A Brussels conference heard that the ISIS attacks on Brussels, which killed 31 people and injured another 270 on 22 March, further underline the urgent need for improved collaboration between Europe’s intelligence services, writes Martin Banks.
The policy dialogue was told of the need for improved co-operation between the intelligence services and the police in all member states, “working together to detain and deter terrorists.”
The debate was organized before Tuesday’s atrocity but, it was said, the attacks on the city’s airport and a city centre subway gave the discussion added poignancy.
It was organized by the European Foundation for Democracy and the European Policy Centre, two respected Brussels-based policy institutes, in conjunction with the Counter Extremism Project, a US-based initiative which was launched in Brussels six months ago, and ISPI, the Milan-based Institute for International Political Studies.
Opening the two-hour hearing, the first in a series of policy dialogues on jihadist radicalization and the European responses, Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre, said the events of this week, together with the attacks on Paris in November and recent bombings in Ankara, showed the problem of tackling Jihadist radicalization was a Europe-wide issue.
The fact that the terrorists had chosen well known landmarks such as an airport and the EU Quarter of Brussels was “symbolically important” and sent a “clear message” as to their intentions.
Amanda Paul, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, who moderated the debate, noted that the “ugly attack”, the latest in a series of such atrocities on capital cities in Europe, showed that it was “more important than ever” to take preventive measures.
A keynote speaker, Rashad Ali, head of strategy at the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said that improved intelligence gathering and collaboration between Europe’s police forces and intelligence agencies would be vital in dealing with such phenomenon.
Ali, who has worked closely on counter terrorist issues, said that Europe was now on the “frontline” in the fight against terrorism and radicalization and warned of an even “broader” reach of a “global terrorist project”.
“It is not the first time we have faced such a challenge but what has changed and what is new is the nature of the challenge,” he told the packed meeting.
The challenge, he asserted, came from those who have an “entirely different” view of society from the mainstream and this made the response to such a threat “fundamentally” important.
Ali, a well-known counter terrorist practitioner, cautioned against “engaging” with extremists, arguing that this could be “suicidal”. But he also insisted that it was equally important to ensure that “all Muslims are not labelled in the same way.”
Despite the temptation for reactionary measures in the wake of attacks such as those in Brussels, Ali also said it was vital that those seeking to counter such threats did not “compromise” their “values and principles.”
Further contributions came from Alexander Ritzmann, a senior research fellow at the Brandenburg Institute for Security and Society, who also strongly argued against instant reactionary measures.
Ritzmann, who has worked in the area of counter terrorism for many years, also questioned the capacity of the intelligence agencies to address the issues relating to jihadism, religious radicalisation and violent extremism.
He said he was “amazed” that, 15 years after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, the West still “did not seem to understand” that terrorism was merely a “tactic” to achieve a specific objective.
“These people do these things not just to kill people – they want a reaction from us,” he argued.
One aim of terrorist attacks was to push moderate Muslims towards extremism and, in the event of attacks such as those in Istanbul, Brussels and other cities, for the Western powers to then “over react.”
Ritzmann added: “This would then allow the extremists to turn round and say to their recruits, ‘we told you so'.
“ISIS and other extremists want to lure the West into a battle on their territory and that is why they want the Americans to send ground troops to Syria.”
He was particularly keen also to highlight what he sees as current shortcomings in the capacity of some intelligence agencies to adequately deal with the threat to domestic and external security of many countries.
“You have to ask questions about the capabilities of our security and intelligence services and also their openness for co-operation and collaboration.”
“Information gathering and information exchange are the cornerstone of our security,” he asserted.
His comments took on added significance after it emerged that the men behind the Brussels bombings were known to police while the head of Europol has also warned that as many as 5,000 ISIS trained jihadists are wandering free in Europe
Ritzmann, though, said that despite the apparently bleak outlook there was some room for optimism, adding: “We can deal with these people – we just need to be smarter in doing it.
Another speaker, Bakary Sambe, a Senegal-based senior fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy, reminded the audience that the problem of radicalisation and extremism was not confined to Europe but was also prevalent in Africa
He pointed out that he knew of instances where young Africans had been “trained” at mosques financed and built by ISIS-affiliates in Senegal and then gone on to fight for the group in Syria
“We have this problem in Africa too of course. It is a clash of religious models and a sort of ‘Islamization’ that is taking place."
While the “ideological dimension” could not be ignored, the university lecturer suggested that the only way to address the issue in the long term was to “invest more” in preventative measures.
In a short Q&A session, some panellists spoke of the ongoing need for an effective alternative, or “counter narrative”, to combat the propaganda that continues to attract young Muslim men and women through a variety of ways to ISIS and such groups.
Ritzmann suggested that the “messenger (s)” of such a counter argument was just as important as the message it sought to convey.
Ritzmann also pointed out that while US-led coalition bombing and other measures had made serious dents in ISIS-held territory and had also badly hit revenue sourced from its oil infrastructure, ISIS still held land “the size of the United Kingdom".
There was a consensus among the participants that it was the terrorist networks, which had spread "much further than many thought", that should be increasingly targeted.
Ali, responding to a question about new threats, spoke about a significant “change of tactic” by ISIS which, he said, was now increasingly using suicide bombers such as those deployed on the streets of Brussels.
Looking to the future, he predicted: “I think we are going to see a greater emphasis on broader terrorist attacks around the world and that is one reason why we need to step back and look at all this in a more sophisticated way."
Roberta Bonazzi, executive director at the European Foundation for Democracy pointed to the need expose the Islamist ideology that inspires and drives such terrorist acts.
"This is a pervasive ideology," Bonazzi said, "that is the source of radicalization that can lead to terrorism and/or recruitment to terrorist organizations.”
Commission approves €23 million Belgian measures to support production of coronavirus-relevant products
The European Commission has approved two Belgian measures, for a total of €23 million, to support the production of products relevant to the coronavirus outbreak in the Walloon region. Both measures were approved under the State Aid Temporary Framework. The first scheme, (SA.60414), with an estimated budget of €20m, will be open to enterprises that produce coronavirus-relevant products and are active in all sectors, except the agriculture, fishery and aquaculture, and financial sectors. Under the scheme, the public support will take the form of direct grants covering up to 50% of the investments costs.
The second measure (SA.60198) consists of a €3.5m investment aid, in the form of a direct grant, to the University of Liège, which aims at supporting the production by the institution of coronavirus related diagnostic tools and the necessary raw materials. The direct grant will cover 80 % of the investment costs. The Commission found that the measures are in line with the conditions of the Temporary Framework.
In particular, (i) the aid will cover only up to 80% of the eligible investment costs necessary to create production capacities to manufacture coronavirus relevant products; (ii) only investment projects that started as of 1 February 2020 will be eligible and (iii) eligible investment projects must be completed within six months after the grant of the investment aid. The Commission concluded that the two measures are necessary, appropriate and proportionate to fight the public health crisis, in line with Article 107(3)(c) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework.
On this basis, the Commission approved the measures under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decisions will be made available under the case numbers SA.60198 and SA.60414 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website.
European court opinion strengthens role of national data supervisors in Facebook case
Today (13 January) Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) Advocate General Bobek published his opinion on whether a national data protection authority can start proceedings against a company, in this case Facebook, for failing to protect users’ data, even if it is not the lead supervisory authority (LSA).
The Belgian Data Protection Authority, (formerly Privacy Commission), commenced proceedings against Facebook in 2015 for the unlawful collection of browsing information without valid consent. The Brussels Court found that the case was within its jurisdiction and ordered Facebook to cease certain activities. This was challenged by Facebook, who argued that the new ‘one-stop-shop’ mechanism of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) means that cross-border processing should be dealt with by the lead supervisory authority – in this instance the Irish Data Protection Commission, as the main Facebook HQ in the European Union is in Ireland (Facebook Ireland Ltd).
The EU’s Advocate General Michal Bobek agreed that the lead supervisor does have a general competence over cross-border data processing - and by implication other data protection authorities have more limited power to commence judicial proceedings, however he also found that there were situations where national data protection authorities could intervene.
One of the Advocate General’s (AG) main concerns appeared to be the danger of “under-enforcement” of the GDPR. The AG argues that the LSA should be seen more as a primus inter pares, but that national supervisors do not renounce their ability to act in a suspected infringement in every instance. The current governance relies on cooperation to ensure consistency in application.
It isn’t difficult to fathom his concerns. Anyone who has followed the litigation of Max Schrems over the last years in Ireland against Facebook’s EU-US data transfers would not be impressed by the less than exemplary performance of the supervisor and the Irish court system. It was serendipitous that on the same day that this opinion was published, the Irish Data Protection Commission finally settled its 7.5 year battle with Schrems.
The AG sees the potential danger of companies choosing their main place of establishment on the basis of the national regulator, with countries with less active or under-resourced regulators being preferred, as a type of regulatory arbitrage. He adds that though consistency was to be welcomed there was a danger that “collective responsibility could lead to collective irresponsibility and, ultimately, inertia”.
COVID-19: Ireland, Italy, Belgium and Netherlands ban flights from UK
A number of European countries have banned, or are planning to ban, travel from the UK to prevent the spread of a more infectious coronavirus variant.
The Netherlands and Belgium have halted flights, with Italy to follow suit. Trains to Belgium are also suspended.
Ireland is to restrict flights and ferries arriving after midnight (23:00 GMT) on Sunday. Germany will also stop flights from the UK from midnight.
The new variant has spread quickly in London and south-east England.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday (19 December) introduced a new tier four level of restrictions, scrapping a planned relaxation of rules over the Christmas period for millions of people.
Top health officials said that there was no evidence the new variant was more deadly, or would react differently to vaccines, but it was proving to be up to 70% more transmissible.
Which countries have acted and how?
Within hours of the UK announcement on Saturday, the Netherlands said it would ban all passenger flights from the UK from 6h (5h GMT) on Sunday until 1 January.
Pending "greater clarity" on the situation in the UK, the Dutch government said that further "risk of the new virus strain being introduced to the Netherlands should be minimised as much as possible".
The country on Sunday reported a daily increase of more than 13,000 cases - a new record, despite tough lockdown measures being applied on 14 December.
Belgium is suspending flights and train arrivals from the UK from midnight on Sunday. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told Belgian television channel VRT the ban would be in place for at least 24 hours as a "precautionary measure", adding "we will see later if we need additional measures".
Italy's Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said on his Facebook page that the government was about to sign a measure to suspend flights from the UK.
In Ireland, urgent government talks were held on Sunday. Flights and ferries arriving from the UK will be restricted from midnight. The measures are expected to remain in place for an initial 48 hours before being reviewed.
In Germany, an order from the ministry of transport said planes from the UK would not be allowed to land after midnight on Sunday, although cargo would be an exception. Health Minister Jens Spahn said the UK variant had not yet been detected in Germany.
In France, news channel BFMTV reported that the government was "seriously" considering suspending flights and trains from the UK, and the government was "looking for European co-ordination".
"A decision will be announced during the day," the channel said.
Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González said Spain also wanted a co-ordinated EU decision on the matter.
Austria is also planning a ban on flights from the UK, with details currently being worked out, Austrian media reported. Bulgaria has suspended flights to and from the UK from midnight.
What is the new variant?
In the UK, it was first identified in the middle of October from a sample taken in September.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says the same mutation has also been detected in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia.
Dr Catherine Smallwood, of WHO Europe, said that as of 20 December, the numbers in those countries were small, nine in Denmark and one each in the other two nations. But she said other countries had notified WHO of other variants "that also carry some of the genetic changes seen in the UK variant".
The new UK variant has been shown to spread faster than the original virus - up to 70% more transmissible based on modelling figures - but scientific details on the genetic changes, and how they could affect the behaviour of Covid-19, remain unclear.
Although there is no indication the variant will be more resistant to already-developed vaccines, the mutation does involve the spike protein of the virus.
This is the part that helps it infect cells - and also the part the vaccines have been designed to target. So although scientific experts have warned against an alarmist response, they also say it is essential to track the variant and try to stay ahead of the virus.
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