The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee alone and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Council of the European Union.
On 20 March 2019, in Brussels, the European Policy Centre and the European Foundation for Democracy jointly held their Third Annual Conference entitled: “The Fight Against Terrorism Three Years after the Brussels Attacks”. Panelists Herman van Rompuy and Dimitris Avramopoulos gave introductory remarks. Senior EU counter terrorism officials, including Dr. Christiane Hoehn, Principal Advisor to the EU Counter Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove, then discussed European policies. Ms. Hoehn joined the Council of the EU in 2004. In her previous assignment, she worked on non-proliferation and disarmament. From 2004 to 2009, she was Administrator for Transatlantic Relations, working on EU-US and EU-Canada relations. Prior to joining the EU, she was a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for International Law in Heidelberg and an affiliate at the Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School, where she worked on leadership development. She also worked at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos and at various UN departments. Ms Hoehn holds a L.L.M. from Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. in international law from Heidelberg University. The following is a complete interview with Ms. Hoehn:
QUESTION: Ms. Hoehn, during your speech at the conference discussing the aftermath of the Brussels attack, you talked about interoperability and information sharing. Perhaps, in the past, these issues were underestimated. What progress can you report?
ANSWER: When we started focusing on interoperability, after the attacks in 2015, the databases of the European Union were for migration, security, borders and so on, but all on different legal bases, because before the Lisbon Treaty there had been different possibilities to do something on migration, which was already a EU community matter, and security which was more intergovernmental. Now, after the adoption of the Lisbon treaty, this is no longer necessary because there is shared EU legislation for internal security. Nowadays, border, security and migration issues are all related, so it is difficult to explain to citizens that we have information, but we are not using it or accessing it.
The EU Commission put together a high-level expert group on interoperability, which included, for example, the EU Counter Terrorism Coordinator, the Member States, the Commission, the Secretariat of the LIBE Committee from the European Parliament, the European Data Protection Supervisor, and the fundamental rights legal experts. We were very keen to have EU agencies such as Europol, Frontex, EU-LISA, and Fundamental Rights Agency working together from the beginning so that there could be a dialogue. Based on that, the Commission made a legislative proposal, which has since been adopted.
Now, implementation will be key. It is complex because we have created a new database for visa-free travelers to the EU (ETIAS) and an Entry-Exit System for foreign nationals and we are updating other databases. All of them need to be involved in the interoperability. Interoperability is a great concept but now we need to implement it. Also, we need to look at the second phase: the de-centralized systems which are not yet part of interoperability.
On information sharing, we looked at sharing data with Europol. We cannot compare 2015 with today. In the past, we knew there were a few thousand European foreign terrorist fighters in Syria, but Europol did not have many names and data. We needed to fill the gaps. Today, they have names. What is still needed is contextual information. It is not enough to know that a person is a foreign fighter. You should also know more about him/her such as biometrics and information analysis. There has been huge progress on this front, but we still need to work on it.
QUESTION: From 2015 to 2018, there has been a decrease in jihadist attacks in Europe. In your opinion, is this trend going to change after the final fall of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq? Following the operational decline of Daesh, should we expect the resurgence of Al Qaeda with a new strategy?
ANSWER: The terrorist threat has evolved and has become more diverse and complex. Today, cells operating from Syria are less likely to be able to commit large-scale attacks in Europe like the ones we had in 2015/2016. This is because Daesh capacities have been majorly degraded in Syria and Iraq. On the other hand, we do not have enough information on sleeper cells or homegrown radicals. This is a challenge because the numbers are very high and are difficult to detect. Some of them have been radicalized at home or via the internet. Because you can’t supervise everyone 24/7, this makes it challenging.
In addition, we have focused a lot of our attention on Daesh over the last couple of years, but we must not forget Al Qaeda still has around 30,000 affiliates around the world. In regions such as the Sahel and the Maghreb they were able to regroup and learn from Daesh. Sometimes, pure brutality is not what produces the most results. Daesh, as well, has affiliates in other parts of the world and their ideology is strong and their propaganda is still inspiring people, as we have recently seen in Sri Lanka.
New technologies also pose a new threat for us. Drones, which have already been used in Syria could be used, or, there might be terrorist cyber-attacks using synthetic biotechnology. On the other hand, as Gilles de Kerchove EU CT Coordinator said, there is a threat, but we have also taken a lot of measures to reduce our vulnerabilities. So, in terms of risk we can never say we are risk-free, but we are in a much better position because those measures have re-balanced the threat.
QUESTION: EU countries do not share a common policy framework about how to deal with FTFs and returnees. Some decided not to take their citizens back, others opted for rehabilitation and reintegration. What are the major risks and what should the EU do to implement a common framework?
ANSWER: First of all, on the one hand, the question of foreign fighters and their family members who are still in Syria and Iraq is a matter of national perrogative. On the other hand, a number of EU measures do have an impact in general. For example, take what Commissioner Avramopoulos said about now having strict border controls at EU external borders so we can detect infiltrations of FTFs trying to come into Europe from Syria and Iraq. This is very important because the attacks we had few years ago were carried out by people who came into our countries undetected. So, that is something we achieved.
Then, the Radicalization Awareness Network gathered practitioners from all across the EU and developed a handbook on good practices of what to do with radical returnees including how to deal with them at the local level and how to implement a multi-faceted response. There is also a specific part dedicated to children because it is obviously a specific challenge to deal with them, which involves repairing trauma using psychologists.
The European Union CT directive provides for FTF related crimes, hence, facilitates criminal prosecution of FTF. This needs to be implemented by Member States in their national legislation to prosecute those who travel to conflict zones and fight with terrorist groups.
We are working collectively in the EU on two issues related to evidence, which is needed to ensure convictions of FTF. One is the e-evidence from the internet. This is key to understanding the personal responsibilities and what people did in Syria and Iraq as well as monitoring their communication. In the past, if for example two Belgian suspects were communicating, they used SMS, so LEAs would have to ask the national telecom company to acquire data. Today, they often use apps like WhatsApp or other messaging apps which require the assistance of US companies and authorities which takes a long time. That is why we have been pushing to improve access to e-evidence and that is also why we are working so much on battlefield evidence. The US is offering some information they have collected on the battlefield. It is indeed a challenge for prosecution to have enough evidence about what happened on the ground.
QUESTION: Among the returnees or those currently detained in Syria and Iraq, it is not always clear who is considered an FTF. Should minors and family members terrorists be viewed as victims or a threat?
ANSWER: What the Radicalisation Awareness Network has done with the handbook is to recommend a case by case approach. Whenever there is a child who is back in his or her country, we should look at their individual situation and try to understand what trauma that they have faced. The situation of a two-year-old is, of course, very different from a 12-year-old, for instance. Also, boys have had different training than girls. Children should be regarded as victims, first and foremost, but for those who are older and might have been forced into training, there are security measures that need to be taken. Some of the Member States have specific policies in dealing with a child who has returned.
QUESTION: Currently many jihadist prisoners are being held by Kurdish-led SDF. They can be useful for intelligence purposes. How can the EU monitor thousands of returnees if there is a lack of evidence to prosecute them?
ANSWER: Intelligence cooperation is taking place outside the scope of the European Union. Article 4.2 of the EU treaty says that national security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State. The question that you raise about the intelligence value of these people is managed on a national basis, so I cannot comment on that. Regarding those who have already returned, Member States are closely monitoring them. Security services are applying risk assessment methodologies to determine what kind of measures need to be taken when dealing with them. This is mainly regarding people who have returned a few years ago because they were disillusioned about the reality they found in Syria.
QUESTION: Far right and white supremacist extremism is growing, as the New Zealand shooting has showed. Do you consider this to be a global terrorist threat? Should we expect escalation or retaliation from jihadist extremism in Europe as well?
ANSWER: We need to be vigilant on possible retaliations by Daesh in Europe. But, let us remember that they wanted to carry out attacks even before the emergence of the Far Right. The fact that Daesh wants to inspire homegrown radicals to commit terrorist attacks is not something new. However, we need to watch out for possible retaliation even more now. Daesh and Al Qaeda remain the top threat to Europe. However, the CT measures we take apply to all forms of terrorism and we monitor all forms of terrorism including from the extreme right and left. Awareness over right wing terrorism has already risen following the attack carried out in Norway by Anders Breivik. A number of plots have been prevented as a result.