Ministers demanded greater intelligence sharing to stop extremist groups slipping across borders to carry out attacks, urging concrete commitments at talks Monday to stem dangerous intel lapses.
In the wake of the November 13 Paris attacks allegedly masterminded by a Belgian-born extremist, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders admitted more must be done.
“Intelligence services must get used to not only collecting information, but to sharing it,” he told AFP on the sidelines of talks on how to thwart terror groups, attended by more than 50 countries.
“We are doing it more and more among European services, but there is still work to be done,” he acknowledged at the conference hosted by The Netherlands. While there was a lot of bilateral cooperation, Reynders said it was not happening “in a very structured fashion between very many states.”
Held as part of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum and the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group, the talks were taking place nearly two months after the Paris attacks which killed 130 people.
And they come as The Netherlands begins its six-month rotating presidency of the European Union.
“What we face today is terrorism 2.0. Like a virus, it adapts to survive and becomes more resilient,” Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders told the opening of the talks.
Not like Bruce Willis in ‘Die Hard’
“We are not dealing with the stereotypical terrorist we see in the movies. The type that can be defeated by a one-man army like Bruce Willis in ‘Die Hard’.”
The talks come after months of deadly attacks staged by the Islamic State jihadist group, which has captured a swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria attracting a thousands of foreign fighters to its ranks.
Speaking to AFP, France’s European Affairs Minister Harlem Desir said coordination was crucial.
“Today the whole international community needs to work together to fight against terrorism,” he said.
“There also has to be a huge coordination in intelligence matters, judicial and police cooperation.”
Countries are often wary of sharing hard-won intelligence with other nations with which they may not have such good relations.
But Koenders insisted the key was “mutual trust” adding the conference aimed to identify precise ways nations and organisations like Europol and Interpol could help each other.
“Do we trust each other enough to share information, and are we willing to work together?” he asked.
“This means sharing information and data” as well as threat analyses, he said.
‘They are not foreign at all‘
There was little point in the Netherlands freezing assets of suspected extremists, if they could just go across the border into another European country and withdraw cash, he argued.
Désir, speaking later to reporters, said countries also needed to share lists of foreign fighters, saying there must be a “very strong commitment (by) each EU member state to transmit all the intelligence information that’s relevant in the fight against terrorism.”
Calling for greater insight into the dark corners of the Internet, Koenders also highlighted how extremists had used PlayStation and apps such as Telegram to organise the Paris attacks.
And he warned that the scores of people flocking to join IS were not really “foreign fighters.”
“I think the uncomfortable truth is that they are not foreign at all. They may be foreigners in the countries where they are going.
“But in reality they are our compatriots, our acquaintances, classmates of our kids.”
Koenders revealed Sunday that 42 names — 39 people and three organisations — were now on the Dutch terror blacklist, with the number doubling in just one year.
EU member states acknowledged they did not use all the tools at their disposal to address the terrorist threats following the November 2015 attacks in Paris.
Terrorists with EU passports, such as the majority of the militants involved in the Paris attacks, represent a major challenge for the European authorities, as controls at the external borders are limited to a minimum check to establish their identity, through the verification of their travel documents, according to Schengen rules.
At an emergency meeting on 20 November, EU ministers agreed on making these checks mandatory. Moreover, all EU citizens will be now considered a potential threat, so all EU travellers will be subject to a stricter scrutiny, including checks against the Schengen Information System (SIS), as is the case for all third country nationals.
In response to the Paris attacks, the European Commission also adopted a package of measures to combat terrorism and arms trafficking, including criminalising travel "for terrorist purposes".
The package, presented in December, includes a "Directive on Terrorism" aimed at strengthening the "EU's arsenal in preventing terrorist attacks by criminalising preparatory acts such as training and travel abroad for terrorist purposes".
These "preparatory acts" include travel, the funding, organisation and facilitation of that travel, training and providing funds to commit terrorist acts.
Those measures built on earlier initiatives launched months before in the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine. They included the finalisation of a deal on sharing air travellers' data, which had been stuck in the European Parliament because of privacy concerns.
>>For further background, read our LinksDossier: From 9/11 to Charlie Hebdo: The EU’s response to terrorism
- Press release: Minister Koenders Convenes Major Counterterrorism Meeting in the Hague (11 January 2016)
- Press release: European Agenda on Security: Commission takes action to combat terrorism and illegal trafficking of firearms and explosives (2 December 2015)
- Fact sheet: Implementing the European Agenda on Security – New measures to combat terrorism and illicit trafficking of firearms and use of explosives (2 December 2015)
- Proposal for a Directive on Terrorism