EU counter-terrorism chief: Europe ‘may see something like Daesh 2.0’

The level of terrorist threat remains “pretty serious” in several EU countries, Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, told in an interview hours before the latest attack in Strasbourg on Tuesday night (12 December).
In a wide-ranging interview, de Kerchove offered some insights on the EU’s accomplishments on counter-terrorism and sketches out future challenges.
Gilles de Kerchove is the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, appointed in 2007 by Javier Solana. 
He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev. 
We are meeting ahead of Christmas, and unlike in previous years, there have been no terrorist attacks on EU soil [the interview was taken on 12 December in the morning]. Is this because anti-terrorism services have become better, or maybe terrorists have lost motivation?
I would rather go for the former rather than the latter. The level of the threat remains in several member states, not in all of them, pretty serious, this is an assessment of the security services.
But at the same time, we have reduced significantly our vulnerabilities. The member states and the European Union, together, have worked a lot the last three-four years, to address the challenge, and I think that explains why all services are in a position to foil plots, to stop, to detect people who are close to the tipping points, when they are likely to commit attacks. And so this is one explanation.
The other explanation is that the Global Coalition did a great job in destroying the physical caliphate of Daesh, which reduces the ability of Daesh to plan attacks from their territory, but that doesn’t mean there is no threat any more.
The main threat, as we see it, is now homegrown: people that have not travelled to Iraq and Syria, who have no link with either Daesh or Al Qaeda, but got inspired by these ideologies. And that’s a challenge for the security services, for several reasons. First, the number. The number of people they believe are at an intense stage of radicalisation is quite significant. The challenge for the security services is to set priorities and reduce this to a manageable number, so that security services concentrate on those representing a serious concern.
The second challenge is what I call the determination of the tipping point. Being radical is not an offence in itself nor a crime. What is criminal is when one starts preparing a terrorist attack. And it’s not easy to detect this tipping point, when someone who is radical starts preparing something, download a tutorial on how to build a bomb, when they go to buy weapons or precursors for a bomb. That’s when the security services have to interrupt the plot.
In many instances in the recent past, the services had the data, but sometimes they did not detect the tipping point. And in other cases they did. The French services managed to foil several plots. To make a long story short, it’s a mix of a different sort of threat and a much more effective collective response of the member states and the European Union.
You said the main threat is home-grown. What are the other threats?
Homegrown indeed ranks first. The second is what I would call the legacy of the Caliphate. We still have a number foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), who went to Syria and Iraq and have not returned yet. So we have to be extra vigilant because some of them might want to return.
The third source of threat is what I would call the prison leavers. Many of those who went to Syria and Iraq have been sentenced to short periods of time, sometimes three years in prison, because for lack of evidence they could only be sentenced to participation in a terrorist organisation. And that carries something like three years, four years.
We know that prisons are often an incubator of radicalisation. If you look at figures, the French minister of justice Nicole Belloubet indicated that they expected 450 people to leave the French prisons by the end of 2019, 50 who were sentenced for terrorism and 400 “ordinary” criminals, who just got radicalised in prison. To handle 450 people who will leave prison at some stage of radicalisation is a big challenge.
It’s difficult to handle, because they have served their sentence, they can get back to normal life, but you need to monitor what they do, either by imposing a disengagement program, which makes sense, it’s like a drug addict that you want to help to get out of his addiction, or electronic bracelet, or regularly reporting to the police, or the classical work of the security services. But you cannot monitor someone 24/7, it’s just too resource-intensive, too expensive. So this is the third challenge.
Why do administrations accept that prisons are places where convicts get radicalised?
There is an active policy to try to address it, but no one has the silver bullet on disengagement. There is a process of trial-and-error, when member states test ideas and new policy. Many member states apply a special risk-assessment methodology to identify those in the process of radicalisation, they are testing disengagement programs, they are changing their prison management policy. The French were the first to create a dedicated agency to detect signs of radicalisation in prison.
We are told by experts that the most radical are hiding their radicalisation. In the past it was easy to detect those who are radicalised, but now they use “takhia”, an Arab word for dissimulation, deception. That requires that you develop much sophisticated tools.
So the first is detection, and the second is assessment. The European Commission has supported financially several studies how to develop risk assessment methodology. The third one is disengagement, which requires training prison staff.
Member states are investing in the problem. We have several discussions in the Council, among ministers of justice, on how to handle the issue. I myself organised a brainstorming on radicalisation in prisons, it’s a difficult topic. But it’s not that administrations are not aware or passive, that’s not true.



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