EU seeks increased surveillance of travel and social media to deal with "foreign fighters"


Statewatch article: RefNo# 32542

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Statewatch News Online, July 2013

In late May, the EU's Counter-Terrorism Coordinator (CTC), Gilles de Kerchove, published a paper outlining 22 potential measures that could be taken by EU institutions, agencies and Member States to deal with "jihadists travelling from Europe to Syria and other hotspots". The paper describes these "foreign fighters" as "a serious problem for European internal security" and proposes trying to address the issue with public relations exercises, high-level political meetings, and the increased surveillance of social media and travel - including through the introduction of the controversial EU PNR (Passenger Name Record) Directive.

The paper, [1] produced by de Kerchove "in close consultation with the services of the Commission and the EEAS [European External Action Service]" was endorsed by the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 7 June with "broad support". [2] National representatives in the Standing Committee on Operational Cooperation on Internal Security (COSI) subsequently "identified what would be undertaken by those involved, notably the Commission, EEAS, Europol, Eurojust, Frontex and specific Member States." [3]

Watching the web

The paper proposes asking Member States "to reinforce by November 2013 their contributions to Check the Web" - a Europol-operated web platform that allows EU Member States to pool information on Islamist internet propaganda - and to "explore the possibility for Europol to extend its activities to the monitoring and analysing of social media (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc.) with regard to foreign fighters."

The Check the Web project was launched in May 2007 after the Council concluded that "only resolute action against the use of the internet by terrorist structures" could deal with the problem of online terrorist propaganda and information on recruitment and training. It was noted that "besides the activities of the single actors and co-operation in other fora, there is also scope to strengthen cooperation on an EU basis, specifically with regards to monitoring and evaluating Islamist terrorist websites." [4]

According to a report in EUobserver, the idea did not emerge within EU discussions; rather, it came from a March 2006 meeting of the interior ministers of the G6 states - France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK. [5] The UN has its own Working Group on Countering the Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes, whose first formal report in 2009 noted that:

"Perhaps the single most compelling conclusion to emerge from the Working Group's activities has been that there is no single, easily identified 'use of the Internet for terrorist purposes'. Terrorism could occur on, or by means of, the Internet, but it is disputable whether it has happened yet. Terrorists use the Internet in a variety of different ways, many of which are indistinguishable from ways in which everyone else uses it. Finally, and most confusingly, the Internet hosts a great deal of activity and material that may be related to terrorism. But establishing firm connections between online social actions and offline terrorist violence is not always straightforward." [6]

Elsewhere within the CTC's paper is a suggestion that in "high level demarches to priority third countries" - Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Gulf countries, Russia, the central Asian republics and the western Balkans - EEAS officials should, amongst other things, "discuss the role that satellite TV and internet play in the radicalisation process and how the countries concerned can address this."

Monitoring movements

The CTC's paper also says that the Council of the European Union could "invite the Netherlands to present to [the Political and Security Committee and the Standing Committee on Operational Cooperation on Internal Security] if possible in November the result of the study… to analyse the existing systems of monitoring or alerting about suspicious travel movements and to identify possible gaps that have to be closed."

It is unknown exactly what this project entails, but it has clearly been underway for some time. Last year's annual report on the implementation of the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy noted that the Netherlands was working on "strengthening local capacity to detect international movement by foreign fighters." [7]

The CTC's paper invites the Council to "instruct the Working Party for Schengen Matters to make suggestions by November 2013 for an increased and harmonised use of the SIS alert system." A joint communication issued by the Commission and the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in late June "encourages Member States to make better use of the Second Generation Schengen Information System to better monitor the movement of foreign fighters." [8] According to the minutes of a COSI meeting, work on this will be taken up by the French delegation. [9]

The Commission and High Representative communication also says that that "there could be more use of EU-instruments as well as tools available under international agreements such as the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP) - to track payments related to terrorist movements."

There will also be a joint effort by the Commission, the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre, Europol and Frontex to "continue to facilitate a risk analysis exercise aimed at identifying the major security risks for the EU derived from the growing foreign fighters' phenomenon and supporting the identification of possible mitigation measures." [10] It is unclear whether this is related to the invitation in the CTC's paper for Frontex to "provide input and generic analysis to a mapping of the various routes used by foreign fighters and to contribute to a planned handbook with 'risk indicators' for detecting foreign fighters."

Meanwhile, Europol is invited by the CTC's paper to "improve within the Counter Terrorism Analytical Work File, by the end of June 2013, the knowledge of recruitment and facilitation networks, how foreign fighters' travels are organised and financed."

Pushing for PNR

Other ideas for further monitoring "suspicious travel movements" come from a suggestion that "the Presidency reach out, before the end of June, to the European Parliament to highlight the importance of an EU PNR [Passenger Name Record] system in order to allow Member States to detect suspicious travel movements."

A legislative proposal for an EU PNR system, which would heighten the surveillance of air passengers (and in the future possibly sea and rail passengers) by law enforcement authorities, was dismissed by a vote in the Parliament's civil liberties committee at the end of April. The Green group, which voted against the proposal, said it was a "victory for protection of fundamental rights" and that had the legislation passed it "would have transformed the presumption of innocence into a presumption of guilt for more than 500 million citizens, running counter to EU case law." [11]

The civil liberties committee recently re-started discussions on the PNR proposal, and there is still significant disagreement amongst MEPs on the issue, [12] but other EU institutions are keen to see the system approved.

The Commission and High Representative joint communication uses the issues of "radicalisation" and "foreign fighters" to try to highlight the need for an EU PNR Directive, "as the processing of PNR data provides a tool to detect the movement of foreign fighters who leave or return to the EU by air travel." At a Council meeting in May during which the CTC presented some of the ideas from his paper, Member States stressed that in dealing with foreign fighters, "PNR would be an essential tool and it would be important to send a strong signal to the European Parliament in this respect." [13]

Europeans "will be radicalised"

The paper produced by the CTC, EEAS and the Commission claims that European jihadists are travelling to "Syria and other hotspots in great numbers", but does not provide any figures of how many European residents or citizens may be fighting overseas. Gilles de Kerchove has asserted in interviews that some 500 Europeans are fighting against the Assad government in Syria and that "not all of them are radical when they leave, but most likely many of them will be radicalised there, will be trained." [14]

A recent study suggests that those who have joined the rebels are not a homogenous group, although one of its authors - Aaron Zelin - has recently argued that Syria is "the second-largest foreign-fighter destination in the history of modern Islamism," after Afghanistan in the 1980s. [15] In the report Convoy of Martyrs in the Levant, Zelin, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, along with Evan Kohlmann and Laith al-Khouri of Flashpoint Global Partners, say that while "the lion's share of foreign fighters who are dying in Syria are fighting with the most hardline organisation involved in the uprising: Jabhat al-Nusra,", there are in fact a "range of motivations pushing outsiders to join in the deadly fray ongoing in Syria". These include:

"Arab Spring-motivated, pro-democratic revolutionary fervor to the most extreme sectarian and hardline Islamist viewpoints imaginable… [while] some of the foreign fighters have instead been attached to different Free Syrian Army units or more mainstream Islamist factions like Liwa' al-Ummah. There has been a long list of cases of individuals who were involved in pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia or Egypt, who then went to Libya to help in the fight against the Qadhafi regime, and finally headed to Syria to finish off the Assad regime." [16]

It seems unlikely that introducing an EU-wide PNR system capable of monitoring the travel of "more than 500 million citizens" will be seen as a proportionate response to 500 European jihadists travelling to fight in Syria. It is clear that alongside the Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, certain Member States delegations - it remains unknown which - are strongly in favour of the introduction of the EU PNR Directive. At the COSI meeting during which the paper on foreign fighters was discussed, "the importance of establishing a PNR system was stressed once again".

Public relations

A number of other measures contained in the CTC, EEAS and Commission paper focus on the EU doing a better job of supplying information to the public in Europe and elsewhere. For example, the Council could "invite the High Representative and the Commission to provide a factsheet in all relevant languages on how the EU is supporting the population in Syria in terms of development, assistance and humanitarian aid to facilitate communication by EU institutions and Member States to their domestic audiences."

The paper also suggests inviting the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy "in close collaboration with Member States communication experts… to draft specific lines to take on EU policy towards Syria."

This should try to "overcome as much as possible the perceived discrepancy between our support for the Syrian opposition and our efforts to prevent individuals from going to Syria, and to underline that travelling to fight is an ineffective way of providing support to the Syrian population."

Many will consider that the discrepancy between the two issues is more than simply a perception. At the end of May, the EU relaxed economic sanctions on Syria and also dropped an embargo on supplying arms to rebel forces. The UK and France are the only two EU Member States who have expressed an interest in arming the rebels, although they are yet to publicly do so. They reportedly faced "determined opposition" from other Member States during talks on ending the embargo, which "dragged on for more than 13 hours and laid bare deep divisions within the bloc." [17]

Other recommendations in the paper also seek continued sharing of "the expertise of the Radicalisation Awareness Network with Member States to assist them with the set up of concrete counter- and de-radicalisation projects." The Radicalisation Awareness Network was established through the EU's counter-terrorism strategy in September 2011 and seeks to connect "first liner practitioners from different Member States and Norway, such as social workers, religious leaders, youth leaders, policemen, researchers and others… in order to exchange ideas, knowledge and experiences." [18]

There will also be an attempt to entice would-be "foreign fighters" away from violence and towards humanitarian work. The Commission is invited to meet with NGOs and EU and Member State services "to explore how to quickly launch humanitarian projects in which youngsters that want to help the Syrian population can assist. Such projects would offer viable and credible alternative ways for those that want to go to Syria out of humanitarian conviction."

COSI, the Council's Standing Committee on Operational Cooperation on Internal Security, has said that it will "closely follow the implementation of the different measures," getting involved "as appropriate". The CTC is due to "prepare a report on the implementation to be submitted to a joint COSI-PSC [Political and Security Committee] which would possibly be held in November 2013."

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