EU and counterterrorism measures: a medium and short term perspectives – by Marco Maiolino

When discussing about measures to counter the current terrorist threat, the application of a long term perspective results to be absolutely important and, within this temporal framework, the lasting stabilization of the MENA region and tools to fight against the radicalization phenomenon assume a fundamental character. Besides, strengthening the European Union (EU) unity in the face of the current global environment generally and the migration issue more specifically, in order to effectively engage the crisis through the implementation of coordinated common measures rather than precarious, messy and destabilizing individual stances, is also crucial.

Still, a long-term strategy essentially means a long process featured by the implementation of actions whose effects will not be appreciated any time soon. In contrast, terrorism is an immediate menace that may have a truly devastating impact in the short run. Hence, combined with the planning and implementation of the long one, a short and medium term strategy is needed to soundly limit the terrorism negative effects in the present and near future.

In relation to the identification of these short and medium term most effective measures, the European debate seems to point over a set of four critical tools that, if properly and concurrently operated, might earn considerable outcomes:

  1. Substantial intelligence sharing through the channels provided by the common EU context
  2. A strong common and coordinated borders checking mechanism
  3. Tightened control over the availability of firearms within the EU territory
  4. Interruption of internal activities: decryption and communication interception

Going deeper into the complexity of those instruments, a series of sensible issues come to surface.

Intel sharing in EU: one of the most contested tool of the European counter terrorism effort is the effective cooperation between the various national law enforcement bodies, in the form of timely info sharing. Intelligence keeps on being a truly sensitive matter in the EU: defense and security still represent policies largely falling under members sovereignty’s jurisdiction, in this realm co-operation (though relative) tends to be shaped by bilateral rather than multilateral relations; information is a source of power and a force multiplier and despite the advantages offered by an effective sharing – such as increased specialization, efficacy and costs reduction – potential losses as the disclosure of clear national vulnerabilities are quite an obstacle.

Nevertheless, the EU established a number of multilateral mechanisms in order to facilitate info sharing between its 28 members and they may well represent a valuable potential though adequately developed and exploited:

  • INTCEN: is the EU intelligence analysis hub
  • INTDIR: the intelligence division of the EU military staff, it works closely to INTCEN through the Single Intelligence Analysis Capacity (SIAC) work format
  • EUROPOL: is the EU police office and a center to collect and exchange criminal intelligence. It noticeably includes the Secure Information Exchange Network Application (SIENA), a strategic info sharing tool between EUROPOL, member states and third parties connecting 573 competent authorities and 4722 users
  • CTG: or the Counter Terrorism Group extending the co-operation beyond the EU28 to Switzerland and Norway
  • SATCEN: is the EU Satellite Center providing for geospatial and imagery intel products

Border checking: missing common political will, real co-ordination and integration have been the very causes of the limited results brought about by past attempts such as the TRITON and SOPHIA missions and FRONTEX (the EU border management agency) itself. Despite regulating the huge migrant flow and processing hundreds of thousands of arrivals are extremely complex issues and a long term resource-draining commitment, efficacious borders control is strongly needed in order to avoid trained terrorist cells infiltrating the refugees flow, as it was the case for some of the Paris attackers. Besides, immigration is an exploitable political argument and into borders existence or disappearance lays the very heart of the EU. However, even in this case, the Union supplied an interesting suggestion:

  • A European Border and Coast Guard to protect Europe’s External Borders: the EU Commission proposed in December 2015 the adoption of a set of measures establishing a common European Border and Coast Guard Agency made by about 1500 FRONTEX and member states experts and technical equipment in order to monitor, supervise, guard and ultimately manage the EU external borders and coasts, with a mandate to work in third countries, a stricter regulation and action over returns of illegal migrants and the implementation of a mandatory Systematic check of EU and non-EU citizens at external land, sea and air borders against relevant databases, such as the Schengen Information System and the Interpol Stolen and Lost Travel Documents Database. Moreover , the proposal provide for a strengthened verification of biometric identifiers and the protection of people privacy rights through the hit/no hit operational rationale (if the person does not represent a threat the check is not registered and his/her data are not processed any further)

Firearms availability in Europe: although the EU is characterized by one of the strictest firearms regulation, the ready availability, especially in the black market, of light weapons (mostly handguns, AK47s and other rifles) represents a big problem that have been fully acknowledged and tackled only recently. Most of the authorities attention was previously dedicated toward drug trafficking, leaving apart a well rooted and profitable illegal business: there are around 80 million loose weapons worldwide, the EU smuggling originates mostly in the fragile Balkan and North African states, there seems not to be a big traffic of heavily loaded ships and trucks moved by dedicated traffickers, rather, the exploitation of individual smugglers carrying a number of weapons hidden into their vehicles (like the Montenegrin driver caught in Germany roughly a week before the Paris events) and managed by the European organized crime is the common practice, hardly detectable and largely convenient: in the Balkans an automatic rifle may sell for 300 to 500 euro, a price that easily exceeds 1500 euro once within the EU borders in hubs like the Belgian Molenbeek.

Furthermore, another problem is represented by deactivated or disassembled weapons sold via internet and privately reactivated or assembled once purchased. At the legislative level the EU parliament and council Directive amending Council Directive 91/477/EEC on control of the acquisition and possession of

weapons provides for a legal framework to better face the described challenges, while, at an operational level information sharing and coordination among the EU28 and with all the third parties involved (namely Balkan and MENA authorities) are again crucial and in need of substantial improvements.

Tapping communication and decryption: nowadays encryption technologies to protect personal data and communication are largely affordable, publicly available and ever more secure. Moreover, the terrorist IT expertise is growing fast, with the use of software like VeraCrypt enabling different layers of encryption; Telegram as a secure messaging tool; GPG4 USB based on public-key cryptography; and CyberGhost VPN, JonDo, Technitium MAC Address Changer or OpenVpn Connect as IP-Changer proxy instruments, becoming operational standards.

Stepping up counter technical knowledge and capabilities is urgent, intercepting terrorist communication is fundamental in order to foil planned attacks and security services around the world are facing increasing troubles to infiltrate terrorist networks and access key messages. Furthermore and as demonstrated by the latest US case involving Apple whose management refused to decrypt the San Bernardino’s assailant mobile device, strengthening control over the information flow clearly affects individual privacy rights (even if regarding the Apple case it was much more about business than philanthropy) and for the EU where the protection of human rights is placed at the center of its supranational identity, increasing security would reveal to be a truly tricky issue.

In spite of everything, striking a reasonable policy balance between security and rights guarantees, including both the public and private sectors, especially in critical moments such as the current reality, is imperative to enforce what seems to converge over a common aim: citizens protection.