Why Domestic and International Counterterrorism Efforts Fail in Europe

Blog | July 15, 2016


Domestic counterterrorism efforts alternate between covert successes and highly publicized tragic results. International cooperation may fare slightly better, but also faces severe hurdles and unexpected difficulties despite all the mechanisms and apparatuses which have been put into place so far on the intercontinental and trans-Atlantic levels.

General awareness and commitment by political and security echelons alone do not suffice. There are at least four major domains which, each on its own or in combination, hamper and slow down badly needed coordination and actions within the international community, and specifically Europe.

The first, and least recognized, pertains to linguistics and methodology, which cast a large shadow and obstruct intelligence gathering and analysis. A significant part of the gathered intelligence originates in languages—such as Arabic, Urdu, Pashtu, Dari and Russian—primarily drawn from clandestine activities and monitoring social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Because of severe manpower constraints, a significant part of the processing is computerized using various combinations of keywords and algorithms. Owing to a shortage of skilled manpower, the harvested data is translated using automated tools based on similar principles as Google Translate. Despite continuous upgrades, these tools are inadequate compared to human analysts who can understand the nuance of language and culture, recognize various emotions, and even the correct names of individuals according to cultural norms. For example, a person whose name is Naser Alnajjar is translated literally by an automated service as "victorious carpenter." A lot of vital intelligence is missed, lost or misinterpreted while many false flags can be raised. It is both inefficient and presents a greater challenge for analysts at the end of the intelligence chain.

Another pressing problem is the transliteration of foreign names and integrating them into a consolidated and agreed upon data base, which may be easily accessed both domestically and internationally. It was Alain Chouet, the former Chief of the French Secret Service, who in a recent New York Times report lamented that:

"We even didn’t agree on the translations of people’s names that are in Arabic or Cyrillic, so if someone comes into Europe through Estonia or Denmark, maybe that’s not how we register them in France" or Spain.” A good example is the Boston Marathon bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was on the F.B.I. "watch list" but managed to board an airplane at JFK International Airport because of a spelling anomaly.

The second factor may be described as legal. Some European countries (e.g., Germany) are very strict in protecting citizen privacy and are quite reluctant in sharing data with other countries due to fears it will be misused or transferred to third parties they do not trust.

In April, the European Parliament discussed this issue at length and approved the Passenger Name Record (PNR) Law. It sets a list of conditions and limitations, which will certainly slow down the data flow. It obliges the appointment of special national liaison officers who will be authorized, in urgent cases, to release and transfer data to partner states. One can imagine what might happen during long weekends and holidays in different European countries. Its Achilles heel is that it relates only to air passengers and air carriers while ignoring the fact that many of the terrorists are home grown and can travel freely by land through the borderless European Union. Some of them manage to sneak in and out by land into the battle zones in Syria and Iraq through the relatively unprotected borders between Europe and Turkey.

The third factor or domain is the traditional inherent bureaucracy, rivalries and competitions between different security agencies, which exist, to a degree, in every country. This often results in a reluctance to share exclusive information, sometimes based on precedents of improper use or just a willingness to keep exclusive data close to the vest.

The recent terror attacks in Brussels brought to light that the larger metropolitan area of Belgium’s capital city is governed by nineteen municipalities and is served by six police forces, each of which answers to a different mayor. The French and Flemish character and language of these municipalities adds another layer of complication.

The case of Mehdi Nemmouch, a French terrorist who attacked the Jewish Museum in Brussels on May 25, 2014, comes to mind. He was on the French list of terror suspects and a request was forwarded by the French to their European partners to notify them if he has been spotted. When Nemmouch landed at Frankfurt airport, he was detected, and the Germans diligently notified the French. By the time the French reacted he was gone, emerging after a while in Brussels to conduct his murderous attack.    

The fourth factor is political. International and bilateral considerations add another complex dimension to the cooperation process. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), for example, is a major transit route of Middle Eastern refugees (among them also terrorists) from Greece into mainland Europe. However, it cannot join the European Union and become a member of Europol (the European Union's police organization), thus depriving Europe of a vital component in its counterterrorism program. Turkey, another major potential partner, also has its issues with Europe that prevents effective cooperation.

Further, Brexit is a recent phenomenon and only time will tell how this major actor in counterterrorism will continue to cooperate with its soon-to-be former EU partners. It is also important to note that there are still countries that prefer to believe that they are immune to the threat of terrorism, consoling or deluding themselves that at best their sovereign territories and airports are just transit routes, nothing more.

If the international community in general, and Europe in particular, do not get their act together soon and adopt the needed tools and cooperative means, the worst may still lay ahead of us.   

Ambassador (ret.) Jacob Rosen served as Israel's ambassador in Jordan (2006-2009). He is currently an independent consultant on demographic mapping and collects books about "Lawrence of Arabia."

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.