A state of security (paneuropeannetworks, 21.06)
Hilde Vautmans MEP discusses the role of collaboration between European countries in responding to domestic terror threats
Over the past couple of years there has been a sharp increase in the number of terror attacks being carried out in European countries. Incidents in Paris, Brussels, London and elsewhere have put domestic security services under pressure and even caused some to question the security of the Schengen Area. Because many such attacks have been planned and carried out by individuals in isolation, rather than by networks of extremists, they are more difficult to prevent.
In response, countries have stepped up their efforts, and sought to improve communication among European member states so as to lend more resources to those places more at risk. Yet, more could be done to encourage collaboration and co-operation between Europe’s countries and police forces.
Hilde Vautmans MEP is a member of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Security and Defence. She answered PEN’s questions on how attacks by radicalised individuals differ from those planned by terror networks, the role of police as the first line of defence against such attacks, and the ways in which Europe on the whole can respond to or prevent incidents in any of its member states.
What efforts need to be taken to prevent radicalisation and so-called ‘lone wolf’ attacks?
Radicalisation does take place more and more by way of modern communications. When talking about a lone wolf, we think about individuals that have been inspired by terrorist propaganda, e.g. by watching extremist online videos. Terrorist organisations such as the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS) simply disseminate their ‘guides to terror’ on the internet, or through messaging apps. This means there is no specific target or method communicated by the organisation, nor does it supply any resources to commit an attack.
These attacks are tough to prevent because there is no long and complicated planning phase involved, which means there are fewer signs for the authorities to act on. The methods used, such as in the recent London attack, are very crude and low-tech. We have to keep in mind that the goal of these types of terrorist attacks is not to use advanced weapons to cause as many casualties as possible, but to instil fear in our hearts. The most important thing for us to do is not to fall for their trap. We have to find a balance between increased security measures and protecting our way of life.
When considering the online presence of terrorist organisations, we have to make sure not to restrict our right to freedom of speech. While online comments are a good indicator of radicalisation, there is a difference between making a post on Facebook or Twitter and committing an act of terror. The fear of terror attacks is no reason to start an inquisition. Benjamin Franklin said “those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Lone wolves are indeed more difficult to detect because the signs that point towards radicalisation aren’t visible enough, but even a lone wolf leaves a footprint. ‘No man is an island’, the same goes for would-be terrorists. It’s important to look for signs of radicalisation both online and offline. We need to go to the streets and get the community involved in detecting these signs of radicalisation; we have to talk to imams, to teachers, to social workers. Anti-terror forces are lacking in manpower and funding, which is why we should do our best to increase the funds available for police and anti-terror agencies. To increase detection, we should also make sure the co-operation between each national agency is on point.
Do you feel that police officers are given enough tools to prevent and respond to incidents when they occur?
From what I can tell, governments are making an effort to step up and improve the working conditions of police and anti-terror agencies. Still, these agencies often need to scrape by with whatever equipment they have left. The recent wave of attacks has highlighted that these agencies need adequate resources in order to function to their full extent. Funding in general can be a problem for police and counter-terrorism agencies, meaning police forces might suffer from a lack of modern equipment. This is a competence of the member states, but Europe can play a role.
Europe-wide standardisation is worth looking at, not because the EU should force national agencies into using the exact same equipment, but because it would benefit our agencies. Not only would a certain degree of standardisation guarantee equipment quality across the EU, it would allow for a better degree of interoperability between our forces. Similar to the recent defence plans, such as the European Defence Fund, there is also the simple point that buying equipment together will decrease the costs. I think that for certain items there is no reason not to buy together, e.g. while national agencies might have their own preferences when it comes to firearms, bulletproof vests or modern technologies like drones, they do not need to be personalised to the same extent. When responding to incidents, there is always a local element involved, which means local forces know best how to react. I do believe that Europe should help them, however, in any way possible.
One of the perpetrators of the Borough Market attack in London had previously been flagged by Italian authorities, but UK police failed to act on this. Does there need to be better infrastructure for communication between European states to prevent further attacks?
I think this is an excellent question because communication really is the key to improving our chances of preventing attacks and, in the case of an attack, to quickly hunting down the culprits. One of the most glaring faults in our systems when it comes to detection is the lack of co-operation between agencies. We need to exchange more information and we need to do it faster, in real time.
We have seen multiple times that a terrorist was already on the watch list of a foreign agency, while the country that suffered the attack wasn’t informed. National security is a competence of the member states, but the European Union can and should make a difference. I believe we should start on the establishment of a European intelligence agency (European FBI). Right now we have 28 police forces, 28 intelligence services, and even more databases scattered throughout Europe. This is also a matter of efficiency: we don’t need more national agencies, we need better co-operation.
We need more Europe in the fight against terrorism, which has always been an international problem and is why we need an international solution, a European solution. This agency needs to have investigative authority. There is a lot of potential here to really increase our capabilities to combat terrorism and the sooner we do it the better. This is not about taking power away from the member states but about creating an effective agency that works in tandem with the national agencies.
Hilde Vautmans MEP
Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Government 22, which will be published in July.