 November in Paris.

And French law-enforcement authorities only learned Hasna Ait Boulahcen was the cousin of the so-called ring-leader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, days after the Paris attacks despite having bugged her phone on a separate drug related investigation.

Last week, the EU commissioner for migration Dimitris Avramopoulos said member states need to start sharing intelligence after interior ministers backed a plan to collect personal data of commercial airline passengers.

"To keep secrets today is a very naive approach. It is better to exchange information in order to better protect our citizen's saftey", he said.

But Kerchove, who earlier this year told MEPs in the civil liberties committee to “never let a serious crisis go to waste”, said intelligence agencies simply cannot always reveal their methods or their information.

“You don’t want people to know that you have a source or that you have Big Brother interception by satellite or that you have people infiltrating computers”, he said.

He noted a so-called counter-terrorism group (CTG) had been set up in the wake of the September 11 2001 attacks in New York.

"I meet them every six months, the 28 heads of service plus Norway and Switzerland, and to say the least, they work day and night. It is not true that they do not exchange information or that they retain data", he said.

He also said that intelligence agencies have to use a 'third party rule' to avoid overlap. If France shares intelligence with Belgium, then Belgium has to ask permission to share with another country like the Netherlands. The system is an additional constraint that needs to be streamlined, he said.

"We are trying to design a mechanism, a common platform, so that we can have as much information as possible."

But such moves may not alleviate international concerns over Belgium's understaffed security services and broader issues on the inherent complexities of how Brussels is governed and policed.

Belgium is now setting aside an additional €400 million to ramp up an intelligence agency, with prime minister Charles Michel making calls for an European intelligence agency or a structure similar to the CIA.

“A European CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), these are my words. It is a necessity, I believe", said the Belgian PM.

Kerchove says an EU CIA is not possible under current EU treaty rules but noted that nothing impedes Belgium from taking the initiative to set up a mini version with a handful of other member states.

According to the Council of Europe report, drafted by Belgian socialist deputy Dirk van der Maelen, Belgium, along with Denmark and Sweden, has the highest concentration of nationals who leave to go fight alongside jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

Van der Maelen said, citing French intelligence, that young women now make up to around 40 percent of those leaving to join the Islamic State.

"These women are younger than the young men who are leaving", he said.

The European commission, for its part, proposed a directive on terrorism earlier this month.

The new directive makes it a crime to train or travel abroad for terrorist purposes as well as aiding or abetting, inciting and attempting terrorist acts.

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