Boosting Intelligence Capacities and Sharing to Strengthen Counter-terrorism in Europe

by Aimee Feeney, YEL Delegate to BSIS 2017 Conference

It has been just over a year since the European continent was shaken by two terrorist attacks at its symbolic heart. On the 22nd March 2016, two bomb blasts occurred, one at Zaventem airport and the other at Maelbeek metro station in the centre of Brussels, one of the centres of the European Union. Claimed by Islamic State, the blasts killed 32 people from more than 10 different countries including Peru, China and the United States. These events were a tragedy for the city of Brussels and Europe as a whole. However, investigations following the attacks highlight that this was more than a tragedy. It was a severe failure on the part of intelligence services.

“One of the attackers who detonated a bomb at Zaventem airport…should have been on the intelligence services radar long before the attacks ever happened”.

Investigations triggered by these attacks brought to light key problems in intelligence sharing practices of European security services. One of the attackers who detonated a bomb at Zaventem airport, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, should have been on the intelligence services radar long before the attacks ever happened. Eight months earlier, he was arrested near the Syrian border by Turkish police forces. Upon learning that he was a Belgian citizen, the Turkish police force contacted the Belgian consulate in Istanbul to inform them that El Bakraoui would be expelled from the country and sent back to Belgium. When the Belgian police appealed for further information from the consulate, the request was never processed. As a result, El Bakraoui’s name never made it onto the terrorist watchlist. No one in Europe was aware of the threat he posed until the moment he detonated the bomb in Zaventem airport. While this can be seen as an case of gross negligence on the part of the intelligence services, this oversight demands an examination of where intelligence sharing needs to be strengthened in order to prevent similar incidents occurring in the future.

Building Capacity

“…it takes 36 members of any intelligence service to monitor, on a 24/7 basis, 1 individual” – Dr. Jamie Shea, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, NATO

A key issue which stands in the way of effective intelligence sharing lies in the capacity of intelligence services. According to Dr Jamie Shea, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at NATO, “…it takes 36 members of any intelligence service to monitor, on a 24/7 basis, 1 individual”. The amount of staff required creates a problem for the intelligence services who struggle to recruit enough people to meet the growing demand. Furthermore, there is the problem of ensuring that staff have the requisite skills to adapt to the evolving landscape of dealing with terrorism threats. The increasing use of the Internet in recruiting for and planning terrorist attacks is widely known. To this end, there is a need for intelligence services to develop the skills of existing staff in the realm of cyber security and recruit more people with digital skills to effectively deal with this problem. As part of the UK Government’s National Cyber Security Programme, students of technical subjects such as Computer Science, are eligible to receive bursaries for their studies as well as employment upon graduation. This practice should be encouraged in order to attract skilled people to the intelligence services. Without the capacity to obtain valuable intelligence, security services will have nothing meaningful to share in the first place.

Need for Cultural Change

The organizational culture of intelligence services has long been centred on a ‘need to know’ basis, according to Dr Shea. While maintaining secrecy and discretion is vital for the success of intelligence gathering, there needs to be a cultural shift to a ‘need to share’ principle which encourages intelligence sharing. Limited examples of the practice of ‘need to share’ already exist, namely within the Anglophone community. The Five Eyes is an intelligence sharing alliance between the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. With origins in the Cold War, this alliance was initially set up to share signals intelligence between these countries. However, with the expansion of the internet, the remit of the Five Eyes has also expanded to include digital intelligence. However, this cooperation is largely lacking at a European level. While Europol provides a platform for intelligence sharing within Europe with the creation of the European Counter Terrorism Centre in January 2016, there is still a reluctance among some countries to share information. Therefore, in order to promote intelligence sharing between European countries and effectively counter terrorism, it is necessary to develop a common organizational culture which is based on this ‘need to share’ principle.

A Long Road Ahead

While the attacks in Brussels highlight some fundamental flaws in the sharing of intelligence between European states, it also illuminates some key areas where progress can be made. Building capacity and adapting the organizational culture of intelligence services are not quick fixes. They require investment and effort on the part of states and the intelligence services themselves. However, progress is already clear. For every successful attack that is carried out, countless more are prevented as a result of good intelligence sharing practices. Reforming intelligence sharing practices will not be easy. But with strong will and good governance, it is possible.

See also: YEL Delegate Aimee Feeney interviews Dr. Jamie Shea, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, NATO.

Aimee Feeney was a YEL delegate at the BSIS 2017 conference. She is currently pursuing an MSc in Crisis and Security Management at Leiden University in the Hague.

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