EU counter-terrorism czar: Terrorists among asylum seekers? Unlikely

Gilles de Kerchove said it was unlikely that terrorists would be present amongst the migrants. [European Council]

The refugee crisis is a major challenge by itself. If you start mixing it with terrorism, you confuse the logic, EU counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove told EURACTIV Czech Republic in an exclusive interview.

Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator since 2007, took part in the Internal Security Forum Prague organised by Czech think tank European Values. He spoke to EURACTIV Czech Republic’s Adela Denkova.

The refugee crisis is one of the most pressing challenges the EU has ever faced, and it is accompanied by various fears. Some people believe that terrorists linked to Islamic State (ISIL) and other organizations can come along the migration flow, unrecognized among the other people. Is this a real threat?

No, not at all. It would be a big mistake to mix these two challenges together. Daesh (Arabic equivalent of ISIL’s name) or al-Qaeda do not need to send their members within the flow of asylum seekers. There is a reservoir of people born in Europe who have no contact with the terrorist organizations, have not travelled abroad, but got radicalized through the Internet.

How does that happen?

These organizations try to inspire followers. Inspire is a magazine run by AQAP – Al-Qadea in Arabian Peninsula. There is also a similar magazine of Daesh, called Dabiq. In one of the previous editions of Inspire, you could find a list of top targets for a terrorist attack. Charlie Hebdo was among the top ten. They also give you the recipe to build a bomb in your mother’s kitchen. People who get influenced by these media make up a reservoir which the terrorists can tap without sending anyone. This is the first source.

Then we have foreign fighters.

Unfortunately, there are approximately five thousand – if not more – European citizens who went to Syria and Iraq. Some of them had not been detected by our services. So, if I were Daesh leadership, I would rather take a Belgian, a French or a Dutch foreign fighter with a valid travel document, undetected by the security service, and send him back to Europe after having trained him. Why would I have to infiltrate among asylum seekers?

I think the migration crisis is already a major challenge itself. If you start mixing the two, you confuse the logic. At first, we have to address the humanitarian crisis. This is the top priority, and Europe has to live up to its values and commitments according to the Geneva Convention. We have to help people who suffer from one of the deepest crises we have had. These people are in danger of being killed, beheaded, raped or tortured.

So, according to what you say, there is no link between migration and terrorism.

There is a link. We know that some terrorist organizations try to engage in human trafficking at Libyan shores, because it is a very lucrative job. We have to address this problem, but it does not mean they send terrorists together with refugees.

As a participant at the Internal Security Forum Prague, you spent a few days with experts and politicians from Central European countries. Have you noticed any differences between their points of view and opinions of their counterparts in Western Europe, who have much more experience with terrorism and radicalization?

What I found were people eager to develop the needed policy. The sooner you start preventive policies, the better. It is also a legal obligation to develop these policies according to UN Security Council Resolution 2178 adopted in September 2014. On top of that, it is always useful when member states share their ideas, because no one has the silver bullet. It is a collective challenge not only in Europe, but also outside its borders. A Czech or Bulgarian citizen can become target of a terrorist attack when he travels abroad.

Your experiences are also valuable. We have to face some challenges in some of the countries in the Balkans for instance, and we would be delighted to see officers from the Polish police or members of the Czech security service involved in capacity building. We also have to help the Arab Spring countries to rebuild their security services after years of dictatorship. They need effective security services that are able to respect human rights and the rule of law. The Central European countries have been through that process after the fall of the Berlin wall, so why should the Czech experience not help in Tunisia? We are all on the same ship.

Are there any particular dangers that Central European countries may face? You already mentioned some challenges. On the other hand, we cannot see any large communities from which the radicalized people could come from.

By using the term “communities” you hint that the terrorism may be only al-Qaeda or Daesh related. But with [“lone wolf” Anders] Breivik in Norway, we have seen that far right terrorism can kill as well. In some of the member states, we have also heard about far left violence, although this is at a low level. It would be an illusion to believe that one is immune from any forms of violence linked to terrorism. This is the first thing. Second, you are a transit country and it is important to detect suspicious people in the Schengen area. Also, you should not forget that you have US embassies, Israeli embassies or other institutions in your countries that may be a target. All of these are good reasons for being prepared.

You mentioned far right terrorism. Do you think this kind of risk is increasing in Europe nowadays?

We need to say that the main risk comes from terrorism linked to al-Qaeda or Daesh. As I already said, there are lots of people inspired by them in Europe and also a high number of foreign fighters. But we also still have al-Qaeda and Daesh competing for the leadership of the global jihad. Daesh is expanding, which may prompt a-Qaeda to plan an attack to show that they are still relevant. These three main sources of threat make the life of security services extremely difficult. Talking about far right extremism, we have to address that. This is the reason why the Vice-President Timmermans is holding a big conference at the beginning of October, about how to address Islamophobic and anti-Semitic behaviour in Europe. I really welcome this initiative, as these are very serious problems.

You are a counter-terrorism coordinator. Do you think that the cooperation among member states works well, or could it be improved?

You can always improve, but member states have made a lot of efforts during the last three years because of the crisis of foreign fighting. We need to make a better use of the tools we have, not necessarily to invent new tools – except that we would like to secure an agreement on the PNR (Passenger Name Record) directive. There is still room for improvement in the way we use Europol and the Schengen Information System (SIS), because we need fluid information sharing. Europol is an information hub. It is not only a channel for sharing the information, but also the place where you can analyse the data you have. Recent attacks showed that sometimes we had the needed information, but we were not able to interpret it in a proper way.

On the other hand, I am impressed by the way the security services work among themselves, the policy of exchang(ing) data, or the way we try to link intelligence, police and border guards. We have now start bringing Frontex and Europol closer to each other, and we are working more on the internet risks.

So, do you think that Europe is reacting well to the current threats?

The statement of the heads of state and government from February 12th, after Charlie Hebdo, is quite a strong one. It asked for much more action on the internal security side but also on the soft side – prevention of radicalization, the promotion of European values, the promotion of human rights – and in cooperation with international partners. Vice-President Mogherini is extremely active on this, as the EU wants to engage more than before in the neighbourhood and fight against terrorist threats. Together with the colleagues from the External Action Service, I have been also active in the recent months and (will) be even more in the months to come, in order to develop bilateral partnerships with Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. It is very crucial.

You mentioned PNR [Passenger name record] directive. What will be changed if it is adopted? How can it help?

We want to ask companies flying to the EU to share passenger data with us. It is one of the few ways we are able to detect passengers with suspicious behaviour. When you look at [Mehdi] Nemmouche, who attacked the Jewish Museum in Brussels, he went to Syria first by going to Brussels, London, Beirut, Istanbul and on his way back from Istanbul to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, then to Frankfurt, Brussels and France. We need to spot such behaviour. They do it deliberately to fly below the radar. We cannot spot everyone leaving, so a PNR directive will be a necessary tool to extract those who have abnormal behaviour from huge number of travellers. It will not lead to arresting people, it will just ring the bell and it will be up to the security services to inspect whether there is some risk.

Should it also apply to intra-European flights?

Yes, we are very much in favour of this option, although the European Parliament is not. When you look for example at the attacker who tried to kill people in Thalys, I do not know how he travelled – maybe he took a train – but he travelled a lot inside Europe.

Rail security could bring interesting debate as well. What could be done about that? Honestly, not many people can imagine that we would have security checks at all railways stations. What are the measures which could be adopted?

We are now waiting for some proposals by the Commission. At the end of September, ministers of interior and ministers of transport of eight member states and Switzerland, [Home Affairs] Commissioner [Dimitris] Avramopoulos, [Transport] Commissioner [Violeta] Bulc and myself will meet in Paris to have a discussion on this. I think everybody agrees that we have to be conscious not to disrupt railway transport, as it is the most environment friendly mean of transport, and we want to encourage people not to use cars, but to use trains.

Also the scale is different. Seven million people travel by train in Germany every day and there are hundreds, if not thousands of stations. It would be an illusion to expect that we could distinguish between speed trains crossing borders and the others. We cannot transpose what we have been doing in aviation. There are several steps that can be taken. We will explore them on 11 September with the land transport security expert group (LANDSEC). [Read more]

So maybe in the future, a train ticket could be linked to a certain person, which means passengers would have to share their data…

This is one of the ideas. Another could be to allow the people checking in the trains to be connected to the Schengen information system so that they know if the person is suspected of Jihadism. We could work on security related research. There are ways to detect suspicious behaviour at railway stations, on trains or to train people working on railway. Ministers of transport will discuss this on the 8th October, the same day as ministers of justice and home affair.s We will see if we can do more to improve the security of trains.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe