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30th Sep 2020

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Balkan spies 'feed' EU's police database via Czechs

  • People tagged with a "discreet alert" from SIS are followed (Photo: Google Maps)

Secret services in at least one non-EU Western Balkan state are indirectly feeding the EU's police database with alerts on suspected foreign terrorist fighters, according to a confidential document seen by this website.

Drafted by the counter-terrorism section of the Czech Republic National Organised Crime Agency, the nine-page document says over 250 alerts have been flagged by the Western Balkans since last summer.

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The alerts are entered by the Czech Republic into the so-called Schengen Information System (SIS) as part of a pilot project - which follows revelations of widespread abuse of the same database by the UK.

The document does not reveal which Western Balkan state issues the alerts. It also does not reveal the criteria on which those alerts are based or if the Czech Republic has turned any down.

But Cornelia Ernst, a German MEP from the European United Left–Nordic Green Left, says such alerts could pose problems because they may end up targeting the innocent.

"We do not know how the assessment on which such an alert is based has come about. On what criteria was it based? Was it facts, or rumours, or guesswork?," she said, in any emailed statement.

"The biggest question is about the reliability of this information, can we trust it enough to use it in SIS?," she, noting such alerts are illegal if unjustified.

According to the document, the alerts are triggered under article 36/3, also known as a "discreet check".

A discreet check means information about the suspect is gathered covertly, including anyone associated with them.

Should someone get caught up with a discreet alert hit at a border, they'll be strip searched.

For its part, the Czech agency praises the Western Balkan secret service input and says it wants to continue sharing "post-hits" of foreign terrorist fighter suspects "in a systematic way."

Accession zone

The entire region is of strategic importance for the EU's counter-terrorism efforts - and comes amid a renewed push to open enlargement talks with Albania and North Macedonia.

Earlier this month, the European Commission said the prospect of full EU membership for the Western Balkans "is in the Union's very own political, security and economic interests."

In total, the whole of the EU last year registered three terrorist attacks, five attempts, and 17 plots, according to the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, an European think tank.

Of those, "two retournees", or so-called foreign terrorist fighters, had been involved. Almost all took place in France, with the remainder in the Western Balkans.

'Battlefield information'

But the EU's security interest in the Western Balkans is not limited to the Schengen Information System.

Another confidential document dated from earlier this month and also seen by EUobserver provides a detailed overview of those interests and efforts.

Drafted by the previous EU presidency under Finland, the 90-page report describes how internal and external security is becoming increasingly intertwined.

It said efforts have been stepped up since last July to get "trusted third countries" to not only feed SIS with alerts on foreign fighters but also "battlefield information."

Those efforts were discussed among military officers, legal experts, and border police from the United States and EU states along with Interpol and EU agencies.

Their plan was to find out how "to better collect, share and use battlefield information" and make it available to EU databases so that it can be made accessible at the borders.

Separately, the document also noted an agreement had been sorted in the margins of a ministerial conference on security and migration held in Vienna in September 2018.

That agreement, described as a memorandum of understanding with Western Balkans, allows for the "automated exchange of DNA, dactyloscopic [finger print] and vehicle registration data".

The following month, a joint action plan on counterterrorism for the Western Balkans was also signed with the EU.

The EU's police agency Europol then agreed to dispatch agents to Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. Albania received its first Europol agent in June last year with Serbia expected to receive an agent sometime soon.

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