What Might Brexit Mean for Counterterrorism in Europe?


July 11, 2017

Over the last three years, terrorists have struck Europe more than a dozen times, killing scores in Belgium, France and the United Kingdom, and prompting urgent calls for better intelligence sharing across the continent. Yet as officials race to repair gaps in the continent’s defenses, it remains unclear how the U.K.’s exit from the European Union will complicate efforts to counter the threat.

Brexit comes at a crucial moment in Europe’s fight against terror. With ISIS losing ground in Syria and Iraq, experts foresee a new wave of fighters returning home to Europe to stage attacks against the West.

But in an era when some would-be attackers are able to travel through Europe freely, the EU doesn’t have a central intelligence hub, the equivalent of a continent-wide FBI or CIA. Instead, each of the bloc’s 28 member states are in charge of their own national security. When threats arise, their intelligence and law enforcement agencies share information with other EU nations either on a one-on-one basis or through clearinghouses like Europol or the EU Intelligence and Situation Center.

The system is far from perfect. In several instances since 2014, plotters were able to freely cross EU borders without being detained by authorities, even with their names on watch lists or warrants out for their arrests. Some of the attackers were even under surveillance, but as an October investigation by FRONTLINE and ProPublica found, officials failed to recognize that plots were underway, or to alert authorities in neighboring countries.

In the wake of these attacks, calls for greater cooperation have grown louder across Europe. With the U.K. now negotiating the terms of its EU exit, there is fresh concern that Brexit could further strain joint intelligence and law enforcement efforts in Europe. Some leaders are seeking assurance that “British expertise and leadership is not lost,” according to testimony by Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol, before a British parliamentary committee in March. As Wainwright noted,  “the U.K. is a very important strategic partner in the security field.”

Most of the security and intelligence experts FRONTLINE spoke to don’t expect Brexit to affect the sharing of intelligence around immediate threats. But as EU members urge more integration and the U.K. goes its own way, it could complicate efforts to form a continent-wide response to an increasingly transnational threat.

What’s At Stake For Europe

With greater intelligence capabilities than nearly every one of its EU counterparts, the U.K. has played an outsized role in shaping Europe’s approach to counterterrorism, according to experts. EU countries have relied on the U.K.’s expertise in signals intelligence — carried out by agencies like GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the National Security Agency — to target plotters and arrest attackers. Many of Europe’s most important counterterror policies are based on the U.K. example, and experts also credit British agencies with serving as a model for interagency cooperation.

Such cooperation is crucial, according to experts like Nigel Inkster, a former member of British intelligence. Now a director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Inkster said counterterrorism investigations are like “putting together a large jigsaw puzzle against the clock, without knowing when the clock runs down, without knowing what the end result is meant to look like, but with almost certain knowledge that you don’t have some of the pieces and you don’t know who, if anyone, does.” Assembling a complete picture of the threat becomes harder when intelligence and security agencies in different countries fail to share the puzzle pieces.

For now, however, opinions are divided on what Brexit will mean for the EU.

Richard Dearlove, the former head of the British foreign intelligence agency MI6, argued in a March 2016 op-ed that Brexit would have minimal impact on the U.K., but serve as a net loss for the EU. “Britain is Europe’s leader in intelligence and security matters and gives much more than it gets in return,” wrote Dearlove, a Brexit supporter.

Others see less of an impact ahead for the EU. On the intelligence front, experts said Brexit won’t amount to a major change in the landscape because the U.K. has historically been reluctant to fully integrate or share information with multilateral organizations like Europol or the EU’s Intelligence and Situation Center.

“The U.K. has not been actively involved in the multilateral role of intelligence sharing within the European Union,” said Sajjan Gohel, an expert at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London-based security consulting firm. The U.K., he noted, prefers to share intelligence through its bilateral relationships and the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, which consists of the U.K., the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Moreover, while there’s renewed emphasis on improving coordination between EU countries, “the intelligence sharing relationships remain bilateral,” said Matt Olsen, who led the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center from 2011 to 2014.

What the U.K. Loses

Some intelligence and security experts said complications could be ahead for the U.K.

In the wake of the attacks on Paris and Brussels, Europol — the EU’s law enforcement arm — has increasingly acted as a hub for exchanging intelligence, sharing databases and coordinating efforts across the borders of member states. Upon its exit from the EU, the U.K. will cease to be a full member of Europol, and have to renegotiate access to its extensive databases. These house information on everything from terrorism suspects and foreign fighters to weapons and travel records. British authorities carry out 250,000 searches on these databases each year, according to the Rand Corporation, and as Inkster noted, they’ve become “more and more relevant to counterterrorism investigations.”

The U.K. would also need to renegotiate its access to the European Arrest Warrant, an agreement among EU nations that has been credited with significantly reducing the time it takes to extradite suspects from one country to another. In 2014, when British Prime Minister Theresa May was home secretary, she described EU measures like the arrest warrant  as “vital” to “deal with European fighters coming back from Syria,” and prevent terrorism.

With Brexit negotiations underway, May has continued to stress the importance of cooperation on security matters, and in December, a parliamentary report found that law enforcement agencies wanted to retain or replace measures like the arrest warrant and maintain access to databases housed by Europol and other EU entities.

Experts said the U.K. also risks missing out on any of the intelligence or security gains that occur post-Brexit if EU nations succeed in forging a closer intelligence relationship. The U.K. has often been viewed by those who support closer ties among EU members as a “spoiler,” said Gohel. “Without the U.K., it might actually remove any barriers or restrictions to further integration.”

“Post-Brexit, there’s going to need to be an emphasis placed on guarding against any lessening of sharing information,” said Olsen. While Brexit shouldn’t have an impact on intelligence sharing in theory, he said, with the U.K. no longer in the union there exists the potential for deterioration in cooperation.

Where the U.S. Fits

The EU and the U.K. moving further away from each other would also be a concern for the U.S., said Christian Beckner, deputy director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University.

“We’ve been urging them for at least the last decade to be more internally bound to each other,” Beckner said. A closer relationship between the EU and the U.K. is not just good for Europe, he said, but good for U.S. interests.

The U.K. has traditionally acted as a sort of transatlantic bridge between the U.S. and Europe. Olsen said that while Brexit doesn’t undermine the strong intelligence ties between the U.K. and America, “I think there’s potential for Brexit to have a negative impact on the overall way that counterterrorism cooperation happens between EU countries and the United States, because the United Kingdom has played a very constructive role … in ensuring there’s a high degree of cooperation between the EU member states and the United States.”

Most of the experts FRONTLINE spoke to expressed cautious optimism that intelligence and security cooperation, especially when it came to terrorist plots or threats, was simply too important for Brexit negotiations to have a negative impact.

“No one wants to be sitting with information that could have prevented a terror attack and be blamed afterwards,” said Björn Fagersten, director of the Europe Program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “That’s a powerful driver for sharing information.”

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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