An EU outflanked, endangered

Major, rapid shifts needed to track well-trained terrorists across national lines, analysts say

March 28, 2016
By Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Communications

As authorities continued hunting for suspects in Tuesday’s airport and subway bombings in Brussels, analysts said the attacks expose serious flaws in the effectiveness of the European Union’s security and intelligence agencies. The experts said the ease of the attacks raised urgent, foundational questions about whether the EU is fully prepared to confront mobile, well-trained terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The officials also suggested that such a long-term struggle, in which terrorists can arbitrarily attack public transit and gathering places in major cities, could cause profound economic and political damage to the EU.

Since similar attacks in Paris in November, Belgium has been harshly criticized across the EU for intelligence and policing failures around monitoring local jihadi communities, a perception bolstered after the latest bombings by Turkish officials who said they had alerted Belgium that at least one suspect had been deported several months ago. The disclosure prompted two Belgian ministers to offer their resignations.

“I’m not going to point fingers at which governments are good and which are bad. I think we’re all trying to do our best in an extraordinary and difficult situation,” said Sir Peter Westmacott, senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Studies and the Institute of Politics. “The fact that it was Brussels was because it was easy for them; it’s not because Brussels is the capital of the European Union, I don’t think.” 

Struggling with effective intelligence-sharing

Much like the United States did in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, the EU still struggles with effective intelligence-sharing, along national lines and bureaucratic lines, despite its easy cross-border ties on banking and travel. Breaking down the compartmentalization of myriad agencies in 28 nations and guaranteeing cooperation will require more resources, the analysts said.

Westmacott, a former British ambassador to the United States, France, and Turkey, said he sees strong recognition and political will among the EU governments to work together more effectively and more cohesively around counterterrorism, intelligence, and data sharing.

“I think we’re all on our toes; we’re all trying to raise our game in terms of defenses, our exchanges of intelligence. But it’s not, I fear, exclusively something about EU countries. Any country that is part of the campaign to push back against and eventually destroy ISIL is going to have to feel vulnerable,” he said.

During an emergency meeting in Brussels on Thursday, European justice and home affairs ministers issued a statement calling on the European parliament to adopt legislation granting access to a comprehensive database of airport passenger records to security forces across the EU. Bitter debate between national security and privacy advocates had stalled efforts to develop a single data-collection system for years.

While Europeans are shocked and upset by the latest bombings, Westmacott believes that they are determined not to let terrorists stop them from going about their normal lives.

“Part of our reaction has to be to counter the narrative which allows these people to believe that this is some form of respectable, even religiously blessed, principled religious activity, which it is not. This is psychotic terrorism from losers who’ve got their own bizarre reasons for wanting to destroy their fellow human beings,” he said.

“We have to take these people on, we have to defeat them, we have to put them out of business, we’ve got to regain the territory which has been the breeding ground for some of their activity and some of their grievances, I suppose you could say. If we can move in that direction and help these countries become real countries again, then we are going to be in better shape,” said Westmacott.

Decades of experience with terrorism

While ISIL’s attacks on European soil are new, the continent has decades of experience dealing with domestic terrorists to fall back upon, from the Red Brigades in Germany and Italy to the Irish Republican Army in Great Britain and the Basque separatist movement in Spain.

“So we’ve seen episodes of major urban terrorism in the past,” said Joseph Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard Kennedy School. “I suspect that this wave will, like waves before, scare people, make life less pleasant, but I don’t think it’s going to end Europe as we know it.

“Terrorism is like jujitsu, which is that the weak player, the terrorist, tries to use the strength of the stronger player, to leverage it, so the strong player defeats himself,” he said. “It’s horrible, but if you realize that terrorists rarely, rarely win in the long run, the key question is to make sure the reactions we have are proportionate and don’t fall into the jujitsu trap.”

The key to success will also require Europeans to confront some ugly, homegrown realities.

“They’re bringing their fight to the streets of the European cities to try to get more publicity, to try to provoke more outrage, to try to evoke anti-Muslim reactions from the rest of us. We will not rise to that temptation,” said Westmacott.

“But we have to try to convince our young people in all our countries who are indulging in this stuff … that this is not the way in which human beings living in the European Union, or indeed anywhere else, should be behaving. This is not what Islam is all about. And we have to try to persuade them that there is some greater sense of human dignity and values than these people seem to believe there is at the moment.”

Joseph Nye

Joseph S. Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard Kennedy School

Photo credit: Tom Fitzsimmons

"Part of our reaction has to be to counter the narrative which allows these people to believe that this is some form of respectable, even religiously blessed, principled religious activity, which it is not." -- Sir Peter Westmacott 

Sir Peter Westmacott

Sir Peter Westmacott, senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Studies and the Institute of Politics

Photo credit: Martha Stewart

 


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