In Their Own Words: Counterterror Officials On the Threat Europe Faces

Officers of the French National Police inspect cars as they cross the French-German border near Strasbourg, France, on November 14, 2015 — a day after a series of terrorist attacks hit Paris.

Officers of the French National Police inspect cars as they cross the French-German border near Strasbourg, France, on November 14, 2015 — a day after a series of terrorist attacks hit Paris. (Patrick Seeger/AP Images)

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October 18, 2016

Since the beginning of 2015, a wave of attacks by terrorists linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS has killed nearly 200 people in France and Belgium — a campaign of violence that has overwhelmed the continent’s defenses against terrorism.

Stefano Dambruoso, Claudio Galzerano, and Baltasar Garzón are three veterans of the counterterror fight who spoke to reporter Sebastian Rotella for the new documentary from FRONTLINE and ProPublica, Terror in Europe. Dambruoso is an Italian member of parliament and a former counterterror prosecutor. Galzerano is chief of an international terrorism unit of the Italian police, and Garzón is a former Spanish judge who has won international acclaim — as well as some criticism — for his work targeting terror kingpins, organized crime figures, and even former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

From left to right, Claudio Galzerano, Baltasar Garzón and Stefano Dambruoso.

In their interviews for the documentary, they agreed that the threat Europe faces is unprecedented, and the challenges for the intelligence community are equally daunting. With thousands of Europeans believed to have joined extremist groups in Syria, they said, the danger seems to be not if another attack will come to the continent, but when.

What follows are translated excerpts from those conversations:

The Rise of an Unprecedented Threat

Europe faces a unique threat from citizens who have traveled from Western Europe to join ISIS or other extremist groups in the Middle East. In April, a report from The Hague estimated that as many as 4,290 foreign fighters have made that journey, and that roughly 30 percent have returned home. The director of Europol, Rob Wainwright, put the figure as high as 5,000 in an interview for Terror in Europe.

Stefano Dambruoso: It’s difficult to make laws to tackle these problems precisely, because if one is returning home after a period spent fighting in Syria, and has not committed any crime back home, you cannot throw this person in jail, even if you know them to be dangerous. Any European constitution would forbid such a thing.

You also cannot have this person put under surveillance. Not even the best-resourced state could manage to keep 200, 300 people under surveillance. Not France, not the U.K. Twenty-four-hour surveillance of a dangerous subject, it simply cannot be sustained for too long.

We find these difficulties every time there is a terror attack. The perpetrators of the most recent attacks in Paris and Brussels were all known to the security services. They were all under surveillance for a time. And then?

You have no grounds to arrest them, you cannot have them under 24-hour surveillance, and you can obviously tap their communications, however that is achieved. But they’ve wised up to much of this also.

They won’t talk about this while they are at home; they’ll do that in a car, or use a range of vehicles so that you cannot have every single one under surveillance. So it really is an incredibly difficult task.

Claudio Galzerano: If we compare the total number of people we arrested in this period … from the early 90s up until the end of the 00s, these are nowhere near the numbers we see today. We are talking about an exponential growth.

The internet has played a decisive factor in this process. This process used to involve a number of stages, each clearly recognizable. People who were being radicalized would attend certain mosques, or else they would have already been noted for their radical activities in their country of origin.

Today, however, the mass adoption of the internet has resulted in the rise of the DIY jihadist. People learn about this distorted vision of a radical Islam, one far removed from the teachings of traditional scholars. So their adoption of these principles is simplistic, shallow. This results in massive distortions, in which violent jihad is preeminent and prevails over a real understanding of the religion.

[ISIS operatives] prepare and they move along at a much higher speed than those that pursue them, because they do it without limits.
- Baltasar Garzón

This has served as a springboard of sorts. It has inspired the young generation to embrace [the] Islamic State. It wasn’t just the prospect of living a pure Islamic life; it was more about embarking on jihad and to justify the use of violence.

…The returnees are a constant source of worry, but this is not new. Already in 1998, we undertook a brilliant investigation, which we codenamed “Return.” It wasn’t named casually. We called it “Return” because it involved Islamist veterans of the war in the former Yugoslavia.

They had returned to Europe and settled in Italy and Belgium. These veterans were thoroughly investigated, at a time when we had a small fraction of the resources available to us today. Back then we could only operate under common law, so we arrested them when they would commit petty crime, small time stuff as we say — drug peddling, some counterfeit stuff, that sort of thing. They would just spend a few months in jail and they would then be out again, and again become a concern for the security forces.

We caught up with them a couple of years later, first in Afghanistan and then at Guantanamo where they ended up after being captured during the first Afghan war. With that, I mean to give you an idea of how we have always been very mindful and vigilant of the issue of returnees.

In recent years, we have learnt that those who spend time in Syria and Iraq are particularly dangerous. In May 2014, we saw a veteran of those conflicts, a French-Belgian citizen called Mehdi Nemmouche, committed a terrible crime at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. He was arrested some days later in Marseille, but he had been able to return via Frankfurt airport just a couple of months earlier.

The perpetrators of the Paris and Brussels attacks had also seen fighting in the Syria-Iraq theater. We consider those attacks to have essentially originated from those situations. Our view is that returnees will continue to be a major source of concern for our countries’ security apparatus, for a long time to come.

Baltasar Garzón: [ISIS] is doing what we always feared, or what we experts talked about, in terms of terrorism. Which is to say, what’s going to happen when an organization comes along that [knows] that the staging of terror can be a lot more horrifying if it’s done with such harshness and cruelty that it terrifies everyone? And that’s what they do.

If they have to slash a throat, they slash it. If they need to bleed someone out in front of a television camera, they quickly learn the universal mode of communication of the world. Is it the internet? Well, let’s take advantage of the internet. Are they new technologies? Well, let’s take advantage of them. And what happens? They prepare and they move along at a much higher speed than those that pursue them, because they do it without limits.

Obstacles to Cooperation and Intelligence Sharing

Europe’s system of open borders is a point of great pride, but it has also made tracking potential terrorists more difficult. As officials have learned in the aftermath of attacks on Brussels and Paris, these challenges have been compounded by a lag in sharing information across the continent’s different intelligence agencies, and the various jurisdictions and laws.

Stefano Dambruoso: Without a doubt, we need to get beyond the natural tendency towards discretion held by each European country’s intelligence services.

We have all gotten used to not exchanging intelligence information … It’s more problematic when those intelligence services are safeguarding other national interests, such as financial ones, or online ones.

These services’ traditional mission is to safeguard the interests of their country, not to exchange information with their next-door neighbors. They are afraid that whatever information they release may then be exploited for other means.

This traditional resistance, in terms of the exchange of information, is no longer acceptable. It must be possible to distinguish between information that can be openly exchanged for security reasons, [and] that which needs to remain classified. This area is also a work in progress for international cooperation, basically.

… What I fear is that the difficulties experienced by different governments in trying to counter this kind of terrorism will ultimately lead to their closing themselves off, instead of opening themselves up as they should. So this may lead to even bigger problems than those brought about by [Osama] bin Laden’s brand of terrorism. This kind of terrorism could completely unsettle much of the stability, the equilibrium we had achieved after many years’ work.

I’m afraid that in spite of the terror strikes we have witnessed so far, which have been terrible, extremely bad, our immediate reaction hasn’t resulted in a better exchange of information, in the creation of a single European counterterrorism force.

Time is passing and we are no closer to finding substantial solutions that can really address the populace’s fears.

Claudio Galzerano: The one thing we must all be in complete agreement on is the sharing of information. The principle of information sharing is essential in the fight against any form of terrorism, especially so in the case of international terrorism. By definition, this is always going to affect more than one country. …

Europol is an excellent information gathering body, capable of releasing information readily upon request — as long as that information has been made available to Europol in the first place. There are countries that are more efficient than others when it comes to that, especially when dealing with foreign fighter investigations.

The principle of information sharing is essential in the fight against any form of terrorism, especially so in the case of international terrorism.
- Claudio Galzerano

… We do need to do something about this sort of jealousy that can affect intelligence data. After all, we are working to guarantee the security of not just one country, but that of all the Western countries.

This sharing attitude is crucial. It is precisely this which has allowed us, so far, to minimize the damage, let’s put it that way. …

If you know people personally, this always facilitates the exchange of information. If you don’t know them, that’s when bureaucracy problems start.

Some countries face specific problems, often at a very basic level. For instance, to obtain car registrations or telephone line registrations, it is sometimes necessary to obtain a judicial order. You have to obtain that from the courts in order to run checks that in our country can be done directly by the police.

We find significant differences between northern and southern European countries. We have a great relationship with Spain, Greece and France, not just for international terrorism matters, but also in terms of other types of terror threat.

With other countries, we have to adapt to different standards of awareness, is how I’d describe it.

Immigration, Integration, and the Fight Against Radicalization

A majority of the terrorists who carried out the attacks in Paris and Brussels were born and raised in Europe — the children or grandchildren of North African or Middle Eastern immigrants. Today, intelligence officials acknowledge that the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism in Europe points to economic marginalization, social alienation and a failure of integration.

Baltasar Garzón: How is it possible for these people who are integrated to make this leap [into terrorism]? Out of necessity, the response is that the integration of diversity hasn’t happened as it should have, and, as such, the strategy in this field needs to be to eradicate these causes.

And, of course, when you say this, the police, the intelligence services, the politicians tell you, “OK, OK, yes, but that’s not enough for me, because I need an immediate response.” And the immediate response doesn’t exist. We’ve been responding immediately for 20 years. Everything’s been immediate since Osama bin Laden appeared. And there’s another attack and then another one and then an even worse one … and five attacks, six, or 20, or 40, or 50 or 60 dead, and more, and more and more. We live in the constant immediacy and we never conduct analysis that, if we had started to do it in the 90s, would have given us 20 years of experience.

… The violence imposed on us by terrorist actions limits us from seeing beyond the immediate. For that reason, it’s action, reaction. However, we don’t analyze. And I think this in-depth analysis is necessary in education, in economic inequality, in the methods of integration, in the methods of respect towards diversity.

What aren’t we doing well? The question is why do these pockets of marginalization exist in developed countries, which now we realize that there are spaces to which we hadn’t paid attention … What happens is that until there’s an attack of this type, we don’t realize what had been unfolding. But the problems of France have been announcing themselves for a long time, the problems in Belgium, in this area — and I’m not talking now in terms of police — they have been announcing themselves for a long time.

What we need to do is act, to prevent not so much judicially, but instead with actions that are much more [socially-rooted], educational, but as part of an overall strategy to fight the phenomenon.

Stefano Dambruoso: As far as the medium-long term goes, we need to invest more in expanding contact between communities that may appear different at first but are still living in the same country …

[In Italy,] our public welfare and public health systems, and our state schools, are having an impact as far as limiting the impact of marginalization, of social alienation of those individuals who find themselves unable to integrate.

The numbers we are dealing with are still manageable, so we are still on time to introduce further measures that can really help to strengthen the links between communities. How? By supporting education, especially in those areas where the second generation [of immigrants] already outnumber [the first]…

…The dialogue between cultures is a long-term investment. Unfortunately, Europe isn’t reacting in this way at the moment; it is building ever-higher walls and failing to invest in inter-religious dialogue.
- Stefano Dambruoso

Or else in prisons, an environment notorious for the recruitment activities that take place within. We have seen how people who end up in prison for other non-terrorism-related offenses, then go on to be recruited in jail. This is a stage in which they are psychologically vulnerable; they are easy prey for recruiters.

We are also planning to use the web to send out positive messages, focusing particularly on web users who are also among those second generation Muslims. This is in order to counter all that information they get through the web from those terrorist groups, telling them that their host country is trying to attack and smear their religion. The aim is just the opposite in fact: to show them the positive aspects of life in the country that is hosting them, to make them appreciate those values, those fundamental constitutional values. I’m thinking for instance about gender equality, or respect for other faiths and so on.

So this is the purpose of this type of counter-information, that needs to be organized by the Italian government and it’s definitely one of the goals we’d like to set ourselves.

This is because we need to consider the next 30, 40 years — this isn’t just about tomorrow. This is in order to prevent those young children, born in Italy to Arab parents, from feeling like this country [isn’t] their home, come 20 or 30 years’ time. They shouldn’t feel alienated to such an extent, even more than that experienced by some Italians who are also struggling [in society]. That’s what makes them easy prey to [terrorist] recruitment, even just web-based, like the cases we are seeing today.

… We must therefore take the long view in dealing with immigration; the dialogue between cultures is a long-term investment. Unfortunately, Europe isn’t reacting in this way at the moment; it is building ever-higher walls and failing to invest in inter-religious dialogue.

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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