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Post-Brussels, does Europe need a new intelligence agency?

Post-Brussels, does Europe need a new intelligence agency?
Published 12 Apr 2016   Follow @DavidWellsCT

Three weeks on from the terrorist attacks in Brussels, and the Belgian investigation has made welcome progress – including the weekend arrest of the 'man in the hat', Mohamed Abrini. But there are few signs that the attacks will prompt a wholesale change in Europe's approach to counter-terrorism.

This is, in and of itself, not necessarily a bad thing. The Paris and Brussels attacks exposed long-term issues with few quick-fixes. And rushing into legislative or policy changes in the wake of an attack rarely results in a well-thought out approach.

But in their public statements, Belgian authorities have suggested that getting its house in order only requires tweaks around the edges. Last week, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel shied away from much-needed domestic reforms or new strategies. Instead, he called for increased cross-Europe coordination and 'improved information exchange'.

Michel is correct that European intelligence sharing is not fit for purpose in the current threat environment. But what we know about the Brussels attackers — and the Paris attackers before them — is that relevant intelligence was shared by European partners. It just wasn't acted on.

This is unlikely to change without structural reform of Belgian counter-terrorism agencies or an increase in the resources available to them. How will an agency with more targets than staff cope with a flood of new intelligence leads?

Where Michel hits the mark is in highlighting the importance of a Europe-wide approach to counter-terrorism. Take for example, one of the missed opportunities highlighted in the wake of the attack – the failed attempt by Brussels airport bomber, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, to travel from Turkey to Syria in 2015. 

Turkish authorities alerted Belgium (el-Bakroui's country of origin) and the Netherlands (el-Bakraoui's chosen destination), but as far as we know, no one else. Yet it now appears that el-Bakraoui played a logistical role in the Paris attacks, and that France (specifically Euro 2016) was to be the network's next target, prior to Salah Abdeslam's arrest. [fold]

This is a good illustration of the dangers of relying on bilateral intelligence sharing in the current counter-terrorism environment. The Paris/Brussels network consisted of at least 36 individuals of different nationalities, located across Europe and the Middle East. Using national responses to counter a growing transnational threat was likely to succeed for only so long.

The ISIS threat to Europe revealed by Paris and Brussels needs not just 'information exchange' but also an increasingly coordinated, multilateral response. A response led by an organisation with access to intelligence feeds from all member states; the ability to look strategically across these feeds to identify common threads and links; and most importantly, with the mandate to coordinate action across Europe when threats are identified.

Worryingly, Europe already has an organisation with such a mission statement – the European Union Police Force (Europol).

Europol, as with any multilateral organisation, can only be as good as its members allow. The el-Bakroui example suggests that Europol may not have been receiving the data it required. 

But perhaps the clue is in the name? As a police force, Europol focuses on arrests, seizures and interdictions. It does not triage new intelligence leads, or develop intelligence access into terrorist networks. And terrorism is just one priority for an organisation of less than 1000 staff and fewer than 150 analysts. 

Over the last three weeks, authorities across Europe have warned that further attempts at coordinated and complex terrorist attacks are likely. Surely now is the time for Europe to empower Europol to do its job effectively? Or preferably, establish a new body with the clout and resources to maximise Europe's combined counter-terrorism expertise.

This will be no easy task. Trust is central to successful intelligence sharing relationships – it will not come easily after years of European nations spying on each other. A new organisation would also need to work closely with non-EU partners with a more chequered track record in the fight against ISIS, such as Turkey. 

This is where a new organisation without baggage or existing issues might be an advantage. The organisation could be narrowly focused, instead of representing one priority of an organisation with a wider, pan-EU remit. And it should also be time-limited to reassure members that this is not 'the new normal'.

Creating an intelligence-driven organisation would be more than an expansion of Europol's existing role. It would have privacy implications, given the potential need for earlier sharing of citizen's data. And it could generate further questions around the role of the traditional guarantor of a citizen's security, the nation state.

But if Europe is serious about countering the current threat, these issues may need to be dealt with sooner rather than later. Because without a more multilateral approach, the success of counter-terrorism in Europe will be determined by the lowest common denominator. And the least competent services, not the most, will continue to set the tone.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tijl Vercaemer.

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