EU: The European Counter-Terrorism Centre: proposed powers and information systems

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In October the Justice and Home Affairs Council sought to boost Europol's counter-terrorism work. This note contains an overview by Europol on "progress concerning counter terrorism related information exchange, and in particular Focal Point (FP) Travellers (relating to foreign fighters), as well as the development of the European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC) at Europol." The ECTC is supposed to start working on 1 January 2016.

Note from: Europol to: Standing Committee on Operational Cooperation on Internal Security (COSI), Enhancing counter terrorism capabilities at EU level: European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC) at Europol and counter terrorism related information sharing, 14244/15, 23 November 2015

The note begins by providing the political background and policy direction taken by the EU regarding counter-terrorism, from the beginning of this year to the present, and moves on to examine the purpose of the ECTC and the powers and information systems it will use.

Further development of the ECTC and information sharing

  • Overall aspects: rationale of the ECTC
    - "The foundation of the work of the ECTC is to engender trust and raise awareness among national counter terrorism authorities about existing cooperation instruments at EU level, in order to increase the visibility of Europol’s related services and tools, thus maximising operational, technical and overall information exchange capabilities in the area of counter terrorism."
  • Information sharing: key developments
    - SIENA: "By November 2014, 14 EU MS had connected counter terrorism authorities to the Secure Information Exchange Network Application (SIENA) hosted by Europol," and a new version of the system allows "direct bilateral and multilateral communication between counter terrorism authorities of MS and third parties with an operational cooperation agreement (e.g. US, Australia, Canada)." Further upgrades will allow sharing of information classified as EU CONFIDENTIAL and, later, possibly EU SECRET.
    - Europol Information System (EIS): "At the end of December 2014, 18 foreign terrorist fighters had been inserted into the EIS by 2 Member States (MS). By the end of April 2015, 1131 foreign fighters were inserted by 11 MS, 3 third parties and Interpol. By the end of Q3 2015, there were a total of 1.527 foreign terrorist fighters whose details had been inserted into the EIS by 14 MS, 5 third parties and Interpol. By 13 November 2015, the figure has increased further, to 1595 foreign terrorist fighters (provided by the same contributors as per the status in September 2015)."
    - Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP): "Since January 2015, 50 contributions were submitted by the US authorities and 112 requests were sent by MS and Europol, with a total, to date, of 7.514 intelligence leads in 2015, of relevance to 28 MS. This now includes 72 exchanges within TFTP concerning travelling fighters (Syria/Iraq/IS), leading to 2.765 leads specific to this phenomenon (of relevance to 27 MS in 2015). In addition, many leads have also been processed in support of the investigation into the Paris attacks."
    - Focal Point Firearms (file on firearms): "FP Firearms has so far received 3.089 contributions, relating to around 625 investigative cases, involving about 34.618 firearms, 28.741 individuals and around 3.216 (suspicious) companies. Contact data include 46.000 telephone numbers, 298 websites and around 7.000 e-mail addresses."
    - Focal Point Travellers (file on foreign fighters): "The flow of information into FP Travellers is continuously increasing. The total number of contributions is now 1.205 (compared with about 700 contributions noted at the beginning of Q2 2015), with 10.870 person entities stored in FP Travellers (compared with 4.272 person entities at the beginning of Q2 2015). Out of these, recent analysis and contacts with contributing partners lead to the conclusion that there are 2.081 confirmed fighters/ travellers in FP Travellers. Interpol has become a significant contributor to FP Travellers, with more than 3.263 person entities submitted by the end of October 2015... Europol holds the view that FP Travellers, both from a quantitative and qualitative perspective, is not yet in the position to provide thorough in depth analysis in relation to all contributed operational cases across the EU, given that to date, 50.45 % of all contributions originate from 5 MS and 1 associated third country."
    - Internal Referral Unit (IRU): In a pilot phase as of 1 July 2015 and intended to launch fully on 1 July 2016, the Internet Referral Unit currently has 11 staff and 12 are anticipated by December 2015: "By 11 November 2015, 1079 instances identified (with potential suspicious content), 920 ‘candidate’ instances for referral, and, from these 920, 511 removed. The vast majority concerns Twitter accounts spreading IS-related propaganda. 511 of these have been removed. Almost all requests for referrals stem from Europol’s EU IRU monitoring capability, with an implementation rate of over 74% of the referred internet content... Cooperation with the private sector has been successfully established. The EU IRU refers internet content across the following social media platforms, in ascending order of volume: Facebook, SendVid, Vimeo, Google Drive, Youtube, and Twitter. With the support of the European Commission, social media companies are continuously approached to ensure, in particular, awareness concerning the political objectives of the prevention of radicalisation and the importance of a swift implementation of referred internet content. It has also been noticed that social media companies are starting to intensify own monitoring activities to remove propaganda material and extremist material."
    - Development of risk indicators (profiles) for border control checks: "A questionnaire with regard to developing new (updated) Common Risk Indicators (CRI) was sent to the MS on 24 September 2015. 11 MS replied meanwhile, indicating that there were no new CRI to be reported. The process to validate the set of CRI is on-going. Frontex is associated to that process."
    - Awareness of the First Response Network (FRN) in case of a terrorist incident: "there are now a total of 56 experts (from MS and associated third parties) trained. Cooperation with the Crisis Management Centre of the Commission has been established to ensure united efforts in case of a terrorist incident."
    - Systematic cross-checking between SIS II and Europol databases: "Europol would welcome this feature that might significantly enhance the information picture, including by identifying possible links between terrorism and other criminal activities, such as money laundering and people smuggling. Depending on the scope and extent of the access to the SIS to enable systematic cross-checking, there is a need to check to what extent relevant legislation has to be amended, followed by an implementation plan for relevant actors."
  • Support to the investigations related to the Paris attacks on 13 November 2015
    - "Information exchange, in particular with the French authorities, is on-going, including relevant cross-checks in all available databases at Europol (especially FP Travellers and FP Firearms). 7 specific requests under the EU-TFTP Agreement have yielded 319 leads so far. From an overall perspective, financial investigations appear to be of significant importance. In addition, through the application of the existing EU-US Passenger Name Record (PNR) Agreement, 7 requests were launched, leading to a hit with relevant PNR data. (...) The French investigative authorities have provided a huge contribution to Europol for cross-checking and analysis purposes (personal details concerning multiple individuals and a substantial amount of communication data etc.). Europol is working as quickly as possible to identify any key relevant hits to support the French authorities etc."

    Key strategic issues

  • "Good progress concerning, in particular, the sharing of information and intelligence... is due to the continued support by all relevant actors."
  • "The further development of the ECTC and the work of the IRU require the active engagement from MS. Europol’s experience is that the expectations generated by EU counter terrorism policy have not been generally met to date, with the potentials for the full and proper use of Europol’s information management capabilities not realised in the area of counter terrorism across all EU MS (contrary to significant achievements in the area of serious organised crime, supported by the EU Policy Cycle and the related tools). Europol therefore holds the view that the quantity and quality ratio between information available to counter terrorist authorities and that which is shared with or through Europol, needs to be further aligned to make full use of Europol’s ECTC services, especially in relation to operational analysis and an enhanced information picture for all involved counter terrorism actors."
  • Use of SIENA should be increased, and: "A systematic and automated cross-checking between SIS II and Europol’s databases would enhance the information picture, with a view to ensuring a consistent 3-tier information sharing approach (i.e. SIS II, EIS and relevant Focal Points (FPs) at Europol). This could be complemented by making full use of Passenger Name Record (PNR) data related information exchange, with Europol involvement."
  • Financial surveillance needs to be stepped up: "beyond the scope of the EU-US TFTP Agreement, there is a strategic business need to exploit cooperation mechanisms which can support the related cross-European response required."
  • More staff from Member States should be sent to the ECTC, while the IRU "needs to be provided with adequate resources from the EU budget."
  • "Europol’s future legal framework (the Europol Regulation) [currently subject to secret "trilogue" negotiations between the Council, Parliament and Commission] should be analysed to ensure that the needs arising from the counter terrorism policy response (post the 13 November 2015 Paris attacks) is adequately reflected. This concerns, in particular, the exchange of personal data with the private sector and a firm legal basis in relation to the EU IRU tasks."

    Way forward

  • "COSI is invited to discuss this report, with a view to providing additional guidance on the strategic issues and promoting the positive developments further."

  • An annex provides a "Overview of combined platforms and services" at the ECTC.

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