Ongoing security threats demand ever closer cooperation among EU governments

Threats used to be things that we could easily identify and measure.  They came in large, bulky forms like armies massing along our borders or missiles pointed at our capitals or important international assets.  If conflicts came, they were usual preceded by gradual military build-ups, prolonged international crises and with ample warning signs, if we only chose to read them properly, writes Jamie Shea, Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at NATO.

Yet a feature of the 21st century is hybrid warfare where the aggressor strikes inside or our borders first, with no warning, and against softer targets whose almost infinite number (a crowd at a concert, people sitting at a café terrace, or accessing a bank’s payment system) make it almost impossible to defend.  

These attacks may not achieve the strategic impact of a conventional military strike but cumulatively they spread fear, inhibit our freedom of movement, polarise our societies and make us lose our trust in the capacity of governments to protect us.  They are asymmetric in that a small investment can achieve a disproportionately large impact, and the political aim of undermining our social cohesion or will to resist is in the shape of death by a thousand cuts.

This is certainly true of terrorism, which now seems an ever present reality for EU citizens.  In 2017, 16 significant attacks were carried out in the EU against eight of its member states.  In France, the police detained 621 people suspected of links to terrorism, and in Germany as many as 1,100.  At the same time, of the 4,500-5,000 foreign fighters who left EU countries to fight with ISIL in Syria and Iraq, as many as 2,000-2,500 have either returned to Europe or are trying to return.  

This will increase the risk level and put additional burdens on the intelligence services and police to monitor the most radical, battle-hardened individuals.  This said, the new trend in terrorism is the home grown terrorist who commits mayhem with almost no organization or financing: with a rented car or truck, a stolen gun or just an ordinary kitchen knife. 

Given this more diffuse and less predictable type of terrorism, it is not surprising that the EU has been raising its game to better confront terrorists along the entire spectrum along which they operate.  This strategy consists of three parts: to close down the space in which terrorists recruit, train, organize and move; to build resilience to attacks; and to tackle the radicalization and online terrorist content that fuels extremism.

On the first part, the EU is making it harder for terrorists to travel and to have access to money, firearms and explosives. Security at external borders has been stepped up so that EU border officials have a better idea of who is coming into the EU. The Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, has proposed an increase of 10,000 border guards within Frontex.  The Schengen database has become a key asset for the exchange of information.  Indeed, the UK accessed it 539 million times in 2017 alone.  Overcoming legal obstacles in the European Parliament, the EU has adopted a Passenger Name Recognition system (PNR), more cooperation on biometric data, and soon to come an ETIAS arrangement which is modelled on the US ESTA pre-travel authorization scheme.  Europol in The Hague with its Counter-Terrorism Centre, has become a key hub for this cooperation between security and police forces; for instance in the area of stolen or falsified ID documents, as terrorists often assume multiple aliases.  EU countries have also introduced laws that make it an offence to travel to terrorist areas.

In the area of resilience, the European Union has provided funding to cities so that they can improve their infrastructure to make it harder for terrorists to attack public spaces and events, without changing their open character.  These cities have built up a High Risk Security network, where mayors and police chiefs can exchange best practices and lessons learned in responding to and recovering from terrorist attacks.  Private-public sector partnership a the local level are helping to exchange information faster, for instance when individuals with fake ID or credit cards try to rent trucks from car hire companies – a lesson from the attacks in Nice and Berlin.

The third and final element concerns de-radicalization and countering violent extremism.  Here the internet has played a key role as a cheap, easily used and universal platform for spreading jihadist propaganda and for identifying, recruiting and indoctrinating future terrorists.  The EU has worked actively with the internet service providers and social media companies to take down more quickly jihadist videos and sites.  The Internet Referral nit within Europol offers EU citizens the support of law enforcement in inducing these companies to act quickly in response to individual petitions.  Yet, de-radicalization can not succeed if it is limited to EU territory.  The great bulk of terrorists are radicalized in other places, particularly in war zones or countries stricken by conflict, poor governance and social and ethnic disputes.  That is why the EU is putting capacity-building at the top of its agenda.  In 2017, the EU conducted 600 projects with partner countries to help them better train their security forces and to work on job creation, education and community resilience programmes that are vital to reduce, over time, the lure of terrorism.

In 2015, after the ISIL attacks in Paris, France invoked for the first time Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, providing for mutual assistance amount EU member states in response to an attack or major security incident.  It is a timely reminder that the EU which protects , so demanded by our citizens, requires an ever closer cooperation among EU governments and societies; in anticipating, preventing, containing and then recovering not just from terrorism but all the other threats (cyber, disinformation, diseases, extreme weather, to name but a few) that can affect our daily lives and freedoms.

Jamie Shea is Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at NATO.  The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author alone

Follow EU Today on Social media:

Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

Related posts