Strengthening Security Cooperation to Counter Terrorism Inside Europe

By Jassim Mohammad, EER

Terrorism Has Become Reality

Terrorism has now manifested as a fact of life in Europe. Networks have formed that can exchange funds and information across borders. They can live in one European country, perpetrate an attack in another, and hide in a third. A novel development is the degree of integration the European terrorist infrastructure has with its southern neighborhood.

Where previously there had been terrorist attacks planned from the south organized by citizens from third countries, now it is European citizens themselves who perpetrate attacks, sometimes still planned in the south, often controlled remotely, in the name of non-European organizations such as the Islamic State (Daesh) or Al-Qaeda. This highlights the importance of a shared European response, particularly with regard to European jihadist returnees from Syria and Iraq. The threat is significant and not only from Islamic extremists; there are violent far-Right groups on the rise.

The following are some important trends:

  • The number of failed, foiled, and successful terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremists in Europe increased by 725% between 2007 and 2017, although the numbers decreased in 2018.
  • Islamic extremist material on the internet and social media platforms is pervasive, which will likely contribute to further radicalization in Europe. Far-Right material is also increasingly available online.
  • Terrorism from Islamic extremist groups accounted for 3.78% of all attacks between 2000 and 2017, but an outstanding 71.15% of all fatalities.
  • The geographic distribution of attacks in Europe has increased. European Union countries as France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland have been afflicted by Islamic extremism, as has the United Kingdom.
  • The most recent terrorist attacks have been simple, using weapons from vehicles and knives to crude incendiary devices. These attacks failed to kill large numbers of people.
  • Terrorism from far-Right extremists in Europe has been on the rise since 2000 as groups and networks have radicalized in reaction to such issues as refugees and asylum-seekers from Syria and other countries.

European Intelligence Cooperation

The European Intelligence community consists of all the actors who play a role in the EU intelligence function and counter-terrorism law enforcement. The community encompasses national and European actors. National actors include national intelligence services, national security services, and police organizations. European actors include the European information agencies (INTDIV EUMS, SitCen, Europol, and EUSC) but also the Council, the Commission, various bi- and multi-lateral working groups on counter-terrorism, Eurojust, the World Customs Organization, Interpol, CEPOL, the Task Force Chiefs of Police and Frontex.[3] Every intelligence body, notably the EU Intelligence Community, joins in efforts to respond to terrorism while focusing on the following purposes:

  • Destroy terrorists and their organizations
  • End state sponsorship of terrorism
  • Intercept and disrupt material support for terrorists
  • Eliminate terrorist sanctuaries and havens
  • Security Cooperation Between the EU and Middle East-North Africa Region

EU and North Africa

Counter-terrorism cooperation between the EU and the Maghreb (North African) countries takes place primarily through the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), the EU’s main arena for relations with its neighbors to the south. The ENP was developed in 2004 as a mechanism to provide a framework for relations between an enlarged Union and its closest neighbors. It is largely a bilateral partnership between the EU and individual partner countries, although it is accompanied by, and designed to build upon, the multi-lateral framework of the Union for the Mediterranean, which was launched in 2008 as a successor to the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP), formerly known as the Barcelona Process. The stated objective of the ENP is to prevent the emergence of new “dividing lines” by offering the Union’s neighbors the possibility of cooperation on political, economic, security, cultural, and educational issues.

EU and the Sahel

Created in February 2014 with a light institutional architecture, the G5 Sahel was initially designed as a framework for coordinating and monitoring existing regional cooperation and international initiatives — including the European Union and the African Union (AU) — while coupling and bolstering security and development initiatives. Although it was not established as a security organisation, the G5 Sahel had from the start a strong military focus. After the Malian Army was defeated at Kidal in Northern Mali, the withdrawal of Serval was suspended in May 2014. Witnessing a multiplication of fronts, France ended Serval in Mali and Epervier in Chad (an operation that had lasted since 1986) in August 2014 and launched operation Barkhane, tasked with eradicating terrorist groups in Chad, Mali and Niger. Barkhane was a first response to the fluid geopolitics of the region. However, with the fight having been geographically extended to a territory as large as Europe, France had to look for extra capacity and found a counterpart to its action in the G5.

EU and the African Union (AU)

A key aspect of the partnership in the latter context has been increasing cooperation on addressing root causes of conflicts; terrorism, and transnational crime; trafficking humans and arms. The partnership is informed by various policy pronouncements between the EU and Africa. The Joint Africa-EU Strategy recognized as one of the strategic objectives of the partnership the need to promote and sustain a system of effective multilateralism. In addressing some of the global challenges including terrorism (JAES), cooperation in the context of counter-terrorism has a specific place within JAES, which identified particular aspects such as the exchange of information, law enforcement and institutional capacity building and judicial cooperation.

The most prominent dimension of the cooperation is the support given to different peace support initiatives, some of them having a specific counter-terrorism mandate. In 2015, the Multinational Joint Taskforce (MNJTF) is established to tackle the terrorist threat posed by Boko Haram within the framework of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) and with full endorsement and retroactive formal authorization by the AU PSC. The MNJTF was mandated to carry out a number of tasks including “conducting military operations to prevent the expansion of Boko Haram and other terrorist groups’ activities and eliminate their presence”.

Future Prospects for Europe’s Security

Discussing future prospects of security in Europe, the question is how the EU response will develop in the future, given that other socio-economic concerns have supplanted the security threat in the public’s mind. Moreover, this change is happening in a context where the available Europol data suggests that even if the threat of terrorist attacks remain ‘serious’ and ‘diverse’, there is a decreasing trend of attacks attributed to ethno-nationalist terrorist groups, a category that accounts for the vast majority of all terrorist incidents in Europe. This tendency has been further accelerated with the 2011 announcement of a permanent ceasefire by ETA, the oldest separatist terror group in Europe. Even the EU Counter-terrorism Coordinator has spoken of a ‘counter-terrorism fatigue’.

In the short term, we expect the continuation of decision-making inertia, a far cry from the frenzy that met the bombings in New York, Madrid, and London nearly two decades ago. Looking further into the future, most of the contributors to these special issues remain doubtful as to whether a holistic and coherent EU response to terrorism will be attainable. Argomaniz has brought attention to the fragmented character of EU policies on the protection of infrastructures from terrorist attacks and see these as an illustration of the broader consistency challenges that the EU faces in its response to the terrorist threat, a product amongst other factors of a complex bureaucratic structure that is made up of a multiplicity of committees, agencies, and bureaucracies.

Interestingly, there are various predictions for the future depending on the policy sector. Thus, although Bakker sees positive steps in the anti-radicalization field towards an approach that is more consistent and comprehensive, Monar finds that “institutional complexity and cross-policy coordination problems (between the external JHA dimension, the CFSP and external economic relations) continue to act as powerful constraints upon its external counter-terrorism role”. Likewise, Bures finds practical and political obstacles to the co-ordination demands that a comprehensive counter-terrorism financing approach at the EU level would require. It remains to be seen whether the EP calls for a holistic approach that would align both the external and the Internal Security Strategies and strengthen coordination mechanisms between Council JHA structures, European agencies and the European External Action Service will make a difference in light of the scale of the challenges.

Redefining the “Jihadist” in Europe

Who Are The European Jihadi-Salafis?

The jihadi-Salafists in Europe are defined by these characteristics:

  • Average age around 30
  • Not well educated.
  • Not very professionally successful
  • Recruited by friends or family in one-quarter of cases
  • What Happens When Radicals Return Home

Recent EU jihadist attacks have been funded by an opportunistic mix of licit and illicit sources. Up to 40% of terrorist plots in Europe are believed to be at least partly financed through crime, especially drug dealing, theft, robberies, the sale of counterfeit goods, loan fraud, and burglaries. Using funds raised through criminality is regarded as an ideologically correct and legitimate way of financing ‘jihad’ in the ‘lands of war’, and this kind of financial services and applications, including financial low transfer apps, are fluid, encrypted and partially anonymised, allowing a desirable financial conduit for terrorists who seek a borderless, reliable and shielded financial mechanism, optimized and readily accessible for real-time small-value transfers. The radicalization of the individual, after recruited to the foreign battlefield, will likely continue when he returns home, making him especially dangerous. At home, he can get involved in activities that can further threaten European interests. First, he will become a recruiter of his compatriots and thus increase the number of foreign fighters in these conflicts by designing content or propaganda messages. These messages target the Muslim community by depicting it as under threat and in need of help.

European Mechanisms to Combat Terror

The current EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy is a response to return of ‘jihadists’ to EU soil. The Council of the European Union adopted the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy on November 30, 2005. It is based on four pillars: prevention, protection, pursuit and response. For each of them, the EU has been implementing specific policies.

Following the implementation of the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy, the Solidarity Clause was adopted in December 2007. It aims to commit EU member states to cooperation, even committing military resources, in the case of a terrorist attack. In response to the terrorist attack in France in November 2015, the ECTC established the Taskforce Fraternité, assigning sixty officers to establish a full timeline analysis of the attack. It included investigative analysis of the details of the attack; compilation of full financial intelligence; determination and analysis of relevant online communication; and identification of intelligence gaps and counter-terrorism policy implications.

Earlier in 2015, Europol had already created the European Union Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU) in July 2015. Its role is to combat terrorism and its online propaganda.

How Immigration Sparked Xenophobia

2015 was the peak of the immigration wave to Europe. It coincided with an increase in the number and frequency of ‘jihadist’ terrorism on EU soil. This led part of the population to associate migration with terrorism and the emigration wave was perceived as the beginning of the ‘Islamization’ of Europe which needed to be stopped. Consequently, a fertile environment for Right-wing extremist organizations was created. Essentially driven by xenophobia and Islamophobia, Gruppe Freital in Germany is an example of this kind of terrorism.

This mindset has also been endorsed by some politicians. Furthermore, there were political slogans and campaigns in some European countries (e.g. Hungary, Austria) aimed at defending European Christianity against Muslim refugees and/or the Islamization of Europe. However, even though there was the case of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who used land routes trekked by immigrants to enter in the EU, according to Europol: “There is no concrete evidence that terrorist travellers systematically use the flow of refugees to enter Europe unnoticed. A real and imminent danger, however, is the possibility of elements of the (Sunni Muslim) Syrian refugee diaspora becoming vulnerable to radicalization once in Europe and being specifically targeted by Islamic extremist recruiters.”

The argument can also be made that the EU needs immigrants for its own sustainable future. With lower birth rates and higher life expectancy, the EU population is aging and immigrants could be seen as an opportunity to fill this gap of working-age people, rather than as a problem, though the issue of what to do once the immigrants themselves age remains unsolved.

Radicalization on the Internet – A Hugely Effectively Tool

Print and television media shape perceptions, but the role of the internet, and in particular social media, is vital to understanding how media shapes opinion and behavior. Social media is habitually anonymous, but can also be organized, i.e. ‘astroturfing’, comments on online articles and on social media that give the impression of being from random members of the public when they are, in fact, part of highly organized and well-funded campaigns.

In the last decade or so, social media has grown immensely as an information and communication tool. The medium is used to provide regular updates on activities as well as commentaries on various topics and themes, some of which relate to sensitive areas. Radicalizers also instrumentalize the power of social media with slick media messaging, and a resource-intensive focus on ‘grooming’ vulnerable young people online.

With the lack of any regulations, a relatively open platform and the ability to hide behind a nom de plume, social media allows different individuals and groups to support and participate in radical activities. Twitter is one of the easiest and most flexible social medial platforms to use. It has become a favorite among individuals and organizations using it to lure potential foreign fighters willing to join Daesh, for example. Based on various national and international infrastructures, Daesh is able to organize its online activities despite temporary setbacks to its operations.

Daesh’s communications are mostly organized by back room staff, who then push this material out to help with indoctrination and recruitment. This is carefully controlled and managed online messaging, not spontaneous output. Certainly, if soldiers attempt to communicate with family and friends outside of controlled channels, they are likely to face severe punishment. “Twitter is used to propagandize for core Jihadist tenets that are translated into symbolic images for a generation of social media users who prefer pictures to text”. This architecture of control is vital to understand.

European Commission Regulation of Online Content

The European Council recently proposed regulation on “preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online”. The initial draft presented by the European Commission was adopted with some changes. The Global Network Initiative (GNI) is concerned about the unintended effects of the proposal and would therefore like to put forward a number of issues. We urge the European Parliament to address those issues as it further considers the proposal. GNI members recognize and appreciate the European Union (EU) and member states’ legitimate roles in providing security, and share the aim of tackling the dissemination of terrorist content online. However, we believe that, as drafted, this proposal could unintentionally undermine that shared objective by putting too much emphasis on technical measures to remove content, while simultaneously making it more difficult to challenge terrorist rhetoric with counter-narratives. In addition, the regulation as drafted may place significant pressure on a range of information and communications technology (ICT) companies to monitor users’ activities and remove content in ways that pose risks for users’ freedom of expression and privacy. We respectfully ask that EU officials, Parliamentarians, and member states take the time necessary to understand these and other significant risks that have been identified, by consulting openly and in good faith with affected companies, civil society, and other experts.

A Platform to Counter Terrorism Online

On 18 September 2018, the European Commission made a proposal building upon EU-level initiatives to foster voluntary cooperation of service providers in stopping the dissemination of terrorist content online, chiefly the cross-sectoral EU Internet Forum and the work of Europol’s Internet Referral Unit (IRU). It also echoes ongoing national developments which go a step further in imposing obligations — underpinned by considerable fines — on service providers to hastily remove illegal content and prevent re-uploading, such as the German Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (NetzDG), passed in June 2017. The Regulation would apply to “hosting service providers” (HSPs), defined as “a provider of information society services consisting in the storage of information provided by and at the request of the content provider and in making the information stored available to third parties”.

Combatting Online Terrorism Through Law

The main article (Article 21) of the EU Counter Terrorism Directive relates to measures against public provocation, including via the internet, stating that:

Member States may, when removal of the content referred to in paragraph 1 at its source is not feasible, take measures to block access to such content towards the internet users within their territory.

Measures of removal and blocking must be set following transparent procedures and provide adequate safeguards, in particular, to ensure that those measures are limited to what is necessary and proportionate and that users are informed of the reason for those measures

New rules proposed by the Commission helps ensure terrorist content online is swiftly removed. The key features of the new rules are:

  • The one-hour rule
  • A clear definition of terrorist content
  • A duty of care obligation
  • Increased cooperation
  • Strong safeguards
  • Increased transparency and accountability
  • Strong and deterrent financial penalties
  • How Online Patrols Work

The EU Internet Forum was launched in December 2015. Its prototype database operated jointly by Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft gathers “digital fingerprints” (hashes) of content marked as “terrorist” or “extremist”. Once designated as such, photos or videos can no longer be uploaded to these platforms. The upload filters are intended to ensure that undesirable content is identified and removed more swiftly. These companies are part of what is known as the EU Internet Forum, which met for the second time last December. With this counter-terrorism initiative, the European Commission intends to encourage Internet companies to, among other things, monitor content on their platforms more intensively.

More recently, the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron organized a meeting on 15 May 2019 in Paris. The meeting convened world leaders and CEOs of tech companies in order to agree to a pledge called the ‘Christchurch Call’ to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. The Christchurch Summit is an attempt to bring to an end the ability to use social media to organize and promote terrorism and violent extremism, in the wake of the 15 March, terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardern also met with civil society leaders on 14 May to discuss the content of the call.


Faced with the dilemma of terrorism in various forms, from multiple directions, European intelligence agencies have stepped up their efforts to interdict terrorist operations and to drain away its sources, both within the European Union and in the strategic areas surrounding the Continent, primarily Africa, particularly the North.

The EU has developed a multitude of security, political, and legal institutions to try to suppress terrorism on European soil, yet despite it all the threat has continued to multiply at a rapid pace in recent years. The principles of European intelligence work — accuracy, acumen, and the avoidance of human rights infringements — are sound, but the challenge will remain for some time, most immediately in the form of returning foreign fighters, guided lone-actors, and trying to re-establish the badly damaged legal architecture against terror-financing.

Copyright © 2019 The Middle East and North Africa Media Monitor.