Gijs de Vries on terrorism, Islam and democracy

The European Council’s Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinator Gijs de Vries
spoke to EURACTIV on the EU’s role in combating terrorism via
high and low-level co-operation between member states and by
working to encourage democracy in Islamic states.

In a recent speech, you mentioned a body
called SITCEN and it is mentioned in the Anti-terrorism Action
Plan. Can you tell us about this body?

We have had for quite a while a group of
analysts from our external intelligence services who work together
in the Council Secretariat. They analyse trends in countries
outside the EU – they are from the intelligence organisations of
member states. And their analytical assessment is given to the
foreign ministers and to Javier Solana to help shape our common
foreign and security policy. 

What is new is that we have added a dimension:
analysts from domestic security services. So we now have, for the
first time in Brussels, in the Situation Centre, which is what
SITCEN stands for, an integrated group of analysts from our
external intelligence services and the internal security services
to jointly assess the terrorist threat as it develops both inside
Europe and outside. So that we can have a “helicopter view” that
includes the domestic dimension which we can also provide to our
ministers of justice dealing with the domestic situation.

That is new. You can’t get closer to the heart
of national sovereignty than national security and intelligence
services. Yet in Brussels we have these analysts working together
for the first time. But only on analytical co-operation – not on
operational co-operation (what happens to individuals agents
working in the field). That type of co-operation is done at
bilateral/trilateral, etc level, not at European level. 

Will SITCEN’s reports be made public at

The Council Secretariat, through Javier Solana,
works to implement the Council strategies and the Council is
accountable to the European Parliament. So the European Parliament
can have dialogue with the Council of Ministers on the work of
SITCEN. But the specific products that come out of this work will
have to remain confidential.

Richard Falkenrath, former US homeland
security adviser, has said that the EU urgently needs to “tear down
the wall” between military intelligence and civil law enforcement.
Do you have any comments on this?

There is not really a wall. The key point is to
share information. The experience in the US was that there was that
lack of co-operation. It is indisputably true that police forces
and security services serve a different purpose. Police forces
collect information that is to be used in a public court to get
people convicted. Security services gather information that does
not necessarily lead to people being prosecuted and in many cases
needs to remain confidential. 

The important part is to try and make sure there
is enough information exchange at national level between them for
both to do their job effectively. That is why we made the
recommendation in December that each country should look at its
domestic information exchange systems. Because we can only work
together at European level to the extent that we work together at
national level between the different agencies.

There has been progress here in many

The more we work together on exchanging
information at European level the more we must look at questions
like data protection. This is why the Commission has been asked to
make a proposal on data protection and on access by law enforcement
authorities to data held in European data banks.

The fundamental point of the importance of
sharing information has been accepted by the EU. 

My point is that we need to work at several
levels. We need to work at national level; we also need to work at
European level. Therefore, SITCEN and Europol should work together
and they will. 

Can structures be put in place quickly
enough at European level for the terrorist threat to be guarded

It does take time but we are not working “ex
novo”. In the past year several major attacks in several EU member
states have been avoided due to good co-operation between different
national services across borders. So there have been a number of
notable though silent successes. One success is the conviction in
December last year in Paris of 10 people for their part in the
planned attack to blow up the Christmas market in Strasbourg. That
plot was discovered because of good co-operation between France and
Germany. But it is true that these things do take time. That is why
we insist on the double-layered approach. National coordination and
European coordination must proceed simultaneously.

Concerning biometric passports, there
have been reports  that the machines that read them might not
be compatible and that chips could be read from a distance. There
are also problems with biometric chips in visas. What action is
being taken by the EU to resolve this?

We are looking at these questions in the global
framework – the idea is to have global standards. There is so much
travel that if you just had a regional standard it would probably
ultimately have to be changed. So we try, working with the
Americans to focus on the International Civil Aviation Organisation
(ICAO) and work out these issues within ICAO. I don’t have the
latest information on this particular point but these standards
questions are of course critical. We need if possible to have
global standards. The point about chips in visas which cancel each
other out needs to be solved. And we said we’d look at that again
in April.

So you don’t think that the rules were
set down in a hasty manner before the technology
was ready?

No. I have never come across a technology that
doesn’t change. This is inevitable. You have to adapt your systems
as technology develops. But this is in the hands of the experts. I
haven’t come across any information that suggests these problems
are insuperable.

Unlike the US,  we have a huge
Muslim population within the EU and also in neighbouring countries,
such as northern Africa. Does this lead to a difference in European
and US approaches?

It should not. Within the past few
years there has been a huge conflict within the world of Islam
about the interpretation of Islam, with a number of radicals trying
to hijack Islam for terrorist purposes, trying to give themselves
the right to decide who is a true believer and who is an apostate.
The majority of the world’s Muslims reject that: they do not
believe that terrorism is a legitimate strategy or that Islam is
incompatible with democracy. 

There are different traditions within Islam.
Islam is not a monolith. It is a pluriform religious community just
as much as Christianity and Judaism. The key to tackling Islamist
fundamentalism and terrorism from the Islamist community is in the
hands of moderate Muslims.

Our strategy therefore both from the EU and the
US should be to strengthen the hand of moderate Muslims.

For example, in Indonesia, the EU is trying to
build an interfaith dialogue with Indonesia proposed by both the EU
and the new President Yudhoyono. Indonesia feels that its
experience with Islam deserves to be better known in

First, the Indonesians argue that we in western
Europe tend to look at Islam primarily through the prism of the
Middle East: we identify Islam with the Arab situation.

However the Indonesians rightly point to the
fact that the majority of the world’s Muslims do not live in the
Middle East but in Asia. Secondly they point out that democracy and
Islam are not incompatible the way Jemaah Islamiyah has been saying
they are. Jemaah Islamiyah has been trying to convince Indonesians
to create an Islamist state. But last year, there were three free
and fair democratic elections in Indonesia where the population of
Indonesia rejected that appeal.

I think that is a very significant example
because it shows the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

Look at Iraq; look at Afghanistan where at great
personal physical risk people have gone to the polls and have
rejected the appeal from Bin Laden and his allies to stay at

I want to stress the fact that there are
important moderate Muslim communities that we should strengthen and
the EU and the US should work together on this. I don’t think our
strategies should or need to differ on that score.

Of course it also means we have to work together
on questions like the safety and stability of Iraq and the Middle
East peace process. The lack of progress on the Middle East has
been used as a recruitment tool by Islamist radicals, blaming the
West for one-sidedness. They have also abused the Iraq conflict in
a similar way. If we want to tackle issues like recruitment, part
of the answer is to make sure we demonstrate Iraq can become a
peaceful and democratic country. We can’t do that from the outside
but we can help moderate forces within and we must help progress on
the Middle East peace process which means the Americans must play a
critical role more than they have in the past couple of years. That
is the strategy of the European Union and we are pleased that we
seem to making progress with the Americans on this now.

Are there any lessons that can be drawn
from the Indonesian example that can be used in

Every country is different. Indonesia has two
major Muslim organisations, strong NGOs that play a very important
role in society. In western Europe you have an entirely different
picture. Muslim organisations tend to have a low level of
organisation. There is no European Federation of Turkish, Moroccan
Muslims. The communities in Europe are quite diverse and not
organised according to the experience in Indonesia. Having said
that, it would be very useful if leaders from different communities
were in touch and discussed their joint experiences. But this is
not a panacea – it is just one in a huge long list of things we
have to do.

And this is not the major issue:
it is a key issue but there are many others.

What does this mean in terms
of specific measures that could be taken to stop terrorist
recruitment in countries outside the EU?

One has to be realistic there. The situation in
countries outside the EU is within the power of local authorities.
Foreigners can only play a limited role. What we can do is use the
EU aid instruments to support moderate reformers in countries from
Morocco to Malaysia. The EU also tries to use trade instruments.
For example there is a proposal to create a free trade area in
North Africa to liberate economic forces so that more jobs can be
created for the growing young population. Part of the answer is
more intra-North African trade but part is more trade with Europe.
Again, this is not a panacea but part of the overall strategy of
encouraging reform.

Subscribe to our newsletters