At the beginning of this year, the acting president of the council of the European Union asked the respected International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, Netherlands, to figure out, among other things, exactly how many Europeans have gone to Syria to fight in a civil war that’s entering its sixth year.
The request, on its face, seemed simple enough. It came from the governing council of the European Union, a collection of the heads of state of the 28 member nations in the EU. Its importance has been made clear by three deadly terror attacks in the past 15 months all linked to Syria and the Islamic State.
And yet, in the end, only a rough approximation could be done. There was no EU central database and, when asked, only 23 of the countries responded. Researchers were able to use open-source materials to figure out what was going on with another three. When the report was issued last week, there was no information for Hungary or Greece. The “estimate lies between 3,922 and 4,294,” the report said. About 30 percent of those are thought to have returned to their homes in Europe.
Undercutting the accuracy of the estimate, the report noted, was that the EU lacks “a common and agreed definition” of what exactly makes a foreign fighter.
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Bibi van Ginkel, a co-author of the report who’s a counterterrorism expert in the Netherlands, said that in counterterrorism terms, the fighters and especially returnees who most mattered were those who’d studied and fought with the Islamic State or other anti-Western terror organizations.
Especially in intelligence, knowledge is power. No one willingly gives away power.
Magnus Ranstorp,Swedish National Defense University
“But the numbers include those who joined the nonsectarian rebels, those who took one look and fled, and those who were broken by the experience, people who aren’t likely to be threats to European governments,” she said. “A common definition of exactly who we need to be most closely watching is needed.”
But that is made more difficult by something that is not in the report. A common definition implies a common effort, and as is the case with all European intelligence-related issues, it’s pretty much every nation for itself.
“It’s always been a problem,” she noted.
A potential terrorist who enters the European Union in Spain or Italy or Denmark or Poland can travel across the rest of the EU with the same ease that an American can drive from South Carolina to North Carolina. But when someone makes the drive in the United States, the FBI can handle the investigation in both states. In Europe there is, at best, a very limited shared security effort.
German intelligence is set up to serve German needs. French intelligence serves France. British intelligence serves the United Kingdom. Beyond the lack of a common definition on who constitutes a threat, the disconnect has wide-ranging ramifications. For example: European intelligence agencies don’t agree on the transliteration of Arabic names. That means a name that’s spelled one way in France can be spelled another way in Germany, and on to potentially 28 different spellings in 28 different countries. A computer search is virtually worthless – even before the notion of false identification papers comes into play.
Magnus Ranstorp, an international security expert at the Swedish National Defense University, said the problems were well known but the cause wasn’t easily overcome.
“Especially in intelligence, knowledge is power,” he said. “No one willingly gives away power.”
It’s not really a secret that secrets are not shared. Hungary isn’t really trusted. France is notoriously difficult to work with. German intelligence is a difficult-to-track mix of national and regional offices.
And that’s just inside the EU. Consider the recent Brussels attacks, which killed 32 people and wounded hundreds. Not long after the attacks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed that Turkey had deported Ibrahim El Bakraoui, who triggered a suitcase bomb at the Brussels Airport.
Erdogan said Turkish intelligence had warned Belgium that Bakraoui had been detained at Gaziantep along the Turkish border with Syria. “Despite our warnings that this person was a foreign terrorist fighter, Belgium could not establish any links with terrorism,” he said.
Ranstorp, however, noted that it’s not simple for a European nation to act on a warning from Turkey. It wasn’t long ago that many in European intelligence believed that Turkey at best turned a blind eye and at worst opened the doors to those looking to join the Islamic State.
“There’s a very low degree of trust,” he said. “Turkey has an agenda. When they tell security forces he’s a terrorist, the immediate reaction is ‘What’s their angle?’ Intel sharing is notoriously difficult.”
At the same time, Turkish intelligence has long accused European nations of turning a blind eye when their residents leave to join the fight. The English newspaper The Guardian quoted a Turkish security officer as saying, “We were suspicious that the reason they want these people to come is because they don’t want them in their own countries.”
Adding to the confusion, no doubt, was that Bakraoui was in fact sent back to the Netherlands, not Belgium.
Paul J.J. Welfens, the macroeconomics chair at University of Wuppertal in Germany, who’s been using his expertise to study international terrorism, said that to him it was “absolutely clear that EU countries – particularly on the continent – are poorly organized in terms of anti-terror policies. The case of Belgium in particular is quite disappointing and dangerous.”
The fact that a high percentage of terrorist attackers in Europe already have a criminal background points to the problem of the poor integration of younger generations in France and Belgium.
Paul J.J. Welfens, University of Wuppertal
But, in a view that echoes many around Europe, he said the counterterror approach appeared backward.
“The fact that a high percentage of terrorist attackers in Europe already have a criminal background points to the problem of the poor integration of younger generations in France and Belgium,” he wrote, something he blames on both countries’ relatively high minimum wages, which he says discourages hiring. He contrasts it with Germany, where the minimum wage is lower.
“The youth unemployment rate has been twice the level of that of Germany over the course of more than two decades,” he said.
Without jobs, unemployed youth turn to crime, and from crime they find their way to extremist ideology and violence. After that, the problems that haunt many European institutions kick in.
“From this perspective some necessary policy reforms are fairly obvious,” Welfens asserted. “As regards the EU, a functional security union requires centralized intelligence and therefore a political union.”
Which clearly doesn’t exist. German intelligence tracks the growth of the Salafi strain of conservative Islam under the umbrella of counterterrorism. No one else does. Ranstorp attributes European counterterror success stories to something beyond the control of the governments. “After all, terrorists are stupid,” he said.
But the successes are not as well known as the failures. “It’s like being a goalie,” he said, drawing a soccer analogy. “Nobody remembers the saves; it’s the goals that got in that people remember.”
The structural issues facing EU counterterror are obvious, and are not going away easily. Nations have different laws regarding privacy and surveillance. They have different criminal laws and punishments. They have different priorities.
“Everyone is focused on their own file,” Ranstorp said. “And no one can see how it fits into the whole picture of Europe.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews