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Europe's anti-terror capacity

Rabel Osman Ahmed
Teamwork: Italy arrested a leading suspect in the Madrid bombings

The fight against terrorism has been on the EU's agenda since 1997 but concerted action only began after the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US.

The March 2004 bombings in Madrid and the July 2005 bombings in London provided new momentum.

The European Commission proposed three new measures in November 2007:

  • Inciting terrorism: The criminalisation of terrorism incitement, recruitment and training, specifically targeting such activities over the internet. The new law would make it easier for authorities to ensure internet service providers co-operate in providing information.
  • Targeting explosives: Rapid alert systems on lost and stolen explosive material, a network of bomb disposal experts and tighter controls for those involved in the industry. The European police office would also have a special department with explosive forensic expertise.
  • Passenger data: Member states to collect, process and exchange personal information on passengers on flights within and beyond the EU. The commission says that the controversial exchange of 19 pieces of information on each passenger is needed to detect terrorist travel and disrupt future plots.

The proposals complement an EU counter-terrorism strategy agreed in December 2005 which set out four main objectives:

  • preventing new recruits to terrorism
  • better protection of potential targets
  • pursuit and investigation of existing networks
  • improved capability to respond to terrorist attacks
  • Key steps already taken include:

    • European evidence warrant: This was agreed on 1 June 2006 and is designed to speed up the transfer of evidence needed for criminal investigations from one EU country to another. A warrant issued by a judicial authority in one member state will be executed in another "in the same way as a domestic procedural measure". The process is supposed to take a maximum of 60 days or less, instead of months or years

    • Data retention: Agreement was reached in December 2005 on legislation to force telephone companies and internet service providers to keep records of calls, text messages, e-mails and internet connections for up to two years
    • European arrest warrant: This was agreed in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks, though it took time for all member states to implement it. The last, Italy, did so only in 2005. Nevertheless, a European Commission report in February 2005 said the warrant had led to the extradition of 104 people. It said the process had taken 45 days on average, a big improvement on the previous average of nine months

    • Terror tsar: A Belgian politician, Gilles de Kerchove, took over from Dutchman Gijs de Vries as the EU's counter-terrorism co-ordinator in September 2007. The role was created after the Madrid bombings with the aim of defining the EU's role in the field of counter-terrorism and persuading member states to co-operate at EU level. The co-ordinator has no budget or agents in the field and cannot propose legislation
    • Joint situation centre (SitCen): This brings together national experts to analyse intelligence assessments from the member states and Europol. It reports to EU foreign and security policy chief Javier Solana
    • Europol counter-terrorism unit: One of Europol's tasks is to share and analyse information supplied by member states. In June its terrorism file was reportedly being used in 21 investigations across several member states. Its counter-terrorism taskforce consists of police officers from member states
    • Biometrics: Member states have begun issuing passports carrying digital facial images. The next step is for fingerprints to be stored in passports. Biometric identification will also be stored on an upgraded version of a database known as the Schengen Information System, which holds data on wanted people, people banned from entering the EU, missing people and people to be put under surveillance
    • Concerted and collective European action, in the spirit of solidarity, is indispensable to combat terrorism
      EU counter-terrorism strategy

    • Solidarity clause: After the attacks in Madrid, EU governments pledged to help any member state subjected to a serious attack. The EU has a response centre, based in the European Commission, whose job is to co-ordinate the help offered by national governments
    • Airline passenger data transfer: The commission agreed in 2003 that the US can have access to 34 elements of personal data relating to passengers flying on European airlines to the US. The data includes addresses, credit card numbers, dates of birth and number of bags
    • Money laundering directive: Passed in 2001, the directive obliges a wide range of professionals - from auditors to casino owners and estate agents - to report any suspicious transactions. It also establishes financial intelligence units in each member state. In 2005 new measures were agreed, according to which money transfers into or out of the EU must be accompanied by the name, address and account number of the sender
    • Peer review of emergency response capability: Each member state's ability to respond to a major attack has been reviewed. Some countries are already implementing recommendations. The exercise is expected to encourage governments to share best practice and to improve their ability to take part in cross-border emergency operations

    Other measures taken include agreeing on a common definition of terrorism and a common list of militant groups.

    The EU also created Eurojust to help national magistrates work together on cross-border investigations, though reports suggest it remains underused.

    An external borders agency, Frontex, based in Poland, began work in 2005 to encourage co-operation between national border guards.

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