Taking security seriously in the age of global terror

Opinion piece (The Wall Street Journal)
Camino Mortera-Martinez
22 December 2015


The terrorists involved in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks were all European citizens and, as such, could freely move across the European Union’s internal borders. Some had received training in Syria, and their travel there and back had gone undetected by European authorities. In Europe, terrorists are now operating more freely than law enforcers. To catch them, the EU needs better intelligence co-operation and a closer relationship with the US, its main ally in the fight against terrorism.

Although Europe has faced terror threats before, officials have been slow to adapt to the new ways of the current threat. Terrorist groups active in Europe in the 1970s and ’80s, such as Spain’s Basque-separatist ETA, the Irish Republican Army or Italy’s Red Brigades, largely operated domestically.

Today, Europe’s main threat comes from so-called foreign fighters. EU citizens linked to Islamic State plan attacks in multiple countries and cross borders at will. These “new terrorists” are tech-savvy, using the Internet to communicate with each other and to radicalize others.

The EU needs tools that can help it cope with such highly mobile terrorists. It needs to track them more effectively. That means doing a better job of monitoring movements across the external borders of the so-called Schengen zone for passportless travel.

The EU will soon adopt a law that requires airlines to submit passenger records to authorities as they fly in and out of the Schengen area. The European Parliament had been blocking this measure, known as the Passenger Name Record (PNR) Directive, for five years amid debate about privacy and whether it should also track data for intra-EU travel. The Paris attacks changed all that.

It’s time for the European Parliament to take security seriously. To help unblock the legislative process, members of the European Parliament need access to classified information, provided by member states, on the utility of security measures such as PNR.

The EU also needs to boost intelligence cooperation across borders. As an institution, it isn’t currently engaged in intelligence activities. So far this has been the sole preserve of member-state national governments. But, as France and Belgium’s failure to communicate prior to the Paris attacks has revealed, even neighboring countries with a common language aren’t cooperating enough.

Member states need to pool their efforts at the European level. This will involve bolstering structures, such as Europol, the EU’s police agency, which can facilitate this cooperation. Governments also need to commit to more collaboration on EU-wide databases, such as the Schengen Information System. This system can be used by border and law-enforcement authorities to see if other agencies have flagged an individual as a potential threat.

Currently, national governments are reluctant to share much information on this system since they don’t trust each other. It’s been up to the EU countries to tell each other when potential terrorists are crossing borders.

The EU also needs to share more classified information with the US, and vice versa. America’s Internet giants can help. Think of all the data Facebook or Google has. The EU needs to take a less adversarial position if it wants to establish a constructive relationship with both the US government and US companies.

The US can help by being more accommodating of the EU preference for clear privacy standards. It’s in everyone’s interest to reach a swift agreement on the transfer of commercial data. This agreement should be a treaty providing common data-protection standards, to which companies would need to adhere if they want to transfer data across the Atlantic. The EU and the US should also agree on legal standards to protect European and American citizens from unwarranted surveillance.

These policy steps would make security cooperation between the two sides more effective. With a common and stable approach to the transfer of commercial data, and shared constitutional protections for the surveillance of citizens, the European Parliament and the ECJ would be more receptive to security demands from the US administration. And the US (and US companies) would regain some of the trust it lost after the Edward Snowden revelations.

To catch more terrorists, the EU needs to be able to distinguish criminals from innocent Europeans. For that, the use of data is the key. The alternative is dire: closed borders and finger-pointing governments, and almost certainly more victims of terrorism.

Camino Mortera-Martinez is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.