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11th Nov 2019

Interview

Terrorists gain 'advantage' from EU open borders

  • Chertoff visiting US troops in Afghanistan in 2008 (Photo: army.mil)

The EU needs free sharing of counter-terrorism intelligence in order to protect the passport-free Schengen area, a former US security chief has said.

“If there is a Schengen rule for people there should be a Schengen rule for intelligence,” Michael Chertoff, who was the US secretary of homeland security from 2005 to 2009, told EUobserver in an interview on Sunday (18 April).

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  • IS killed 32 people in Brussels on 22 March (Photo: Eric Maurice)

“This is an issue that the Europeans want to be concerned about. If you want to have a flow of people inside moving freely, you have to allow the information and intelligence to flow equally,” he said.

“If they can move from one place [country] to another, but the intelligence doesn’t follow, the advantage goes to the terrorist,” he said. “We saw evidence of that in the fact the attacks in Paris had roots in Belgium.”

Chertoff spoke to EUobserver at the Globsec conference in Bratislava, one month after attacks by jihadist group Islamic State (IS) in Brussels and six months after its militants attacked the French capital.

He said the huge numbers of people coming to Europe in irregular ways had increased the risk of IS infiltration.

“Daesh [another name for IS] could have some of its operatives get into that flow,” he said. “The problem is not with refugees, it’s with the unimpeded flow of people, so that people can come in directly and then many of them can just disappear [in the Schengen zone]”.

He also said the US was concerned “that there may be a larger pool of foreign fighters in Europe than originally thought”, referring to EU nationals who travel to Syria to join IS.

Monitoring terrorist suspects

Chertoff said it was hard for leading US allies such as France, Germany and the UK to share intelligence in the EU because “there are some [EU] countries whose ability to safeguard information is less”.

He said Germany's privacy and transparency laws posed a problem.

“There are political actors in Germany who … have a sceptical view of surveillance and what we [the US] do with intelligence,” he said.

“The German parliament can request information from the executive branch and then make it public.

“Every country will have to make a choice. If they want a higher degree of sharing they have to commit to keeping that information confidential.”

But he said a few Schengen countries could form a “core group” and then let others join once they had shown “the will and the capability” to protect secrets.

He said the kind of intelligence they could share would be electronic surveillance of suspects, noting that terrorists, shortly before staging an attack, usually change their pattern of behaviour.

“It doesn’t have to be what they’re saying on the phone. It can be what they’re buying, where they’re going or not going, and if that information is properly analysed it can be very useful in interrupting something,” he said.

Many suspects in Germany

The EU foreign service already has the Intelligence and Situation Centre, in which states share intelligence on strategic issues but not operational information.

Chertoff said the Schengen core group could share information on an ad hoc basis, but dismissed the idea of creating a new EU agency that would collect and analyse its own data.

Speaking at a Globsec panel with Chertoff, August Henning, the former head of Germany’s BND intelligence service, also said intelligence should remain a national competence.

He said EU intelligence chiefs already had regular contacts. “We have a lot of meetings. I think all the heads of the European agencies know each other,” he said.

Henning echoed Chertoff on foreign fighters. “We have a lot of terrorist suspects in Europe. In Germany, I think 1,000 who could carry out attacks,” he noted.

Despite Germany’s privacy concerns, he defended electronic surveillance because he said “you can’t watch all of these people - you have to set priorities”.

He said America’s National Security Agency (NSA), which is responsible for mass surveillance, is “a viable partner and without the NSA we would have suffered some very serious attacks in Germany”.

Wider sharing

Chertoff told EUobserver that the US shared some intelligence even with countries where relations are “tense”, such as China and Russia.

“We’re not interested in seeing terrorists blow up Russians and the Russians aren’t interested in seeing terrorists blow us up,” he said. “Nobody wanted to see bombs going off at the [Beijing] Olympics.”

Henning said Germany and Turkey did not agree on whether some Kurdish groups were terrorists.

“If you have this political issue, it’s very difficult to exchange operational information. But if we get information about attacks we pass it on despite these political difficulties,” he said.

Destroying IS

Chertoff told EUobserver that in order to destroy IS the US-led international coalition will have to “drive them out” of Iraq and Syria.

“Until we’ve driven them out of Iraq and Syria, as long as they’re able to claim they’re a functional entity, they’ll get street credibility with recruits,” he said. “We can’t just let them stand … we have to strike them.”

Speaking also at Globsec, General John Allen, the former US special envoy to the anti-IS coalition, said “core IS” was “shrinking” in terms of its territory in Iraq and Syria.

But he said it was growing on the world stage by making deals with other jihadists in Africa and in the Far East.

He said top people from groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria have gone to the IS stronghold, Raqqa, in Syria to be vetted prior to being appointed governors of IS provinces.

Allen said IS had 10 to 12 overseas provinces, including in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, Libya, Nigeria and in the Philippines. He said those IS operatives who acted as go-betweens posed the biggest threat in terms of attacks in Europe.

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