The position of a powerful EU spy chief is long overdue

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A "European Union spy chief"akin to the James Bond character "M" could foster more and better intelligence sharing. [YouTube]

The fact that a new series of attacks could take place in Paris so soon after the Charlie Hebdo murders illustrates the need for a European Union spy chief, writes Stephen Kingah.

Stephen Kingah is a research fellow at UN University, CRIS (Belgium). These are his views, not the UNU’s.

The gruesome attacks in Paris by Islamic State (IS) operatives should mark a turning point in Europe’s efforts to combat Islamic extremism. Moving forward, the EU and its member states need a robust architecture of intelligence networks led by a powerful spy chief. The task of this person should go beyond that of the EU counter-terrorism coordinator.

Following the carnage in Paris there have been suggestions by authorities throughout Europe of the need for intelligence sharing. Intelligence sharing sounds good. However, allusion to intelligence sharing alone is a cop out. The mere fact that such a major attack could unfold in France barely ten months after the Charlie Hebdo killings sends a chilling message.

Terrorists operate in networks and we cannot continue to operate in silos or in linear and parallel structures hoping to confront them. Under the leadership of intelligence agencies the police, customs, the military, social services, and faith based entities all have to work together both at national and, more importantly, at European level to share information, integrate it and use it to red flag instances of potential threats.

When the information is collected it has to be acted upon so that we avert the ex post facto finger pointing now ensuing between the Turkish and French intelligence services on what was exchanged and when about Omar Ismail Mostefai who blew himself and many others up at the Bataclan. We have also been here before, when intelligence services in France, Germany and Belgium failed to integrate and operationalise information that could have been used to prevent Mehdi Nemmouche from killing four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum in 2014.

What is now needed in Europe is the office of a powerful European Union spy chief. I am not simply talking about importing and duplicating the office of the director of US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Europe. Before the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act was passed in 2004 in the US, the disparate 17 agencies including the CIA that worked on relevant themes did not amply integrate and share information for use.

The prevalence of a disjoint between various agencies failing to connect dots and exploit useful leads partly led to the debacle of 9/11. So the 9/11 Commission recommended the creation of the position of the director of national intelligence (DNI). The holder of this position now leads the Office of the DNI (ODNI) that integrates and uses information from all the 17 relevant agencies including the CIA.

The proposal of having an EU-wide powerful spy chief will be hard to negotiate and settle. The creation of the US’ ODNI was a dog-fight. But reason eventually triumphed. In the EU this may prove more Herculean, partly because of the bad blood generated by the varied responses to the refugee crisis and the UK’s planned referendum with its underlying implications. The US’ ODNI is not perfect and there is no guarantee that having such an office in the European Union will prevent all subsequent terrorist threats. However the current state of affairs is not tenable.

That we would have major attacks in Paris within a year, with elements linking attackers to other EU countries, notably Belgium, means legitimate questions should be asked about the role of EU’s counter terrorism coordinator. The term ‘coordinator’ for this portfolio indicates that EU leaders did not want a strong office to address this issue. They consider their own national and domestic agencies as natural chasse gardée. It also shows they wanted someone who will simply facilitate sharing of information whenever such was made available to the coordinator.

By nature, spy agencies find it hard to share information. Placing a coordinator at EU level to ensure this has unfortunately not worked. The dual attacks in Paris in January and November 2015 prove this. What is needed is a powerful spy chief empowered to integrate and use intelligence through the Office of the Director of EU Intelligence.

Some of the strategic tasks of the director of EU intelligence could be intelligence integration, counter-terrorism and counter proliferation. The more operational assignments for the ODEUI will be, firstly, to track potentially vulnerable youth succumbing to vitriolic jihadist propaganda.

Secondly, the office of the spy chief will have to lead the social media war against IS and other similar hate groups.

Thirdly, it will be the role of the office to follow the trail of smuggled guns and other weapons used by attackers.

Fourthly, it will work with Europol and other national agencies to track suspects on passenger lists.

Finally the office will have to tail fanatical phony imams polluting the minds of vulnerable youth with hate speech.

As EU interior ministers meet this Friday (20 November) to discuss the appropriate long term responses to the attacks in Paris and to the broader threats posed by terrorists, they would do well to also consider converting the position of EU’s counter terrorism coordinator into that of a powerful EU spy chief. The new position should be provided a powerful mandate. It should not rehearse the moribund role of coordinating a herd of member states reluctant to be coordinated.

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