A series of recent terrorist attacks in the UK has demonstrated the challenges for intelligence and security services in identifying individuals involved in the activities carried out by extremist groups. Although the British authorities identified the attacker during the Manchester concert of the American singer Ariana Grande, they were not sure whether he acted alone or whether he had had ties with the Islamic State. This uncertainty raised questions about the actual capabilities and ability of European intelligence to deal with the terrorist threat. The challenge is particularly difficult when attackers use only low-tech equipment.
The increase in terrorist attacks across the continent in recent years has necessitated closer counter-terrorism cooperation among EU countries, their intelligence and domestic security services. Because of Europe’s open borders, it is easy for terrorist groups to operate and move around. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies, however, still operate largely domestically, thus basically enabling terrorists to exploit the lack of cooperation in Europe’s fight against terror.
The European project has always been more about the political and economic cooperation and national security has been traditionally left up to the member states. Intelligence-sharing among EU countries is far from perfect and its biggest challenge is to coordinate and integrate a number of practical, legal and political obstacles that impede EU information-sharing.
Moreover, European countries use different legislations to punish terrorists but also judge what constitutes a terrorist attack and what does not. They also have divergent laws governing domestic intelligence and law enforcement activities and the quality of national intelligence and domestic security services also varies. A lack of trust prevents the sharing of classified information, whereby this distrust is particularly high in the post-Communist countries.
Brussels has recognized these problems and taken a variety of steps to improve and streamline the cooperation among the EU states. In 2004, the Commission opened the position of an EU counter-terrorism coordinator, implemented a continent-wide arrest warrant and established a counter-terror center within Europol as well as approved passenger name records for flights from and to the EU.
However, the scale and complexity of the terrorist threat are pushing the EU to act fast. EU countries are spending on enhanced domestic security measures and on tracking and monitoring of suspects. The terrorist threat facing Europe is not going to leave any time soon. It defies easy or quick solutions, its long-term impact will ultimately depend on how societies will respond to the challenge.
‘To Better Fight Terrorism, Europe Needs More Cooperation and Money’ – Opinion by Richard Maher – European University Institute.
(The Opinion can be downloaded here)