New York’s 9/11/2001, Madrid’s 11/3/2004, London’s 7/7/2005: they are dates that live in infamy…terrorism attacks that defined a decade.
New York, Madrid, London radically transformed security policy across Europe. And international terrorism demanded an international response.
Since June 2002 Europe has wrestled with the threat – defining what constitutes terrorism, collaborating in fighting it, developing concrete measures like the European arrest warrant.
This last initiative meant that in the summer of 2005, while British police were piecing together their investigation into the 7/7 attacks, their Italian counterparts could quickly hand over a suspect arrested on Italian soil.
The Madrid attacks in March 2004 led the European Council to move towards a common strategy on terrorism, creating the post of Counter-terrorism Coordinator to orchestrate collaboration.
The man they chose for the job was Dutchman Gijs de Vries. His task: to support national measures to investigate and prevent terrorism and to protect people, property and essential infrastructure from attack.
To that end, the European Union introduced passports carrying biometric data. The holder is identified through physical characteristics such as finger-prints or iris scans – making faking these passports no easy matter.
Brussels made it more difficult for people to get their hands on guns, explosives and other materials that could be used to carry out attacks.
Europol, the organisation that coordinates collaboration between different national police forces, was also strengthened.
The threat of cyber-terrorism was also a pre-occupation, as was the use of the Internet to spread hate-speech for recruitment.
But for all these measures, the political will to pool security to a European level was not always backed up by cash. Ad hoc institutions were created, but not always adequately funded.
Likewise national intelligence agencies saw themselves as exactly that, national, and were often reluctant to share sensitive information with other European countries.
The continent is a long way then from having a European FBI or CIA. Many states prefer to keep their cooperation with other European partners limited and bilateral.
It was a frustration for de Vries, who threw in the towel in 2007.
Six months after de Vries departure, the European Commission replaced him with the man who is currently the EU’s Counter-terrorism Co-ordinator, Belgian, Gilles de Kerchove
Anne Devineaux, euronews: “Where is Europe in the fight against terrorism? A big question. Joining us from Brussels is Gilles de Kerchove, who is the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinator. The job of European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator was created after the 2004 attacks on Madrid. What are the priorities today in Europe in the fight against terrorism?”
Gilles de Kerchove, EU Counter-terrorism Coordinator: “The first priority is the question of Europe’s young, but not only Europe’s young, but also young north Africans. There are young people from the Middle East who are heading to Syria, on what they call a Jihad. There they are fighting and joining terrorist groups.”
euronews: “So what’s being done to fight against this?”
Gilles de Kerchove: “First of all we have to work on prevention. We have to try to identify how best to prevent young people from leaving. That’s the first priority. It is also to detect who is leaving that we don’t know. There are, in fact, many Europeans who are not known to the intelligence services and to the police. So we have to put mechanisms into place. We also have to work with the countries they travel through, notably Turkey, which remains the country used the most. We also have to work with the countries that these fighters come from, for example Tunisia, where many of these fighters come from. Also other countries in the region such as Egypt and Morocco etc.”
euronews: “Ten years after the Madrid attacks, do you think a sizeable attack is still possible in Europe?”
Gilles de Kerchove: “Our intelligence services estimate that the risk is serious and largely down to the Europeans who leave to fight in Syria. I would say that the threat is more diversified and complex. On the eve of 9/11 we were confronted by Al Qaeda – an organisation with a structure like a multi-national. And because of that it was perhaps a little simpler to identify who we had to pursue. Today we are seeing the proliferation of what you might call “franchises”. We have one or two such franchises in Syria and Iraq. We still have the heart of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and on the Arab peninsula, in the Sahel and in the north of Africa. The situation is much more complex. At the same time, our response has become much more subtle and more effective. That means that since the attacks on Madrid and London we have had no more big attacks in Europe. We have had isolated and dramatic incidents, but not of the same magnitude. I think we are better prepared and have more intelligence and have been more effective. But the threat still remains serious.”
euronews: “Has more progress been made, for example in matters of cooperation?”
Gilles de Kerchove: “A large part of our work and of my work is cooperation with countries outside Europe who are confronted with terrorism. What we are looking to do is to adequately equip them in a legal sense so that their definition of terrorism is not so large that it also allows them to suppress political opposition. This is unfortunately, often the case. It is a case of improving the exchange of information. It is one of the big lessons of the commission which examined what didn’t work in the lead up to 9/11 – to improve the way in which intelligence services, the police, judiciary, share information.”
euronews: “On the subject of information gathering. There have been certain side-effects of information gathering by states. Governments seem to have less and less scruples about prying into the private lives of their citizens. Not just in the US, but also in Europe. What do you think about that?”
Gilles de Kerchove: “We are very careful to make sure there is a good balance between the necessity of gathering data – nobody denies that we have to avoid terrorist attacks, at the same time we have to respect people’s private lives. We are working on a number of laws to protect data held on people. We are also embroiled in a difficult debate with the United States following the Snowden revelations, but also with other countries outside Europe and we make data protection an important condition of our cooperation.”
euronews: “Gille de Kerchove, thank you”.