Detecting and Neutralizing Terrorist Plots in Europe Requires Greater Integration of Intel and Police Agencies

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Europe suffered yet another horrific terrorist attack last month, this time in Belgium.  ISIS-inspired, radicalized, young European men placed multiple explosive devices in a departure terminal of the Zaventem International Airport in Brussels, causing massive loss of life.  They simultaneuosly blew up a commuter rail car packed with passengers.  The attacks, coordinated among disenfranchised Belgian citizens of North African origin, come on the heels of the devastating Paris attacks last November, which claimed the life of 130 people.

The initial investigative findings revealed not only kinship between the Paris and Brussels attackers, but operational links.  Specifically, Salah Abdeslam, believed to be the only surviving member of the group that perpetrated the Paris attacks, was located and taken into custody only days before four bombers carried out the coordinated attacks in Brussels.  Convinced that Abdeslam’s arrest would expose a follow-on plot being planned in Paris, the Brussels subjects switched gear, altered their tactics and opted to inflict mayhem on the EU capital, according to investigators.

Mohamed Abrini, identified as the man in the cap and grey jacket in the Brussels airport CCTV frame captured just before the blast, has admitted that he played a role in the attacks and that he fled after his bomb failed to detontate.  Also, his DNA and fingerprints were lifted from the Renault Clio used in the Paris bombings.  He and Abdeslam were observed on video at a mini mart fleeing the French capital the night of the attacks, November 13, 2015.

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French national police BOLO for subject Abdeslam Salah

With major investigations spanning several European countries, it is worth taking a look at EU history and evolution.  The EU has gone from a loosely-affiliated trading block at its inception in the years following World War II to an integrated, social, diplomatic, defense and legal entity.  The euro is one of the world’s reserve currencies. The block’s navies patrol the Mediterranean in joint operations and air traffic and safety are regulated by EASA, the European Aviation Safety Agency.  It has a common agricultural policy and trade negotiations and tariff agreements are negotiated for the entire block through the European Commission, the executive branch.  Free movement of goods, services and people is guaranteed within the Schengen area of the continent, which includes most EU countries, plus Switzerland and Norway.  In real terms, there is significant integration and national sovereignty has been largely ceded to Brussels in some areas, such as in anti-trust and intellectual property matters.

But harmonization of laws and integration have their limits.  The block’s “common defense” initiatives play second fiddle to NATO and to individual, sovereign deployments, such as the French mission in Mali.  Additionally, some countries, in particular the UK, are loathe to accept less skilled migrants from fellow EU members Bulgaria and Romania and instead have negotiated complex deals with Brussels to stagger their arrival and their ability to obtain work permits.  It is in effect a “second tier” status for some EU citizens.  The permanance and cohesiveness of the block-the idea that Europe must remain unified in order to avoid a repeat of its two devastating 20th century wars-are achieved through institutionalized back and forth negotiation and much give and take among member states.

But in spite of such expansive integration, it turns out that the EU has purposely limited information sharing, especially with non EU members but within the block itself.  This can have devastasting effects on the safety and security of its citizens.  The elimination of cross border checks withn the Schengen area necessitates even greater data and intelligence sharing among authorities.  How can police in France be alerted to the arrival of a fugitive travelling by car from Spain?  How can Italian authorities interdict a large illegal drug shipment being carried by a passenger on an overnight train from Germany?  How can a human trafficking ring be broken up and its victims rescued if only fragmentary intelligence and investigative results are being shared? Why is one immigration policy pursued in Germany and and yet another in Austria?

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Belgian troops on patrol outside the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels

The fact is fugitives and traffickers are caught and contraband is detected and intercepted, but with less frequency and efficiency than what one would expect from nations with world class police and intel agencies.  True integration of police services, such as what we see in the United States with the Joint Terrorism Task Force, present in every FBI field office, does not exist.  That (near) seemless, broad-based, daily sharing of current, actionable intel that has helped the JTTFs prevent countless acts of terrrorism since 09/11 exists within the EU in theory only.  Ad hoc task forces and working groups have been successful, especially in organized crime and art theft matters.  In the counterterrorism realm however, the intelligence is often fragmented, stove-piped or subject to an excessive amount of bureaucratic meddling to be truly of value operationally or on a long-term, sustained basis.  Significantly, there is no established, multi national police agency with a unified, operational chain of command that can be deployed at a moment’s notice.

Europe must overcome these hurdles if it is to reduce the liklihood of further terror attacks while maintaining its open society.  A mandate to share rather than to withhold information must be adopted.  A multi-national JTTF with an operational, investigative role and participation from all member states is step one.  Its permanent staffing and funding must not be in dispute.  Europol, little more than a glorified Interpol at this point, could be put to greater use as a fusion center used to integrate, analyze and disseminate intel throughout the block and to feed potential cases to the JTTF for initiation.

The above effort may require the approval of each of the 28 national governments representing EU members.  But there is no real choice-it must be done.  If internal borders are in effect no longer in existence, then a common operating picture and level playing field among EU police agencies must evolve and become a reality.  It will have a distinctive European character and the FBI-inspired JTTF may not be the model evenutally adopted.  It is a model however which has been successful in the US and has broadly increased analytical thinking and force readiness.  Its unique character and composition have enabled investigators nationwide to “connect the dots”.  The lack of resources argument no longer works-all terorrism related intel must be vetted on a priority basis.  A cultural heritage theft case, while important, must take a back seat to a threat against the homeland.

While it is not a magic bullet, it is worth considering.  A European JTTF just might work in Europe too!

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