Written by Etienne Bassot,
The evolving threat
In recent years, terrorism has been an issue of major concern that has dominated public debates across the EU. The deadly attacks that took place in several EU Member States in 2017 attest to the ongoing reality of the threat, despite a massive security response. Furthermore, with ISIL/Da’esh (‘Islamic State’) losing ground in Iraq and Syria, the phenomenon of foreign fighters returning to Europe has emerged as a prime security concern. The apparent reduction in the number of individuals arriving in and leaving the conflict areas in 2017 is most likely due to military efforts, stricter border controls and states’ increased efficiency in preventing travel. This trend may be reversed once ISIL/Da’esh has finally been defeated, although surviving fighters may choose to shift to other battlegrounds that present fewer challenges than returning to the EU. The demise of ISIL/Da’esh could also result in the resurgence of other groups, such as al-Qaeda, which might adopt new strategies. For the moment, effectively tackling radicalised individuals within the EU who may be beneath the authorities’ radar, and preventing further radicalisation, appear as the most pressing problems.
The nature of Jihadist terrorist attacks on EU soil has changed somewhat since they were first launched. Whereas some are still perpetrated, or at least orchestrated, by terrorist networks, others are executed by individual Jihadists who are only loosely, if at all, connected to ISIL/Da’esh or other groups. Often acting alone, they tend to use simple, readily available means (for example, vehicles and knives), to inflict mass casualties or attack individuals. Both ‘hard’ (police and the military) and ‘soft’ targets (crowds in open public spaces) have come under attack.
Women appear to have acquired a more prominent role. Initially recruited mainly to fulfil lower-profile tasks, such as raising children in line with jihadist ideology, they now seem increasingly involved in preparing and executing terrorist attacks. According to Europol, one in four people arrested in the EU for terrorist activities in 2016 was a woman. The fact that many women and children, possibly indoctrinated and accustomed to violence, are among potential returnees, calls for specific policy responses going well beyond law enforcement.
Furthermore, recent attacks have provided new insight into the relationship between terrorism and ordinary crime. Most offenders are known to have a history of criminal involvement, such as drug trafficking and theft, and for some, embracing violent extremism has not meant abandoning these. As a result, ordinary crime can serve as a ready source of financing for terrorist activities.
A comprehensive EU response
Against this evolving background, the EU has sought to establish itself as the main forum for counter-terrorism cooperation between the Member States. Even though counter-terrorism is to a large extent a national competence, the EU has created a legal and policy framework covering a wide range of areas, including police and judicial cooperation, cybersecurity and the fight against terrorist financing. Answering calls for an evaluation of the numerous measures already in place, the Commission published a comprehensive assessment in July 2017, much of which concerned counter-terrorism. The assessment concluded that the main EU security policy instruments are appropriate and that EU action has delivered positive results, with no substantial negative side-effects, duplications or overlaps. It pointed, however, to the lack of full and effective implementation of some of these instruments. This may be partly due to the fact that some major relevant EU legislation has only recently been adopted and is yet to be transposed into national law. Examples include the 2016 PNR Directive and the 2017 directive on combating terrorism, both of which should be transposed by Member States in 2018. These two directives illustrate the EU’s willingness to go very far in granting access to information to law-enforcement authorities, in the case of the former, and in extending the list of terrorist activities by criminalising acts such as travelling and receiving training for terrorist purposes, in the latter.
For its part, the European Parliament has set up a special committee (TERR) to investigate deficiencies in the fight against terrorism and to consider possible ways forward.
Some areas are in need of further improvement and there is ongoing reflection on how best to address the existing gaps and challenges. Information- and intelligence-sharing is one such area, as cooperation between national authorities remains inadequate, despite the clear progress made over the past two years. One answer is to make better use of the existing EU information systems for border management and security, such as the Schengen Information System (SIS). Several options are being considered to make these systems more ‘interoperable‘, to ensure that frontline officers get faster access to information and to avoid ‘blind spots’, where individuals are recorded in various databases under different aliases. Legislative proposals in this respect were made in December 2017, while a new mandate for the European agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems in the area of freedom, security and justice (EU-lisa) is likely to be adopted in 2018.
Radicalisation is another issue on which work has intensified and is bound to continue. The Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) has been expanded and now covers over 3 000 frontline and grassroots practitioners from around the EU. Whilst RAN has succeeded in coordinating and supporting the collection of relevant expertise, much is still expected of it in terms of improving understanding of a phenomenon about which too little is known.
The EU bodies active in the field of security intend to further adapt their working methods to better address terrorist threats. Europol has already gone a long way, as it now hosts the European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC), a specialised unit pooling the agency’s counter-terrorism capabilities. The centre manages, among other things, the Europol Information System, the EU-US Terrorism Financing Tracking Programme (TFTP), and the Internet Referral Unit, which tackles online terrorist propaganda and extremism. The ECTC thus acts as a central information hub and has supported and coordinated cross-border counter-terrorism investigations, including in the aftermath of the Paris and Brussels attacks.
As regards initiatives likely to be developed in the foreseeable future, the EU will address the terrorism trends mentioned above. This is shown in the Commission’s recent action plans to boost the protection of public spaces and to enhance preparedness against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) security risks. Encryption and the misuse of chemical substances to produce home-made explosives are also being addressed. Furthermore, the Commission is currently reconsidering the creation of a system to cover intra-EU payments, complementing the EU-US Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme.
It remains to be seen to what extent future EU action will take into account fundamental rights and data protection standards. While these are defined by international and EU laws, they are not always fully respected in the context of what is a rather crisis-driven EU counter-terrorism policy.
Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Ten issues to watch in 2018‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.