Terror and counter terror: Europe’s security dialectic

Written by Ellen Halliday on . Posted in Current features, Features, Uncategorised

The landscape of terror and counter-terrorism in Europe is changing fast. Since 9/11, the 2004 Madrid bombing and the 2005 London bombings, the tactics of terrorists and strategies of security services have evolved in turn, as one side seeks to outwit the other. The internet has become a crucial tool for both extremists and the security services, a forum for radicalisation and surveillance. Yet a recent spate of attacks suggests that despite the quantity of information available, security services are struggling to identify the most imminent risks. What has gone wrong with European counter-terrorism? Has the digitisation of radicalism made counter-terror even harder? At a recent conference at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, security experts from academic and policy reflected on the challenge of staying one-step ahead in a high-stakes sector.

Playing catch-up

Juliette Bird, Head of NATO’s counter-terrorism division

To some extent, security services are condemned to play catch-up. ‘They only have to get it right once, we have to get it right every time,’ reflected Jonathan Evans, a former Director-General of the British Security Service who worked extensively in Ireland during The Troubles. When an attack is executed, security services have very publicly failed in their task to keep citizens safe. Juliette Bird, head of NATO’s Counter Terrorism Division, revealed that the organisation was altogether unprepared to deal with the attack of September 11 2001. In the hours, days and weeks after, NATO was forced to ‘launch into the void’ of counter-terrorism as a reaction to the attack. Yet the unprecedented attack left the international organisation floundering, Bird revealed. Even years later, ‘NATO still perched on comfortable issues,’ with no dedicated counter-terrorism staff or policy for about a decade, she said.

The organisation is now entering what Bird called a ‘third stage’ of counter-terrorism, with a developed approach to help its members deal with twenty-first-century terror. Yet in the intervening years, the kind of threats faced in Europe and the West have changed. After every attack, threats evolve rather than disappear. As security services invest in protecting against the threat they know, extremists will plan to target other spaces, in other ways. ‘Before 9/11, you could drive a truck right into St. Pancras station,’ said Jonathan Evans, adding that today this is not so easy. However, today’s extremists use different methods. In recent months, confined spaces such as bridges and ordinary streets have become targets.  ‘They were probably looking for spaces from which people could not escape’, he said, referring to the recent attacks on London Bridge and Westminster.

For Evans, this evolution of tactics is reprehensible but unavoidable. ‘One has to accept that there will be attacks,’ he told the Florence conference. ‘But how you handle an incident has a great effect in whether it continues to be very damaging,’ he added, praising the quick responses of police in Paris and London.

Information overload

Despite recent public pressure on NATO, national security services generally face the most scrutiny and the greatest pressure to be prepared for what might come next. Yet a recent spate of attacks in European cities has highlighted worrying weak links between different member states’ security services. One of the London Bridge attackers was known to Italian security services, which had kept him under close surveillance and prevented him from travelling to Syria from Bologna. Yet when the suspect arrived in the UK, he was left unobserved and free to carry out his plan. Jonathan Evans argues is sympathetic to the tough choices police and political leaders have to make. Whilst from the outside, this looks like a failing on the part of UK services, Evans says it was an unfortunate result of a tough choice. ‘There are more leads than you can follow, so which lead do you put your resources behind?’ he said. Whilst the Italian services might have considered the attacker a key priority, the UK may not have had the money or manpower to keep watch.

Professor Peter Neumann, King’s College London

The scale of the challenge is clear. ‘In 2014 there were 18 foreign fighters in the Europol database, but now there are almost 9000’ revealed Wil Van Gemert, Deputy Director of Europol, Operations Department. Whilst this growth represents an increased investment in counter-terrorism, it also creates new challenges for security services. ‘The French police thought they could handle threats alone, but Paris changed that,’ he said.

Europol was founded as a reaction to Europe’s open borders and designed to encourage member states to collaborate on security matters but so far, people have flowed more easily than useful information. The sheer quantity of unproven threats available to member states makes it increasingly difficult predict which will materialise into real attacks. The quantity of information available to frontline security services increases scrutiny but is not enough, in itself, to help them tackle evolving threats. ‘Information exchange needs to be dramatically improved’, said Luigi Soreca, Director of Security in the European Commission’s DG Home. ‘There is a need for European policing…not just collecting but connecting information,’ added Van Gemert.

The ‘crime-terror nexus’

In this regard, academia has a key role to play in helping security services sift through the overwhelming quantity of data and uncover the most important evolutions in terror tactics.

According to Peter Neumann, Professor of Security Studies at King’s College London, security services have not taken account of a growing connection between crime and radicalisation. He believes a ‘crime-terror nexus’ has emerged in recent years, whereby radicalisation occurs more frequently amongst those with a history of criminal involvement. ‘This is not formalised cooperation but an inadvertent connection,’ he says, whereby illegal activity funds extremism and the skills associated with petty crime aid extremist acts.

A decade ago, Islamic extremists who espoused support for Al Qaeda tended to link their ideology to a set of theological beliefs, albeit a radical one. In contrast, ISIS is simply a ‘supergang’ without their predecessors’ theological foundation, argues Neumann. In 2016, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on two police officers in Christiania, Denmark, which ultimately left the assailant dead. Police thought he was a drug dealer, but ISIS remembered him as a ‘soldier of the Islamic State’. The Danish security services were confused, said Neumann. They had not anticipated that an Islamic extremist could also condone drug use. ‘We need to rethink radicalisation,’ said Neumann, arguing that security services have misjudged the threat of a newer brand of terrorist.

The local roots of global terror

Professor Diego Gambetta

Professor Diego Gambetta, Professor of Social Theory at the EUI, is sceptical. Whilst he also finds a connection between radicalisation and the frustration of socially excluded, petty criminals, Gambetta claims the ‘crime-terror nexus’ is not a global phenomenon. Rather, even in the internet age, radicalisation has a local context. Gambetta is most famous for his recent book Engineers of Jihad, which argues that a certain type of radicalism attracts a certain type of individual. Engineers are disproportionate amongst right-wing, Islamic extremists, claims Gambetta. Yet he also argues that relative deprivation, which differs according to geographic context, drives radicalisation. In developing countries, the resentment of those who have invested in education only to have their expectations of success shattered is more likely to turn into radicalism. Meanwhile, ‘the proportion of low-level jihadists is higher in the west than in developing countries,’ said Gambetta, because they are the group who most keenly feel social injustice. In an age of supposedly global terror, it seems that the roots of radicalism often remain remarkably close to home.

Indeed, new data suggests that the internet plays only a partial role in radicalisation. Despite the availability of IS propaganda on the internet, rates of radicalisation in Spain are concentrated in specific locations. Carola Garvia-Caluro revealed that in Spain, 80% of radicalised extremists came from just four provinces: Barcelona, Ceuta, Madrid and Mellila. ‘Radicalisation is a cluster phenomenon, it happens in certain geographical areas,’ she said. What’s more, whilst 40% of extremists were radicalised in a mixed environment of online and offline content, 25% were still radicalised exclusively offline. If the internet were the decisive factor for radicalisation, this cluster phenomenon would not occur. Rather, pre-existing social ties (usually built in part offline) existed in 70% of cases where an individual was radicalised. ‘This is not a lone actor phenomenon,’ said Carola.

More than ten years after 9/11 first forced NATO to invoke its clause that an attack on one would be considered an attack on all, national and international approaches to counter-terrorism have evolved. September 11 2001 seemed to usher in a new age of global terror, facilitated by the internet. Jeff Goodwin, Professor of Sociology at New York University, is not alone in the belief that ‘something changed around the turn of the millennium’ and that, in short, ‘the European and American theatre is really a spill-over of intense war in the Middle East.’

Yet some things remain the same. Member states still bear the brunt of responsibility for tackling ever-evolving tactics and understanding the changing profiles of extremists. Indeed, although NATO’s ‘approach to terror is becoming part of its flagship,’ said Bird, their role remains a secondary one, ‘much more limited’ than that of individual nations. Europol’s Van Gemert agrees. ‘All we can do it support member states,’ he said. Yet it should, in some way, be reassuring. Twenty-first-century terror still has local roots, in personal relationships and provincial frustrations. The roots of terror are tangible, traceable and therefore can be tackled.

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