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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 March 2004, 12:25 GMT
The European terror challenge
By Magnus Ranstorp with Jeffrey Cozzens
Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, St Andrews

The recent Madrid terrorist attacks have catapulted the EU into further action in considering a new package of anti-terrorist measures.

The key challenge is to establish a way of reinforcing existing collaboration in intelligence-sharing and police investigations without creating new bureaucracy that would be too cumbersome against a highly mobile and adaptive terrorist threat in Europe.

One of the trains destroyed by a bomb outside Atocha station in Madrid
The bombings have been a catalyst for action
The efficacy of these new anti-terrorist proposals must be evaluated against the problems latent in the pan-European action plan adopted by the European Council on 21 September, 2001.

These problems include the European Common Arrest Warrant, as Germany, Italy, Greece, Austria and the Netherlands have not yet enacted its enforceable provisions.

They also include the EU-wide definition of terrorism, as three states have yet to implement it and adjust their national laws in laying down minimum sentences for terrorist crimes; and 11 states have still to enact laws enabling cross-border communication intercepts and monitoring of bank accounts.

The EU intelligence agency Europol has done little to address these dilemmas. A coherent anti-terror policy is beyond its remit and it lacks the adequate resources with only 350 staff members and an annual budget of 52m euros ($64m).

Europol has failed to transcend the traditional obstacles to intelligence sharing; the 34 law enforcement agencies are still reluctant to share "high grade", real-time intelligence on terrorism that can be acted upon immediately.

Promise and pitfalls

The new anti-terrorism proposals under consideration are designed to remedy the deficiencies in the nature and quality of intelligence and information sharing among the EU member states.

But while these proposals promise improvements, they are also laden with potential pitfalls.

  • EU Solidarity Clause on Terrorism:
    Based on the solidarity clause in the EU's draft constitution, the member states are committed to provide all possible support and assistance in facilitating ongoing investigations of terrorist attacks and in preventing further attacks from occurring within the EU. This proposal is uncontroversial and would complement the parallel Nato Article 5 clause invoked after the 11 September terrorist attacks.

  • EU appointment of 'counter-terrorism czar':
    This proposal stipulates the creation of a co-ordinator for counter-terrorism post to provide a central node for developing policy initiatives and information sharing in Brussels.

    The appointment would involve an experienced central figure with direct access to Javier Solana and parallel interlocutors inside and outside the EU. It would also create a common European platform with wide remit to address critical issues in the fight against terror, ranging from foreign policy and border control to money laundering.

    This post would bolster current levels of co-ordination between EU security services and promote synergy in counter-terrorism policy-making.

    But problems for the czar are the pitfalls inherent in classified information sharing at the pan-European levels and beyond. Some EU states have a greater intelligence capacity (with non-EU sources) that they would be reluctant to compromise.

  • Exchange of information/clearing house:
    In tandem with the creation of the counter-terrorism czar, the EU has proposed to create a mechanism to facilitate information exchange between the European law enforcement and intelligence communities as well as judicial authorities.

    The prioritised areas of information exchange include: identifying terrorists' "sleeping cells", recruitment methods, financial bases and external connections.

    Analysing and procuring information on these areas is critical; however the methodology for information exchange could prove problematic, relegating the clearing house to function as merely another platform for European bureaucratic networking.

  • Register and database of persons and groups:
    This proposal seeks to enhance existing databases to include information on both convicted terrorists as well as those under investigation.

    The primary purpose is to streamline existing databases into real-time instruments on terrorist organisations and assets. The most interesting component of this proposal is to foster partnerships with the public and banking sectors; attempting to overcome institutional banking secrecy in some states; and developing an efficient system to follow financial transactions.

    Some financial sectors, such as credit card companies, will continue to be reluctant to divulge fraud as it could undermine business confidence.

    Another controversial aspect is the proposed introduction of obligatory storing of all telephone and communication data within the EU for specific periods.

    This would be limited to "trafficking" rather than content. However, many states will be reluctant and extremely unwilling to relinquish confidentiality and privacy enshrined in the EU data protection legislation.

  • The financing of terrorism:
    The EU has already frozen 1.65m euros ($2m) in terrorist assets since the 11 September terrorist attacks.

    Biometric device at JFK airport
    The introduction of biometric identification is inevitable
    These new proposals would seek to enhance monitoring of transactions in real-time. Most of these measures assume that terrorists only use banking facilities in the movement of funds. Greater attention needs to be focused on detecting informal financial relationships and the nexus between terrorism and criminal enterprise.

  • ID cards with biometric details:
    These new measures are absolutely critical as terrorists continue to harness identity theft with extraordinary ease, using these to move undetected and unhindered within the EU.

    False passports and IDs are also used to engage in credit card and bank fraud in certain EU states with less stringent identification procedures.

    The UK is among the weakest links in this respect within the EU. A future model could be based on Italy's system of checking IDs online, creating a partnership with the public who can check these to detect and report stolen documents.

  • Traceability and control of the weapons:
    This proposal seeks to utilise existing databases or create new ones in monitoring and tracing explosives and detonators. This will be welcome but is unlikely to remove the vast black market sources that are used by terrorists and criminals alike.

    More significantly, this proposal seeks to identify the trafficking of radiological material using all available technology and surveillance instruments.

  • Bio-terrorism:
    The last proposal relates to more efficient inter-agency co-ordination between health and security agencies. Moreover, it focuses on the necessity to adopt a joint EU emergency preparedness doctrine and ready first-responder supplies.

    The EU has extremely varied levels of preparedness in this respect and will struggle to harmonise its emergency planning and coordination in response to an act of "catastrophic" terrorism involving chemical, biological and radiological attack. This can be seen by the absence of a coherent transport security plan within or between states.

    In conclusion, many of these proposals are on paper valuable assets in the fight against terrorism from a European perspective.

    It remains to be seen whether these proposals will generate traction among all states to remedy the EU's institutional shortcoming in translating counterterrorism policies and new initiatives into action on the ground.

    Success against terrorism in Europe demands this.


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