THE attacks in Paris, along with parallel atrocities in Lebanon and Mali, have transformed the political context in which the big questions of intelligence, security and civil liberties will be debated.
Prime minister David Cameron has declared that Britain is involved in a ‘generational struggle’ with Islamist terrorism and revealed that Britain’s intelligence and security agencies have foiled at least seven potential attacks on Britain over the last year. The UK’s response is to expand existing intelligence capabilities and to push through its new Investigatory Powers Bill.
Will these measures make a Paris-type terrorist attack significantly less likely? To make a balanced judgement about this question it is worth considering the nature of the Paris attacks and the security environment that made them possible.
French president François Hollande rightly declared that the attacks in Paris were ‘decided and planned in Syria, prepared and organised in Belgium and perpetrated on our soil, with French assistance’. The operation originated with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But it was carried out by Europeans and succeeded because of the terrorists’ ability to use Belgium as a base of operations. All nine jihadi terrorists thought to have been involved in planning and perpetrating the Paris attacks were European citizens. At least seven had travelled to and from Syria in the past eighteen months. All were connected to at least one terror cell based in Belgium. The alleged chief architect of the operation was the Belgian national Abdel-Hamid Abu Oud, who, tellingly, both French and Belgian security services believed still to be in Syria.
European authorities are now forced to address the fact that a major enabling factor in the Paris attacks was the relative ease with which the terrorist suspects were able to enter and move around Europe. France and Belgium are part of the ‘Schengen Area’ of 26 European states. All internal borders have been removed within the Schengen Area in order to guarantee freedom of movement for European citizens. Greece, for example, is a Schengen state, as are the Baltic States, Portugal, Spain and Norway and Sweden.
For Europe’s security and intelligence community, the Schengen regime is an enormous challenge because it makes the ‘fence’ established to prevent security threats from entering Europe vast and as a result much more porous than national frontiers (which are porous in any case).
All of this means that Schengen states must cooperate closely and share information about possible security threats. But cooperation of this kind is very difficult because the security architecture of virtually all European states remains primarily ‘national’ in both structure and in practice.
There are a number of transnational organs responsible for counter-terrorism intelligence cooperation. The Schengen Information System is essentially a managed database of information on potential security threats across the area. It works with national police and intelligence service to generate ‘alerts’ on persons and objects (mainly vehicles) that are issued to police and border guards. Each alert is accompanied by instructions as to what is to be done of the subject of the alert is found or detained. But this system is responsible for a huge range of tasks, from counter-terrorism to human and drug trafficking to missing persons. It lacks the focus required for concentrated and effective counter-terrorism and depends in any case on the efficiency of the national agencies that is serves.
Another crucial multinational agency in the fight against transnational terrorism is Europol, which has achieved important successes over the past decade that have gone largely unnoticed. The Club de Berne is a European forum for intelligence sharing that includes a Counter Terrorist Group. These organs work closely with Eurojust, the EU’s central organ for judicial cooperation in terrorism investigations. A final arena of cooperation is NATO’s new Intelligence Fusion Centre, which supports both conventional military operations and counter-terrorism.
The crucial point is that all of these institutions are large, rather unwieldy and depend on a steady flow of actionable intelligence from national police and intelligence agencies to be effective. This is rarely forthcoming because national agencies are very reluctant to share their most sensitive intelligence in broad multinational contexts because of the danger that leaks or ill-conceived counter-terrorist operations might compromise their most precious sources. This is especially true of communications intelligence such as code-breaking, telephone taps and internet surveillance, which remains firmly under the control of national agencies in Europe.
The consequence is that the most intelligence sharing and cooperation happens through bilateral channels. This is a huge problem in a transnational security space such as the Schengen Area. It is not difficult to see how terrorists with EU citizenship were able to move around fairly easily and get into (and in the case of one attacker, out of France) with relative ease.
Within this context Belgium presents particular challenges. Belgian police and intelligence agencies are small and cooperation between them leaves much to be desired. This, in turn, hampers cooperation with international partners. Just as importantly, in legal terms at least, Belgium lies beyond the reach of the larger and more effective communications intelligence capabilities of its European neighbours. For these reasons areas such as the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek was in many ways the ideal base for the Paris terror cell.
It is difficult to see how this state of affairs can change. On the one hand, the Schengen Area is an essential part the European project that would be very difficult to roll back. On the other, the creation of a truly European security and intelligence capability that works with the most sensitive human and technical intelligence assets of Europe’s national agencies seems equally unrealistic.
The United Kingdom is not in the Schengen Area and exercises its own border controls (although it is a full partner in the Schengen Information System). This is by no means a guarantee that terrorists cannot infiltrate Britain’s borders. But these borders are an added barrier that is integrated into Britain’s intelligence and security machinery. This makes mounting the kind of attack carried out in Paris slightly less likely.
At the same time, et Scotland Yard yesterday repeated previous estimates that the police and intelligence services are pursuing more than 600 counter-terrorism investigations in the United Kingdom. Many of these are directed against ‘home-grown’ threats. Others are undertaken in cooperation with European and international partners.
The planned increases in UK intelligence will therefore be a boon to an intelligence community that is increasingly overstretched and must work not only against the ‘asymmetric’ threat of terrorism, but also the re-emergence of more traditional challenges from states such as Russia. But the increase takes place within the context of significant cuts to Police services across Britain that play a vital role in counter-terrorism work.
It is inevitable that criminals and terrorists will continue to operate under the radar of the UK’s intelligence services. Individuals ready to sacrifice their lives to commit acts of terror pose a formidable challenge against which we can never have complete security. If a solution to the current threat posed by Islamist terrorism exists at all, it lies in the realm of politics and not intelligence.
Peter Jackson is Professor of Global Security, Research Convenor, School of Humanities, University of Glasgow.