A Counter-Terrorism Agenda for the EU and a stronger mandate for Europol: Why is the Commission proposing a new Counter-Terrorism Agenda?

A Counter-Terrorism Agenda for the EU and a stronger mandate for Europol: Why is the Commission proposing a new Counter-Terrorism Agenda?

Terrorism remains a real and present threat. As announced in the EU Security Union Strategy for 2020 to 2025, a new Counter-Terrorism Agenda is needed to effectively counter extremist ideologies, prevent radicalisation and better protect the public spaces terrorists target, while promoting full implementation of existing rules and tools.

The Agenda draws lessons from the evolving terrorism threat to step up cooperation at EU level, reinforce the available tools and where necessary fill policy and operational gaps, with the aim to better anticipate, prevent, protect and respond to terrorism.

What has the EU done to counter terrorism so far?

The EU has adopted laws and developed tools to combat terrorism in many important ways:  

  • Taking terrorist content off the web

In 2018, the Commission had proposed legislation ensuring that terrorist content is taken off the web within an hour and that online service providers play a more active role in detecting such content. This proposal is currently being discussed by the European Parliament and Council, and a swift agreement is needed. 

Pending agreement on these new EU rules, the Commission has been working with the Member States, Europol and industry on a voluntary basis. Together with Europol, the companies developed a “database of hashes”, allowing content identified as harmful to be tagged electronically, preventing it from reappearing. The database contains over 300,000 unique hashes of known terrorist videos and images.

The EU Internet Referral Unit at Europol also scans the web for online terrorist material. Since its creation in July 2015, it has referred over 100,000 pieces of content to Internet companies, over 25,000 in 2019.

In addition, in October 2019, the Commission, Member States and online service providers have committed to an EU Crisis Protocol – a rapid response mechanism to contain the viral spread of terrorist and violent extremist content online.

  • Preventing radicalisation

In 2011, the Commission set up the Radicalisation Awareness Network. Today, it brings together around 6,500 practitioners from across Europe, such as social workers, educators, researchers, professionals working in prisons. It allows them to learn from one another, develop best practices, and acquire skills and confidence to address violent extremism.

The Commission also set up in 2017 a High-level Commission Expert Group on Radicalisation, to help develop EU prevent policies and improve cooperation among the different stakeholders and in particular Member States.

  • Denying terrorists the means to act

In recent year, the EU agreed legislation to deny terrorists the means to act. This includes stronger control of legally-held firearms, restricting access to dangerous explosives, and addressing access of terrorists to financing. To deliver results, these rules need to be well implemented.

Measures were also taken to make the authorities better prepared against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) risks.

The 2017 EU-wide terrorism legislation makes it a crime for instance to train as a terrorist and travel abroad to commit a terrorist offence. 

  • Giving law enforcement tools for information exchange

Information exchange and police cooperation are crucial for the work of law enforcement authorities in Europe.

In 2016, Europol established a European Counter-Terrorism Centre. It gives operational support to national investigators and improves information exchange. It is now part of every major counter-terrorism investigation in the EU.

EU information systems have also been reinforced to improve information sharing among Member States and help cross-border investigations. The Schengen Information System (SIS) is Europe’s most widely used database for security and border management. It helps police and law enforcement in capturing criminals and terrorists. For example, it holds alerts about terrorist offenders. Every person crossing EU borders – both EU citizens and non-EU citizens – is required to be checked systematically against shared security databases, including the SIS.

The processing of Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record data, in line with EU legislation, plays a vital role in identifying, preventing, detecting, and disrupting terrorism and other serious crimes.

The European Criminal Records Information System, established in 2012, improves the exchange of information on criminal records throughout the EU.

The EU is also developing new information systems. The Entry/Exit System will replace the manual stamping of passports and register the entry and exit of non-EU nationals, playing a key role in modernising border management. The European Travel Information and Authorisation System will help identify security risks that may be posed by visa-exempt visitors before they even reach the EU borders.

In addition, work is ongoing to make information systems for border and migration management interoperable. This means that they will be able to work together, allowing law enforcement authorities to make good use of data held in different databases.

  • Working with international organisations and partner countries

Counter-terrorism partnerships and cooperation with non-EU countries have proved essential to reinforce security inside the EU. A network of 17 counter-terrorism and security experts is deployed in EU Delegations, providing support, facilitating cooperation and promoting capacity-building programmes.

Over the past years, the EU has increased its engagement with relevant UN bodies such as the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism and with other international organisations. In June 2020, the Council called for further strengthening the EU’s external counter-terrorism engagement with a focus on the Western Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East, the Sahel region, and the Horn of Africa.

How will the EU support Member States in handling the issue of Foreign Terrorist Fighters?

The EU’s support focuses on helping Member States to detect, identify and prosecute returning terrorist fighters, as well as manage the return of their families.

EU legislation makes it a crime to train and travel for the terrorist purposes.

The use by national authorities of the Schengen Information System should enable to detect returning terrorist fighters.

The analysis of Passenger Name Record data allows law enforcement authorities to detect suspicious travel patterns and identify associates of terrorists and criminals.

Today, the Commission also proposes new measures. To ensure that information on foreign terrorist fighters provided by trusted non-EU countries is entered into the Schengen Information System and accessible in real time to frontline officers in Member States,  Europol should be allowed to create such dedicated alerts, in consultation with Member States.The Commission will also propose to revise the rules on Advance Passenger Information, including to consider providing for the use of this data for countering serious crime and terrorism.

In addition, the Commission will continue to support Member States to use battlefield information, i.e. information uncovered and collected by military forces during battlefield operations or by private parties in a conflict zone. This support will include best practices, information exchange, and possibly project financing. The Commission and the European External Action Service will also continue to support and strengthen the cooperation with key non-EU countries such as the United States, including on access and use of battlefield information.

How will the Agenda help detect vulnerabilities and promote risk assessment?

The Commission will shortly make a new proposal on the resilience of critical entities. This should include setting up advisory missions to support Member States and operators of critical infrastructures in enhancing their resilience to disruptions, including anticipating possible terrorist actions. This will build on the experience of a pool of EU Protective Security Advisors, who are currently being trained and can be deployed on demand.

EU aviation security and risk assessments will be further developed to enhance both the response time after incidents and the level of information exchange. A risk assessment has been developed in the area of rail security and the Commission will launch a new strand of work to ensure the security of maritime transport.

What will be the role of security research in tackling modern technologies used to perpetrate terrorist attacks?

Building on previous efforts, EU investment in security research will focus on addressing different ways in which criminals operate and help better anticipate how technologies impact the terrorist threat. It will strengthen the early detection of potential new threats by exploring the use of artificial intelligence for processing large amounts of data. It can also help to find new ways to address radicalisation. The future research programme, Horizon Europe, should ensure more impact-oriented output and response to law enforcement needs. Europol will assist the Commission to identify and implement research and innovation relevant for law enforcement.

How will the Agenda ensure disengagement in prison, rehabilitation and reintegration of radicalised individuals or terrorist offenders?

The Commission will identify successful approaches to disengage radicalised inmates and terrorist offenders and will support training of professionals in this field, based on Member States’ experiences and building on the Radicalisation Awareness Network’s Rehabilitation Manual that provides guidance on rehabilitation and reintegration. The Commission will develop a methodology with common standards in order to evaluate the effectiveness of reintegration programmes with the support of the Internal Security Fund.

Why and when will the Commission propose a new police cooperation code?

The existing legal framework for law enforcement cooperation among EU Member States is currently too complex. It is based on different legal texts, notably the 1990 Convention Implementing the Schengen Agreement and the Prüm Decisions relating to operational cooperation such as joint operations. Member States have complemented this legal framework with bilateral cooperation agreements. Creating an EU police cooperation code will facilitate cross-border cooperation in the fight against terrorism by bringing these different instruments together into a clear, coherent and modern legal regime. The Commission will propose the new code at the end of 2021, taking into account existing Council guidelines.

How will the Agenda improve access to digital evidence and encrypted information while respecting the right to privacy?

Encryption technology is one of the main building blocks in setting up and maintaining the Digital Single Market and in safeguarding fundamental rights, privacy and data protection of citizens. However, when used for criminal purposes, it masks the identity of criminals and hides the content of their communications. Today, a substantial part of investigations against all forms of crime and terrorism involve encrypted information. The Commission will work with Member States to identify possible legal, operational, and technical solutions for lawful access and promote an approach which both maintains the effectiveness of encryption in protecting privacy and security of communications, while providing an effective response to crime and terrorism.

With digital evidence needed in about 85% of all criminal investigations, a clear and robust framework for timely cross-border access to electronic evidence is required. The Commission calls on the European Parliament and the Council to urgently adopt the e-evidence legislative proposals. The Commission will continue to participate on behalf of the Union in the negotiations on the Second additional protocol of the Budapest Convention on cybercrime, intended to establish strong rules for cooperation with our international partners in digital investigations.

What does the Counter-terrorism Agenda foresee for the support to victims of terrorism?

The EU has adopted a comprehensive set of rules on victims’ rights and a first EU Strategy on victims’ rights (2020-2025) paying special attention to the victims of terrorism. The EU Centre of Expertise for victims of terrorism – set up in January 2020 – assists Member States and national victim support organisations with guidelines and training activities. Victims of terrorism also have specific rights under the Directive on combating terrorism, including the right to immediate access to medical and psychological support services as well as to legal or practical advice. The Commission will assess the existing EU rules on victims’ rights and, if necessary, propose legislative changes. The Commission will also assess how victims’ access to compensation could be improved.

What will change with Europol’s strengthened mandate?

The new mandate will:

  • Ensure effective cooperation between Europol and private parties: Terrorists often abuse the services provided by private companies to recruit volunteers, to carry out terrorist attacks and to disseminate their propaganda. The revised mandate will allow private parties to refer such information directly to Europol. The Agency will be able to receive personal data directly from private parties and analyse it to identify all Member States concerned; request personal data from private parties (via the Member State where it is located); and act as a channel for Member States’ requests to private parties, in compliance with data protection requirements.
  • Enable Europol to issue alerts on foreign terrorist fighters: Europol receives valuable information on suspects and criminals from non-EU countries and international organisations, but cannot enter this information in the Schengen Information System, as it has “read only” access to the system. With the proposed amended Regulation tabled today, the Commission proposes to enable Europol to enter information alerts on suspects and criminals, in particular foreign terrorist fighters, in the Schengen Information System so that this information becomes accessible directly and in real time to frontline officers in Member States. In case of a ‘hit’, the alert would inform the frontline officer that Europol holds information on the person.
  • Allow Europol to analyse large datasets (‘big data’) to support criminal investigations, considering that the processing of large data sets is an integral part of police work in today’s digital world.
  • Improve Europol’s cooperation with the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, including through analytical support to the work of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office and information exchange, and with the European Anti-Fraud Office.
  • Reinforce Europol’s role in developing new technologies for law enforcement, helping to equip national law enforcement authorities with modern technologies to counter serious crime and terrorism.
  • Strengthen Europol’s data protection framework, accountability and democratic oversight, including by introducing new reporting obligations for Europol to the Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group in charge of monitoring its activities.

The Commission will also make proposals in 2021 for improving the exchange of counter-terrorism related data with Eurojust, to make this exchange secure and efficient and to enable Eurojust to react in a timely manner.

How will the Commission ensure that Europol receives the necessary staff and financial resources to carry out its new tasks?

The revision of the mandate goes with a budget increase of around €180 million and around 160 additional staff over the next budgetary period. This is subject to the outcome of the negotiations on the EU budget for 2021-2027.

The revision of Europol’s mandate also open the possibility for Member States to contribute directly to Europol’s budget, where necessary and required by existing or new tasks.

This increase in staff and budget will give Europol the means to fulfil its strengthened mandate. It will notably provide the European Counter Terrorism Centre with adequate resources and to enable its EU Internet Referral Unit to monitor and refer all types of terrorist content to online platforms with a 24/7 availability.

Source: A Counter-Terrorism Agenda: Questions and Answers (europa.eu)

Photo Credit : https://pixabay.com/photos/agent-armed-armour-automatic-1239350/

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