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Faced with the threat of the Islamic State, a minute of silence and then what?

Belgian Ministers Jan Jambon (Interior) & Koen Goens (Justice) during the minute of silence at the Exceptional Council on March 14 (Credit: UE)
Belgian Ministers Jan Jambon (Interior) & Koen Goens (Justice) during the minute of silence at the Exceptional Council on March 14 (Credit: UE)

(BRUSSELS2) The exceptional meeting of 28 interior ministers this Thursday (March 24) initially had a symbolic objective: to express condolences to the Belgian people and to reaffirm European unity after the double terrorist attack perpetrated this Tuesday, March 22 in Brussels.

A necessary symbolism

This symbolism can sometimes seem superficial. It is important in political matters, because it shows a united Europe, even if there are differences of appreciation, and above all present. We certainly remember the certain political confusion after the January 2015 attacks in Paris, during the Latvian presidency (read: Anti-terrorism. A European ignition delay).

Six months wasted!

The impression of a lack of political responsiveness was at the time politically harmful to say the least. It has very concretely delayed any awareness, the start of work and the necessary acceleration. Because then, between April 2015 and November 2015, European attention and political will were distracted from the “terrorism” question to focus on other aspects, notably the refugee and migrant crisis. Clearly there were six months lost that we should make up for now.

Few new commitments… and a probable delay

But Thursday's meeting showed it. If the symbolism is there, in terms of concrete commitments, there is unfortunately nothing very new in itself. We accelerate a little here and there, especially on the PNR. We are waiting for a proposal (on borders), concrete measures (on fingerprints), a code of conduct (for the internet)… All this by June 2016. Which is still three months away. But nothing more. To tell the truth, it's even a little light compared to the scale of the new threats which clearly bypass borders and attack several European countries head-on at the same time...

A network more organized than it appears

Despite an impression of amateurs which can sometimes seem to exist, the “network” set up by the organization of the Islamic State in Europe (ISIL / Daesh) is in fact clearly based on a para-military organization, with “forward” units, “logistical” units, command structures, places of withdrawal which juggle borders, which may resemble in certain points that set up by the Algerian GIA in the 1990s.

An enemy who seeks to divide more than to claim

This “enemy” does not have political demands classically expressed by a terrorist movement (recognition of a State, overthrow of power, etc.). But he has a very clear desire to sow terror, to divide, to take on the civilian population of several member states.

French-speaking countries at the heart of the target, until when?

For the moment, only French-speaking countries (France and Belgium) have been more clearly targeted (apart from an action in Denmark). It cannot be ruled out that it will be different in the future: that Germany or Italy or even the United Kingdom, Austria or Hungary will be targeted. The presence of Abdelslam's Franco-Brussels unit between Germany, Austria and Hungary should also clearly worry these countries. There are dormant logistical cells, or at least support points that deserve interest.

A Europe of tolerance

The double attack on Brussels was not specifically aimed at Belgium, despite appearances, but rather at the European organization. It is Europe with its overall peaceful, democratic functioning, social and religious diversity that is targeted. The attacks on Monday in Bamako (attempt) and Tuesday in Brussels (two fatal suicidal attacks) demonstrated this (read our editorial: We wanted to target Europe!). By responding weakly and slowly to this threat, the Europeans are exposing themselves to the following response taking them by surprise once again.

Shift up a gear

It is not a question of reinventing the wheel, or of setting up new institutions but of starting to think about a new dimension of the European police and judicial response, as was done in their time in matters of “ordinary” crime. ” the Dutroux affair, or terrorist temporality, the attacks of September 2001 (New York) and especially of March 2004 and July 2005 (Madrid / London). Europeans must move up a gear.

Design an interoperable device

We can dream of a European intelligence agency. But this remains, for the moment, a pipe dream. It would take time. And that would only partially solve the problem. We must rethink the entire system, design an interoperable system, rather than a community one, ranging from common threat analysis and prevention units, to joint investigation teams, to joint interventions by special forces. This requires very quickly increasing joint training, bridges, resolving all the “small” procedural questions, etc. The imperative is also to develop a common risk analysis.

A European intelligence agency

Some – like Guy Verhofstadt (1) – advocate a European intelligence agency. An idea considered unrealizable by certain specialists on the issue such as MEP Arnaud Danjean, who believes that it would take years for a limited result. An opinion that we share: there is no point in carrying out large institutional projects that produce little in the end.

Some member states, generally the “big” countries that invest in intelligence, are also opposed to this proposal. But on the side of “small countries” (Austria, Belgium, etc.), which often do not have significant resources nor a general range of observation, this idea often comes up.

Rather than a sterile opposition between two conceptions, each defensible, a possible solution could be seen. It would consist of designing an agency not European but multinational, on a voluntary basis, between several countries which would group their forces, their means, and exchange intelligence.

Between Belgium, Austria, Finland and Greece, we can estimate that there is a common will, possible economies of scale and sources of information diversified enough to be complementary and useful. This solution would in a way make it possible to have another “large” intelligence agency which could thus usefully complement that provided by France, the United Kingdom, Germany, or even have original intelligence leads and exchange them in this way. in an “informal” way.

Thinking about a binational trial

It will also be necessary to ask the question of establishing common procedures allowing a judicial investigation as well as a criminal trial to then cover acts committed in two (or even three) countries. This involves revolutionizing a little our ways of thinking and judicial organization. Is Abdelslam today more guilty in France for having been the “team leader” of several suicide bombers before recanting himself or for having been the accomplice or the “instigator” of the perpetrators of the attacks in Brussels? That's a real question. And choosing the location of the trial today would already answer the final question: what is he guilty of? With a risk of legal confusion... and ultimately a lighter sentence than expected. The lack of Europe on this issue is clearly detrimental to the investigation. We must begin this work immediately.

Strengthening links in emergency relief structures

We must also not forget the dimension of the aftermath of the attack. That is to say the medical response and emergency relief, as well as civil protection (anti-explosives or anti-bacteriological). In Paris as in Brussels, the emergency response systems were at the limit of their possibilities, with intervention times longer than what would be expected in such circumstances. We must rethink the emergency intervention system, to make it again interoperable. Especially for “small” countries which do not have inexhaustible resources.

Ability to deal with unconventional threats

If a third attack had taken place in Liège or Antwerp, it is not certain that the Belgian structure would have been able to respond on its own. If a non-classic threat (bacteriological, chemical, etc.) emerges, it is not really certain that all the services in Europe will be able to deal with it, etc. It would therefore not be useless to think about an operational reserve that can be mobilized in a few hours and not a few days. In this case, can we use military structures experienced in these kinds of questions (like the European battlegroup not used until now)? This is at least worth thinking about.

Plan a possible neutralization of the heart of European power

The question of European power must also be asked. What fallback structure exists if the “Schuman roundabout”, the nerve center of the European system, is reached? A question which can only be theoretical today after the attack at the Maelbeck station, a stone's throw from the headquarters of the European institutions. There is a whole range of emergency planning which today seems rather in its infancy or even in its infancy. All of this must be done urgently in order to have a more complete system in place by the end of the year. Otherwise, at the next attack, you will be able to take up the statement made this week, modify two paragraphs, two dates... and we will be left for a new minute of silence, the compassion phase, the “we knew it well” phase, and the “disintegration” phase. ”.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Read also (in July 2004!) Europe behind on crime

(1) For the former Belgian Prime Minister, this is not a last minute fad. More than 10 years ago, the day after the Madrid attacks in March 2004, he already defended this creation.

Update on the European Intelligence Agency

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

2 thoughts on “Faced with the threat of the Islamic State, a minute of silence and then what?"

  • jeans - Guy GIRAUD

    Postponing the creation of a European Intelligence Agency to the medium/long term would be a double error: firstly because it is quite possible to start the procedure now without slowing down “interoperable actions” – secondly, because the limits of inter-departmental voluntary cooperation are unfortunately well known.
    The most urgent thing is to finally adapt national intelligence structures and methods to this new type of terrorism: all the PNRs in the world will not replace human actions on the ground, as close as possible to Islamist circles / breeding grounds, particularly in France / Belgium (indicators, infiltrations, etc.): in short, redeploy “ground troops”.

  • Your CT multinational intelligence-sharing agency embryo is here:
    8. fully support the work of the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG), in particular by further accelerating the establishment of a dedicated platform for real time, multilateral information exchange;
    http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/03/24-statement-on-terrorist-attacks-in-brussels-on-22-march/

    For the exchange of criminal information, there is Europol and the Joint Investigation Teams

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