The level of terrorist threat remains “pretty serious” in several EU countries, Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, told EURACTIV.com in an interview hours before the latest attack in Strasbourg on Tuesday night (12 December).
Gilles de Kerchove is the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, appointed in 2007 by Javier Solana.
He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
We are meeting ahead of Christmas, and unlike in previous years, there have been no terrorist attacks on EU soil [the interview was taken on 12 December in the morning]. Is this because anti-terrorism services have become better, or maybe terrorists have lost motivation?
I would rather go for the former rather than the latter. The level of the threat remains in several member states, not in all of them, pretty serious, this is an assessment of the security services.
But at the same time, we have reduced significantly our vulnerabilities. The member states and the European Union, together, have worked a lot the last three-four years, to address the challenge, and I think that explains why all services are in a position to foil plots, to stop, to detect people who are close to the tipping points, when they are likely to commit attacks. And so this is one explanation.
The other explanation is that the Global Coalition did a great job in destroying the physical caliphate of Daesh, which reduces the ability of Daesh to plan attacks from their territory, but that doesn’t mean there is no threat any more.
The main threat, as we see it, is now homegrown: people that have not travelled to Iraq and Syria, who have no link with either Daesh or Al Qaeda, but got inspired by these ideologies. And that’s a challenge for the security services, for several reasons. First, the number. The number of people they believe are at an intense stage of radicalisation is quite significant. The challenge for the security services is to set priorities and reduce this to a manageable number, so that security services concentrate on those representing a serious concern.
The second challenge is what I call the determination of the tipping point. Being radical is not an offence in itself nor a crime. What is criminal is when one starts preparing a terrorist attack. And it’s not easy to detect this tipping point, when someone who is radical starts preparing something, download a tutorial on how to build a bomb, when they go to buy weapons or precursors for a bomb. That’s when the security services have to interrupt the plot.
In many instances in the recent past, the services had the data, but sometimes they did not detect the tipping point. And in other cases they did. The French services managed to foil several plots. To make a long story short, it’s a mix of a different sort of threat and a much more effective collective response of the member states and the European Union.
You said the main threat is home-grown. What are the other threats?
Homegrown indeed ranks first. The second is what I would call the legacy of the Caliphate. We still have a number foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), who went to Syria and Iraq and have not returned yet. So we have to be extra vigilant because some of them might want to return.
The third source of threat is what I would call the prison leavers. Many of those who went to Syria and Iraq have been sentenced to short periods of time, sometimes three years in prison, because for lack of evidence they could only be sentenced to participation in a terrorist organisation. And that carries something like three years, four years.
We know that prisons are often an incubator of radicalisation. If you look at figures, the French minister of justice Nicole Belloubet indicated that they expected 450 people to leave the French prisons by the end of 2019, 50 who were sentenced for terrorism and 400 “ordinary” criminals, who just got radicalised in prison. To handle 450 people who will leave prison at some stage of radicalisation is a big challenge.
It’s difficult to handle, because they have served their sentence, they can get back to normal life, but you need to monitor what they do, either by imposing a disengagement program, which makes sense, it’s like a drug addict that you want to help to get out of his addiction, or electronic bracelet, or regularly reporting to the police, or the classical work of the security services. But you cannot monitor someone 24/7, it’s just too resource-intensive, too expensive. So this is the third challenge.
Why do administrations accept that prisons are places where convicts get radicalised?
There is an active policy to try to address it, but no one has the silver bullet on disengagement. There is a process of trial-and-error, when member states test ideas and new policy. Many member states apply a special risk-assessment methodology to identify those in the process of radicalisation, they are testing disengagement programs, they are changing their prison management policy. The French were the first to create a dedicated agency to detect signs of radicalisation in prison.
We are told by experts that the most radical are hiding their radicalisation. In the past it was easy to detect those who are radicalised, but now they use “takhia”, an Arab word for dissimulation, deception. That requires that you develop much sophisticated tools.
So the first is detection, and the second is assessment. The European Commission has supported financially several studies how to develop risk assessment methodology. The third one is disengagement, which requires training prison staff.
Member states are investing in the problem. We have several discussions in the Council, among ministers of justice, on how to handle the issue. I myself organised a brainstorming on radicalisation in prisons, it’s a difficult topic. But it’s not that administrations are not aware or passive, that’s not true.
Another aspect, which is equally important, is state-sponsored terrorism.
Which countries do you have in mind?
Saudi Arabia to start with.
There is no acknowledgment on the side of the member states or the European Union that Saudi Arabia is sponsoring terrorism.
Maybe not as a government, but Saudi Arabia is a very powerful hub of Wahhabism…
But that’s different.
And I would say the same about Iran, having in mind Hezbollah.
That’s different, because we put the military branch of the Hezbollah on the EU list of terrorist organisations because of the Burgas attack [18 July 2012]. That’s acknowledged, because we drew the consequence of several plots in Cyprus, and an attack in Bulgaria, to put the military branch of Hezbollah on the list.
What you raise is something different: it’s not state policy to sponsor terrorism, that’s not correct. But the member states are working on the issue to determine to what extent ideology is a driver of radicalisation.
It’s a very difficult topic. I have worked on the subject for many years. I don’t think there is consensus about a single set of drivers which lead someone to be radical. But we have identified three broad sets of drivers. And I sometimes say that the set of drivers may be different from one person to another. My message has always been we have to work on the three sets of drivers. It’s not just the ideology as such. In France, you have endless debates between Olivier Roy and Giles Keppel as to whether radical Islam is in itself THE driver.
But I do accept the point that ideology is a driver and we have to look into this, and we have started doing this.
Diplomatic initiatives can help?
There are many initiatives we have developed over the years, the Alliance of Civilisations, all the work of the UN on prevention on violent extremism, all this is important. We of course have a dialogue with all these countries when we address the extremist of the ideology. That is part of the dialogue we have with Gulf states, and also with other parts of the world.
But that’s not everything. If you look at the UNDP excellent report “A Journey to extremism in Africa”, where they interviewed 50 to 60 Jihadists, they see that ideology is not the main driver. In many cases state violence, weak governance, corruption, rank on the top of reasons someone becomes violent.
If you take a country like Iraq where Daesh developed, you may say that at the time, there was a reason why the Sunni tribes decide to support Al Qaeda in Iraq, which became Daesh. And I was myself recently in Ramadi, last April, and two weeks ago in Mosul, and the message I got from the Sunni tribes was always the same: we want to see very quickly a change, and get better access to the basic public services as health, education, jobs,
Unless you do that, you may see something like Daesh 2.0 coming again. Why is it that Mosul, the largest Sunni city in Iraq, fell so quickly when not more than 2,000 Daesh fighters came to seize it? It’s because they got silent passive support from the Sunni inhabitants of Mosul, who were so upset by the sectarian policies of the then Prime Minister of Iraq [Nouri al-] Maliki, that for them, before the two evils, they chose the extremist organisation.
This is to illustrate that it’s not only because of radical interpretation of Islam that people become terrorists. It’s a set of different factors, and not the same for every country and for every individual. But you are right, we have to address the three sets of drivers.
Remind us of the three drivers…
I call the fist, in a way, the Molenbeek problematic. You may be a second- or third-generation migrant in search of identity, with a feeling of injustice, of Islamophobia, you are not getting easily a decent job, The second set of drivers is the ideological argument, and the third one is what I would call the facilitation factors, internet and prison. And sometimes active Salafist organisations, such as Sharia for Belgium.
Belgium has the highest rate of foreign fighters…
In Europe, yes. The reason is that most of the young Belgians who went to Syria and Iraq from 2013 onwards, were actively recruited in the streets of Antwerp, Vilvoorde and Brussels, by Sharia for Belgium.
But it’s because Belgium had a very liberal policy allowing foreign religious groups to establish a presence.
It’s not only that, because in the southern part of the country very few young Belgians left. At the same time, the northern part is more prosperous. So why the highest number is not coming from the south? It’s because they were recruited by the first wave, recruited by Sharia for Belgium.
Could there be an EU policy to prevent that radical Islam implants their schools and mosques in EU countries?
EU member states have a different set of constitutional arrangements. If I take the two extreme approaches, you have Belgium, where the state pays the salary of the priest, the rabbi, the Imam. On the opposite side, you have the French system where there is a complete separation between state and religion. So it’s very difficult to develop an EU policy in this respect.
What I see is that more and more member states are working on the subject, with all the constitutional constraints they may have. The Germans have what they call the Islam conference. At the last meeting, the interior minister Horst Seehofer had a dialogue with the representatives of the Muslim community. It was not exactly an effort to promote moderate Islam. What is moderate Islam? It’s a subjective assessment. It more about creating more diversity in Islam in Europe, not having one brand occupying the whole space – in this case, Salfism.
There are a lot people keen to have a different interpretation, from the most modern part seeking to contextualise Islam in the 21st century Western Europe, and on the other side people who want to live like in the first days of the Prophet. And we need diversity. The Germans are discussing that, the French too.
I understand that President Macron in January will come with ideas on how to organise Islam in France. After the attacks in Belgium, the Belgian state decided to re-organise. They sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia to stop the management of the biggest mosque here in Brussels, the mosque of the Cinquantenaire. And they are trying to re-organise the Conseil Supérieur des Musulmans de Belgique.
And the Italian former minister of the interior [Marco Minniti] had a discussion with the Muslim community in Italy. He had no legal tool, but he invited everyone around the table and he asked how, as I capture the idea, create more diversity, so it’s just not an Islam promoted by Salafists?
Because you have two options, if you don’t do anything – promoting a brand of Islam coming from the Gulf, or having, what we call in French l’Islam consulaire, the Islam of the country of origin of your Muslim community in Europe. In Belgium, this is mostly Morocco, in France Algeria, and in Germany – Turkey. The three are very active. The Dianet is very active in Germany.
So I see more and more EU countries working on the issue, but there is no EU policy.
You mentioned Dianet and Turkey. The EU and Turkey disagree on the definition of terrorism. Both Turkey and the EU consider PKK a terrorist organisation, but they disagree on YPG. Both are Kurdish organisations. Can you remind us why PKK is on the EU terror list?
This is based on a lot of intelligence and evidence of criminal acts by the PKK, also involved in organised crime, of trafficking of different sorts and the use of violence, and that has led the EU, despite many challenges of the Court of Justice. But this has never been squashed by the Court of Justice, because they [PKK] want to promote a policy of violence against civilians. So we have no disagreements with Turkey on PKK.
But on YPG?
The only statement I can make is that YPG is not on the terrorist list of the EU, so far.
You mentioned the Burgas terrorist attack and said Hezbollah was behind it. But the Bulgarian legal case didn’t finalise their work and the name Hezbollah doesn’t appear on the accusation act…
I don’t have the latest information, but at the time, the ministers who had to decide whether to put the military branch of Hezbollah on the terrorist list or not, got a lot of quite convincing information. Without going into confidential details, the investigation showed clear links, I can tell you. There were smoking guns.
And why is it that the military branch was put on the terrorist list – it’s because there were divided views, some member states put the whole organisation. And some member states think that Hezbollah is important for the political and social fabric of Lebanon and they want to keep a line open to keep talking to Hezbollah as a political actor in the Lebanese context. But that’s more a foreign policy issue you can discuss with the European external action service.