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SPECIAL: How the EU is Using Covert Intelligence Systems to Combat ISIS

SPECIAL: How the EU is Using Covert Intelligence Systems to Combat ISIS Homeland Security TodayWith the growing number of European Union (EU) citizens fighting alongside jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, the number of fighters returning home, potentially radicalized, is posing a clear threat to the security of many European nations.

In order to increase security to protect against ISIS, the EU is intensifying covert intelligence systems that will track the locations of potential terrorists and returning foreign fighters. Despite the concern over privacy, this is an essential step the EU is taking to protect their citizens from radicalized ISIS fighters that can penetrate their borders.

To illustrate the depths of the problem, Charlotte McDonald-Gibson pointed out in the TIME report, How ISIS Threatens Europe, that, “EUROPOL’s intelligence suggests that at least 5,000 EU citizens are either fighting alongside jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq right now. Evidence suggests ISIS is focusing their recruitment efforts on EU individuals who can use their passports to travel across the continent undetected due to the open borders policy.

Editor’s note: Homeland Security Today has repeatedly reported for years that jihadist organizations like ISIS have aggressively sought to recruit “Westerner” jihadists not on the radars of any intelligence service who are able to travel freely throughout the West. Read the Homeland Security Today report, Migration of Radicalized European Muslims to Syria to Engage in Jihad Widespread Problem, Study Shows.

For the EU, the concern is that these young men and women will most likely return home radicalized and commit acts of terrorism. To understand the possible magnitude of this problem and the potential growth of the recruits, the total population of 28 EU countries is approximately 500 million, while the Muslim population is estimated at 20 million. ISIS has a large recruitment pool that it could potentially target, and the EU needs to find a way to limit the amount of citizens who become radicalized.

The recent arrests and convictions across Europe, including Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, further highlight the immediacy of the problem. In all of these instances, the arrests involved citizens who had traveled to Syria to participate in the ongoing civil wars. For example, in 2013, the UK police arrested two British citizens who were of Pakistani origin suspected of participating in Syrian training camps. Arrests were also made in France, Italy and Spain which were all related to Internet activity that involved the publication of terrorist propaganda and bomb-making instructions.

There have also been attacks such as the recent events in Belgium, where an attack was carried out by a EU citizen returning from Syria. The attacker, Mehdi Nemmouche, opened fire in a Jewish museum in Brussels, killing four people. This followed an earlier incident where police killed two young Belgian men when they raided a house to disrupt a plot to attack police officers in Belgian cities.

In 2013 alone, 152 terrorist attacks were carried out in five EU member states. The majority took place in France, Spain and the UK. The total number of attacks for 2011, 2012 and 2013 were 545. While the number of attacks using bombs decreased from 91 in 2012 to 31 in 2013, the number of attacks using firearms has remained constant. The majority of these attacks targeted the business sector and private properties, as noted in the 2014 EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report.

These incidents affirm that the ISIS threat is real. Fortunately, the EU is taking these threats seriously through a number of techniques and strategies that appear to be successful. For example, in 2013 a number of EU member states arrested 535 individuals for terrorism-related offenses.

Again, most of these arrests occurred in France, Spain and the UK. Some of the measures adopted and implemented in the EU to identify and stop ISIS recruits include efforts to limit the recruitment of European jihadists, impede the recruit’s travel to Syria and Iraq and place those who return home from Syria and Iraq under close surveillance.

Editor’s note: Days after Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, two radicalized Muslims and Phoenix, Arizona roommates carried out a jihad attack on a civic center in Garland, Texas where an art exhibition and contest was being held for the best cartoon of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, FBI Director James Comey soberly said there are "hundreds, maybe thousands," of Muslims or new converts inclined to accept radical Islam’s call to jihad across the nation. Moreover, they may be receiving recruitment approaches, perhaps even directives, to attack targets in the US from jihadi organizations like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Homeland Security Today also reported in August that social media-influenced Islamist jihadism had already taken place on US soil, some successfully, and noted that many others were thwarted. Still, the fear of counterterrorists and intelligence officials today is that so many more Muslims are being radicalized by ISIS and other jihadi groups’ sophisticated social media efforts.

The EU has revised and updated procedures that a number of the member states are cooperating on including counterterrorism coordination, antiterrorism legislation and regulation of political activities. This cooperation includes The Schengen Agreement, which permits people to travel freely within the “Schengen” area that consists of 26 European Countries. The Schengen Area has grown rapidly, both geographically and in terms of the number of people benefiting from free movement. Today, over 400 million Europeans from 25 European countries enjoy passport-free travel across the area.

The EU has ramped up international counterterrorism cooperation among these member states and currently Turkey is the primary country used as the entry point for jihadists going from Europe to Syria. This is the “weak link” in the system. As noted in a recent Business Insider report, “The relaxed border policies Turkey adopted between 2011-2014 enabled extremists who wished to travel to Syria and join the rebels in their fight against the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.”

As part of this covert counterterrorism cooperation, the EU is using the Schengen Information System (SIS) to create a passenger data system that can be shared among the member states. The system creates a Passenger Name Record (PNR) system that provides police and intelligence agencies with shared access to several years of passenger data, which allows them to trace suspected militants.

An example of how this has been used was the terrorist attack in Belgium. The terrorist was a French national of Algerian heritage and had spent a year in Syria. He flew from Turkey to Frankfurt, Germany.The German customs officials, using the SIS system, alerted the French. Unfortunately, he was allowed to continue his travels to Brussels, where he carried out an attack on a Jewish museum.

Up until that attack, there had been some resistance by some of the EU member states to deploy these technologies — in part because of privacy concerns and the possible impact on slowing entry into the different countries resulting in long lines and waits by passengers. However, after the Brussels attack, more countries are moving to adopt these PNR programs.

Hans-Georg Maasen, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, is a staunch supporter of these type of intelligence gathering systems, and has publicly warned of returning jihadists and the danger they pose to not only Germany, but all EU member states, particularly France, which has more homegrown ISIS militants than any other European country. France has responded to this threat by creating what they call the Vigipirate counterterrorism program.

This initiative is similar to the US Homeland Security Advisor System and includes five different levels, each marked by a certain color to signify various threat levels. In February 2014, the code was simplified to just two levels — a vigilance level and an attack alert level, which is now in effect for the first time.

The terrorism threat has become more diffuse and continues to increase at a rapid pace. This increased threat is requiring the EU member states to intensify their covert intelligence systems allowing for greater exchange of operational and intelligence information regarding the movement of terrorists including both national and foreign terrorist fighters, especially those individuals who are EU citizens.

Dr. Pamela Collins is a security consultant and professor at the Eastern Kentucky University School of Safety, Security and Emergency Management. She’s worked for the Department of Homeland Security as a principal and program manager since 2005.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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