Wednesday

1st Apr 2020

Analysis

More hype than substance in EU counter-terror plans

  • Armed police and soldiers now patrol the streets in Brussels and Paris (Photo: Full-tactical)

Thirty-two people died and over 300 were injured following twin blasts by jihadists in Brussels one year ago.

Around 2,500 EU citizens are still fighting alongside the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Many are likely to die, others will travel onward to places such as Yemen or Afghanistan, and some will return to Europe.

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On Tuesday (21 March), the EU's counter-terrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, told Belgian radio that the biggest threat was not returning foreign fighters but "people who live here and for different reasons become radicalised”.

The threat of more attacks from returning fighters and from so-called lone wolves has ushered in national and EU-level reforms.

But while they have evolved, these issues are not new, posing questions on decade-old promises.

Terror attacks in 2001, 2004, and 2005

Only 10 days after the September 2001 strike in New York, the Belgian EU presidency announced a grand plan to tackle terrorism.

That announcement was followed by a Council declaration against terrorism after the Madrid bombing in March 2004 and then by another EU strategy in December 2005 after the London attacks.

The 2005 "EU counter-terrorism strategy" covered familiar territory.

Better external border control, tackling terrorist financing and recruitment, and preventing the "next generation of terrorists from emerging”, were all part of an EU plan that is now over a decade old.

All in all, some 88 measures were proposed.

Only three of those received public input, and less than a quarter were backed by any sort of European Commission impact assessment.

Nobody knows if they are working.

The 2005 plan ”Combating Radicalisation and Recruitment to Terrorism" contained ideas on terrorist financing and on pursuing terrorists across borders.

A proposal to tackle terrorist financing first popped up in mid-2004. It was repeated in 2005, in 2008, and again in early 2016.

With so many plans in place, one may ask how assailants known to the police and intelligence agencies were still able to launch the attacks in Berlin, Brussels, and Paris over the past year or so.

One reason may be that all these plans were crisis-driven.

All had followed in the immediate aftermath of the 2001, 2004, and 2005 attacks and were put in place by leaders interested in public perception as much as in execution.

Rhetoric and delivery

Which leads us to today.

Earlier this year, a leaked internal report by the Belgian parliamentary watchdog Comite P revealed an 82-page rap sheet of failures in the lead up to the 22 March attacks in Brussels.

Among them was how the police never notified Belgium's counter-terror finance agency of unusual cash transactions carried out by the perpetrators behind the Paris and Brussels attacks.

Another leaked report this month from the EU commission's security union task force highlighted gaping flaws in EU state security services to also monitor the movement of terror suspects.

Another outstanding issue, also highlighted a decade ago, was the lack of intelligence sharing, especially between security and intelligence agencies.

The message being delivered to the public is a mixed bag of new and stronger legislation amid grandiose figures of data shared with the EU police agency Europol.

Malta's EU presidency told MEPs last week that the content of the Europol information system had increased by 34 percent between 2016 and 2017.

But the quality of the data and a member state's ability to analyse it remains unknown.

The EU has recently adopted a directive to criminalise all acts of terrorism like training or travelling as well as new rules on firearms, both without any impact assessment tests.

It launched an European Borders and Coast Guard to help screen people and set up a EU counter-terrorism centre in Europol.

It adopted rules on EU passenger name record (EU PNR) to track movements.

It wants to impose systematic checks on everyone crossing borders, and crack down on internet propaganda.

The EU commission even launched a Security Union strategy last year and appointed Julian King as a new EU commissioner for security.

But the reality is that governments have already lost interest in implementing even some of the most recent emergency-driven proposals.

After the 2015 Paris attacks, the EU PNR was touted by the French government and the EU commission as an essential tool to stop jihadists from travelling.

British conservative Timothy Kirkhope, who steered the bill through the EU parliament told reporters in April last year, when PNR was adopted, that "EU governments have it made clear that they really do wish to begin operating the system almost immediately."

As of today, just six EU states are even close to setting it up, however.

US questions visa waivers for EU nationals

A Republican congressman heading a taskforce on denying terrorists entry into the United States says that EU nationals pose a security risk, as some have fought alongside jihadists and wouldn't need visas to enter the US.

Children among dead in UK bomb attack

Children are among the victims after a suspected suicide bomber detonated at the Manchester Arena on Monday, the latest in a string of terror attacks to hit Europe.

Belgium, France, UK in EU court surveillance blow

Although non-binding, a critical opinion from the EU's top court could mean laws in Belgium, France and the UK allowing for the indiscriminate bulk collection of people's data may have to be eventually amended to respect EU privacy rules.

EU gearing up for even more anti-crime measures

The European Commission says it is working on proposals to fight terrorism, organised crime, drugs and now wants to expand the EU's police agency Europol. A whole raft of measures covering all three areas have been proposed since 2001.

May: London attacker was known to the police

The British prime minister said "we are not afraid" after the terrorist attack on Wednesday that left four people dead. Eight arrests have been made, while the Islamist attacker seems to have carried out the attack alone.

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