De Kerchove: ‘We must help the Americans close Guantanamo’

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The European Union has engaged in in-depth discussions with the United States over the last three years to harbour prisoners detained in the controversial US Guantanamo centre in Cuba, EU counter-terrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove revealed in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV.

Gilles de Kerchove is a lawyer by training. He has recently been teaching law in several Belgian universities. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

On 26 September, German police arrested two Islamist terrorist suspects on a KLM flight before take-off in Cologne. It was also revealed that they had left farewell letters. Despite the fact that no attack has been perpetrated in Europe for three years now, the terrorist threat is obviously still there. How would you assess the situation at the moment? 

The fact that there hasn’t been a successful attack does not mean there is no threat. If you look at the different plots that have been foiled in the last year, in Spain, in Germany, in Denmark, the last one you mentioned in Cologne, possible plots such as one in Belgium, all this shows that terrorists are planning attacks, but they are being prevented from doing so by intelligence, security services and police. It also shows that security services are rather efficient. 

As for the threat, in many member states it is often assessed as high or severe, depending on the national classification. In many countries it is considered to be rather high. This is the case in the Netherlands, France, the UK and Germany. The reason for this is the various plots mounted in recent months and years and also because the security services are witnessing movement between the [Islamist] community and Pakistan, a kind of relationship with Al Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb, and now in some parts of the community we see the phenomenon of auto-radicalisation. 

Essentially, the terrorist threat remains linked to Al Qaeda: either the Al Qaeda core between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Osama Bin Laden and his accomplices have a safe haven and where people from Europe are being trained and brainwashed, or Al Qaeda-related and inspired organisations like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and home-grown terrorism inspired by Al Qaeda, via the internet or other means. 

Al Qaeda seems to be professing something similar to the franchise model in the business community… 

That’s exactly what some analysts and experts say, and they also see other similarities. A few months ago I would have said the Al Qaeda core was seriously disorganised. But then they started very efficient media communication. If you look at Al Sakhab, which is the media branch of Al Qaeda, and the way it is issues statements (often with subtitles in German and English) to make sure that everyone can understand, you can see it is an organisation which relies heavily on the media. In recent months in tribal zones – in the Fatah region in Pakistan – they have found areas where they can build their strength. Many attacks have been mounted either by Afghan Taliban or Pakistani Taliban, inspired and financed by Al Qaeda’s core. 

There is an unprecedented Western military presence in Afghanistan, including NATO, but this does not seem to be enough to stabilise the country, which apparently harbours Al Qaeda terrorists. 

I’m not best-placed to access the strategy of the various missions there: NATO, ASAF and Enduring Freedom. What the EU tries to do through the police mission is to train the Afghan forces themselves – the police, the judiciary and the border guards – to gradually do most of the work themselves. That’s the challenge. We cannot do all of the work forever. 

Another challenge is ‘winning hearts and minds’. If the local population doesn’t see the West as a friend and partner, then what can be done? 

Indeed, we will not win – in Iraq and other places in the world – just by sending soldiers and police officers. The country needs to improve its governance, the democratic process, social welfare. 

Let me take as an example poppy cultivation, the proceeds of which go partly to Al Qaeda. We follow a different approach to the Americans. We don’t think that aerial spraying of poppy cultivations will do the trick. We think that eradication will only be possible if it’s accompanied by alternative development assistance for farmers. But here again, security is a precondition to any economic development. If you don’t secure a zone and let the farmers develop alternative cultivation, it won’t work. 

You’ve mentioned one difference in approach between Europe and the Americans. But there seem to be other significant variations in the EU and US approaches to fighting terror. During a recent speech in Israel, you called for torture to be prohibited, despite the fact that it seems to be applied in the US Guantanamo detention camp. What are the divisions between transatlantic partners? 

Let me first say that we are pretty close to the Americans on fighting terrorism. We’ve been next to the Americans since the day after September 11 [2001]. I myself have been very much engaged with the Americans in negotiating an agreement on extradition and another on mutual assistance. By the way, the Senate gave its assent to this treaty a few days ago. It may appear a bit late after 9/11, but it would provide us with a very efficient tool for judicial cooperation. 

We have negotiated agreements on data exchange between Eurojust, between Europol, between airline companies on PNR (passenger data records) and with banks on Swift. We discuss our respective strategies regularly. 

We are pretty close to the Americans, we have the same goals, but we have slight disagreements. I would even delete the word ‘slight’: we have disagreements on some aspects. What you mentioned for example: we do not endorse the ‘war on terror’ paradigm. There is an EU approach to fighting terror which is based on the rule of law and which considers terrorism a crime to be handled by normal criminal law. That requires that we have adequate legislation, and I would like to mention that the European Parliament has just adopted texts, to be formally approved by the Council, making it illegal to publicly incite people to commit terrorist offences and outlawing terrorist recruitment and training. 

We cannot accept torture in any way, that’s against all values of the European Union, as is any lapse in human rights, including methods like the ones used in Guantanamo. These are matters of utmost concern in the EU, not only because it;s against our values, but also because it is inefficient. Experience shows that torture is counterproductive. It contributes to radicalising the Muslim world, because it suggests there are double standards. A study revealed that one of the motivations of people committing suicide attacks is precisely the violation of human rights and double standards [by the Western community]. 

So, for all these reasons, I think we will have to help the Americans close Guantanamo as soon as possible. We have engaged these last three years in a very in-depth dialogue with the legal advisor of State Secretary Condoleezza Rice on the legal framework of this initiative, on the need to respect the Geneva Convention, because this is a sort of legal limbo into which they put enemy combatants, disregarding the Geneva Convention. 

Guantanamo, secret flights and secret detention camps are completely unacceptable. Progressively we have started this dialogue and gradually it has led the Americans to revisit their approach. Now the President of the United States recognises that he has to close Guantanamo as soon as possible and he is trying to send the prisoners back to their native countries, provided they won’t be tortured there. 

And the Americans are willing to cooperate with the EU? 

They are asking for assistance. Because some of the prisoners vis-à-vis whom there is not enough evidence for a trial cannot be sent back to their home countries, because there they would be in trouble, like the Uighurs in China. So the question is – do we have member states ready to take Uighurs into our territories? 

Do we? 

So far, no. 

But even in Europe there is a phenomenon of radicalisation in prisons and efforts are being made to counter this. Can you tell us what is being prepared? 

The European Council adopted a strategy and an action plan on radicalisation and recruitment three years ago. I am myself working with some member countries to develop concrete projects on some aspects of the strategy, because it is quite wide. I have agreed with five member states to deepen five aspects of the strategy. 

With the UK we are working on the media communication strategy, which is on how to counter the single narrative which implies that there is a clash of civilisations between the West and the Muslim world. We are working with the Spanish on training religious leaders, with the Germans on monitoring the Internet and with the Swedes and the Dutch on community policing, which is an important topic because much happens at local level. 

With respect to prison, that is what the Americans call an incubator of radicalisation, and three member states are now finalising a manual, collecting the best practices, and next week France, Germany and Austria will circulate the manual, intended for prison guards, to the other EU countries, and I must say the manual is very well made. 

Is there any state-sponsored terrorism today? Before, the US used to say that countries such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea supported terrorism. 

I don’t think so. But you may have people within certain countries giving assistance to terrorist groups. 

There is a fine line between the need to protect citizens from terrorist attacks and not complicating their life too much as a result of this protection. One clear example is long queues at airports for security control, as well as strict limits for liquids on board. What’s your view on this? 

All this is linked to security-related research. I will be in Paris in a few days attending a major conference organised by the French EU Presidency on security-related research, where the outgoing President of the European Security Research and Innovation Forum (ESRIF) Gijs de Vries will present their interim report. 

Indeed, you need to strike the right balance between the expectation of citizens to have more security through more intrusive technologies, like detection portals or biometrics, and the need to recognise that you will never have 100% security. Therefore, you will need to build on what the British call ‘resilience’: the capacity to restart after an attack. 

And the right mix is important, because having a 100% surveillance society is a George Orwell nightmare and nobody wants that, but people are ambivalent. Sometimes, when your car is stolen, you would like to have the most efficient tool to recover your car, but at the same time you don’t want other people to know where you are going with the same car. 

And that’s interesting, because the main proposal of the ESRIF report is to have an EU label for security on new technologies. Such an EU label would guarantee efficient technology and integrate requirements for protecting privacy. If industry can do that soon, we will have norms and standards which may apply worldwide, and also give a competitive edge to our industries. 

You are a lawyer by training, and as such you have held the position of deputy secretary of the convention which drafted the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. If the Lisbon Treaty is enforced, would it make your life easier? 

That’s obvious. The Lisbon Treaty would significantly improve the decision-making process in justice and home affairs. In most cases, the Council will decide by qualified majority vote. It would involve efficient legal instruments like regulations and directives and not weak instruments like framework decisions, which cannot be properly monitored by the Commission and the Court of Justice. 

We would have the infringement procedure, which would allow the Commission to go to court against member states which do not implement this instrument properly. We would also have also the opportunity to better integrate policies. Nowadays, Frontex can only deal with migration as defined in the first pillar, and not with the security dimension which falls under the third pillar. And that leads to schizophrenic policies to the detriment of efficiency. 

A few days ago, the European Parliament decided to investigate allegations that the ‘no’ camp in Ireland was financed by capital from the US defence sector. Do you think foreign interests are trying to sink the Lisbon Treaty? 

I heard that. I would not say the US is against EU integration. On the contrary, if you see the position taken by George Bush in respect to beefing up the European security and defence policy (ESDP), they now understand that next to NATO, it is probably good for Europe to develop its security and defence policy as well: it is not against NATO. So, even in the US, minds have evolved. But I wouldn’t be surprised if in the US some neo-conservatives may be very much against Europe emerging as a power or as a superpower. 

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