Published on E!SHARP web page.

2017 is going to be a volatile year for combating terrorism around the globe. By this time last year, ISIS and its affiliates staged over 40 terrorist attacks in 9 different countries causing more than 500 casualties and at least 1200 wounded.

So far in 2017 there has been an even bigger surge of ISIS attacks (mostly in ISIS held territory) amounting to over 85 attacks in 10 different countries causing more than 740 casualties. To make matters worse, this has been accompanied by a mounting offensive from different jihadist organizations in Pakistan, Somalia and parts of North Africa.

Counter-Terrorism officials estimate that of the over 5000 Foreign Fighters (FF’s) that went from Europe to Syria and Iraq, at least one third, or 1500 people, have already returned.

As the Global Coalition Against Daesh is succeeding in further suffocating ISIS strongholds, many of the FF’s of European origins will try to return to EU territories this year to seek refuge and expand the theatre of jihadist activity in Europe. This is particularly concerning given the sensitive elections fast approaching in the Netherlands, France and Germany and the rise of anti-migrant and anti-establishment sentiment across European civil society.

The concern of returning FF’s is magnified when considering the case of the Paris attacks. A brief analysis of the operatives from the ISIS network that staged the Paris attack displays the following:

  • 4 operatives entered through Leros, Greece with fake IDs, two of which were already in a database:
    • 1 was on an EU watch list;
    • 1 had an open terrorism warrant on his head;
  • 6 were wanted on international terror warrants;
  • 1 was under police surveillance with wire taps and hidden cameras;
  • 7 were on a terrorism watch list;
  • 12 of them had been stopped, questioned and even arrested at some point during their back and forth travels from Syria;
  • Attacks in Paris were coordinated and directed over the phone from Jihadists based in Belgium;
  • Explosives used in the Paris attacks were made in Belgium;
  • Salah Abdelslam, a Belgian national and the key suspect in the planning of the Paris attack, successfully evaded authorities for 4 months before being captured;
  • 4 days after his arrest, a sophisticated terrorist attack was carried out in the Brussels Airport and metro station.

Given that several members of the network were already known, having been listed in various databases, stronger coordination, information sharing and communication among European counter-terrorism officials could have prevented both attacks.

Thus, European counter-terrorism officials must reorient their strategy and tactics to address the rise in suicide terrorism taking place across the globe.

What Can Be Done?

Any counter-terrorism strategy should be divided into two parts: counter-motivation and counter-operational capability.

Even with the creation of a new EU Counter Terrorism Center at Europol in January 2016 and the approval of the Passenger Name Record (PNR) Directive, there are a number of actions to be launched at the national and EU level to strengthen Europe’s counter-terrorism strategy.

On the counter-operational side the EU 28 can:

  • Mandate that high value data collected by any national security agency is transmitted within 24 hours of recording to a central system and that it is permitted to cover non-EU nationals;
    • Reinforce this with a shared database in the use of biotech that all EU border control services and Frontex have access to;
  • Formulate joint investigation teams (JITs) with Europol that transfer best practices to national authorities;
  • Stage regular joint training exercises and simulations with an emphasis on emergency preparedness and civil emergency response that involves all relevant agencies;
  • Set a joint procurement fund (based on GDP proportionality) with the sole purpose of outfitting, modernizing and training counter-terrorism units.

As for counter-motivation strategy, many things need doing here. For example, Member States should create, where they haven’t already:

  • Independent civil society advisory boards to local and federal authorities in order to promote internal stability and shared values across society;
  • All EU nations should legally classify ISIS as a terrorist group and criminalise membership in it or financial support to it – punishable in any Member State;
  • All EU 28 should be setting up rehabilitation centres;
  • The EU 28 should create a publicly accessible ‘No Visit List” that identifies ideological radicals who pose a threat to the security of a country and who will be prohibited from stepping foot in the EU;
    • Along the same line, a database of those organisations whose charitable status has been removed due to links with terrorism should be publicly accessible as well;
  • EU nations should ensure mandatory screening of citizens involved in public outreach, especially those engaged with “at-risk communities”;
  • EU nations should set a specialised team of lawyers trained to prosecute terrorism cases, while judges selected to hear terrorism cases should have the background and training to preside over them.

Adopting such recommendations would strengthen the existing counter-terrorism cooperation between EU Member States and incentivise reform in EU aspiring states. Most important, they would enhance the operational capabilities of EU agencies such as Europol and Eurojust to thwart terrorist recruitment, disrupt terrorist activity and apprehend the terrorist operatives themselves.